Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes have made a name for themselves on the UK country scene with their record-breaking debut album Brave, but as they prepared for a performance at Music City’s Grand Ole Opry, we caught up with Ben to talk about taking their brand of country across the pond.
The Shires may be the hottest new thing in acoustic country music, but vocalist and guitarist Ben Earle was an experienced writer before he found Crissie Rhodes and formed the band – his song ‘Over And Out’ features on Newton Faulkner’s 2009 album Rebuilt By Humans, and he’s worked with pop acts such as Westlife, Matt Cardle, and Boyzone. But it is in country music that Ben has found his home. ‘I discovered country music about three years ago, and it felt like coming home. It felt like this was the music I was born to write. I knew about country music, obviously, but I only knew about Dolly Parton, and the usual clichés about key changes and rhinestones, but it is far more important and varied than that.’
So let’s go back to Ben’s start with guitar. ‘I come from a musical family, one of my uncles is the keyboard player with Then Jericho who was big in the 80s, and he taught me piano which I took to really easily. Another uncle plays acoustic, so he showed me some chords, but I nearly gave up because of the pain of holding down strings for chords. I think there is a pain barrier when you learn to play the acoustic guitar; if you can get past that early discomfort, and start to click with the music, it’s well worth hanging on, and seeing some results for your efforts.’
‘My first acoustic was a Venus copy, and I’ve still got it somewhere at home. Now I have a couple of Martins that I got just before our tour last autumn. The preamps on Martin guitars are great; they are awesome for playing live on stage. I have a Takamine that I love, but I just don’t like the preamp as much in that as the Martins. Plus, they are a talking point, when you take them out of the cases; people are impressed with a Martin – which is always good. I just love them so much, and I get really excited when I play them – they inspire me to write which is ideal. Writing songs on guitar is completely different from writing on piano for me. Obviously writing country songs is just natural with an acoustic guitar. We have been to Nashville a few times now to write and record, and all the writers out there sit with their acoustics and see what comes up, and that is how I write these days as well.’
Let’s talk about recording – do you like to record your guitar and vocals separately? ‘As a rule I do. I’m not the best or most natural guitar player, and I do like to make sure that what I am doing is right; I am a bit of a perfectionist like that. A couple of songs we did do live in the studio with Crissie and I just standing opposite each other and singing – we did that with ‘How Many Love Songs’, and ‘Made In England’ on the new album Brave. I think you get special vocal performances that way, which may not always make for the best sound quality, but the magic of the atmosphere is what’s important. I know that some people say you only get your best take in the first three tries, but I am not so sure about that. I think that sometimes by the fiftieth take, you have that gritty edge in your vocal because your voice is going, and you have the feeling of frustration that can feed that last time around and make it work.
‘It’s so important to good guitar sound on your songs. On Brave, there are some overlaid twinkly guitar parts that I played; they were actually on the original demo that I made on Logic in my bedroom. We tried to get the right feel and sound for the album, but we never did get it quite right, so in the end, we just took the tracks off the demo and dropped them into the album using Pro Tools, and it sounds fine. For our on-stage band, we have an amazing guitar player named Charles, he is still at the Royal Northern College Of Music, and he picks out the best lines and reproduces them on stage; he really is a fantastic guitarist. He and the rest of our band sent an audition to our manager, and it was when we were due to go out on tour so our manager put the guys and us together, and it works really well. We are so pleased to have them to work with us.’
The Shires made UK chart history earlier in the year by being the first home-grown UK country act to break into the top ten on the album charts. They were also the first UK act to be signed to the re-launched Decca Nashville label. Although the Shires proudly fly the flag for UK country music, Ben has learned some valuable lessons about the art of country music from its natural home in Music City.
‘One thing I took away from our times in Nashville was the phrase, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus…” which sounds great in a proper southern accent! I always used to be very concerned with following correct song structure, I would have the intro, the verse, the pre-chorus, the chorus, but country writers just don’t follow any rules at all, they will do exactly what the song needs, and they work on their instincts all the time. If you listen to the song ‘We Owned The Night’ by Lady Antebellum, there is no second verse – it goes straight into a guitar part. Some of the Nashville writers can get into a chorus about 25 seconds into the song, and that’s a lesson I have learned: work with the song, not the rule book. Follow what feels right.’
Now that they are developing a serious reputation and following as a country band, there is always the danger that some smart-mouth is going to try and label the Shires not “truly authentic” because of where they’re from – but thankfully Ben is not worried about it. Their song ‘Made In England’ makes sure they stamp is clearly evident on the music they make.
“People are surprised to find that we are from the UK. We are not trying to be copyists; we don’t write about the American experience, or American country themes like trucks and rhinestones because they are not our experiences. You have to be genuine and take your inspiration from your own life and what you see around you. We love the tradition of country music, the story telling, the real feel, and even die-hard old-school country fans can see that we are real, we are genuine, and we are not trying to be something we’re not, and the sense of reality gets respect. We try really hard not to get into a musical style that could see us aligned to a specific area of country music. The danger is, if you are known for a certain approach, you start writing to fit that approach, and we want our songs to go where they take us, and for our style to develop naturally. I really like “bro-country” – even though a lot of purists are not keen on it – our song ‘Friday Night’ was written right after I had listened to some “bro-country”. It’s all part of delving deeper into the genre and seeing what is there, whether it is frowned upon or not, I want to hear everything I can.’
Working with writers and musicians in Nashville has obviously been a formative experience for Ben, and he has clearly learned a lot from visiting the spiritual home of country music.
‘It was so good to work with the studio guys in Nashville, they are so professional. They hear something, run through it a couple of times, and they are good to go, straight to record. They’ll run through in one take, and if something is not quite right, you can ask them to go again from bar 40, they’ll run it again, and we just drop that section into the track with Pro Tools. They are used to direction, and I had a strong idea of the sounds and arrangements I wanted, and they respected that. I was a little nervous at first, but these guys are used to this – it’s the way they work, so it was fine. They work so quickly, too – we recorded 15 songs in three days! Working with writers in Nashville was another great experience. I am something of a chameleon, so I trend to slip into whatever role I think I’m needed for. If the other people are a bit shy, I will speak up and drive the session, and I certainly learned a lot about lyric writing. Lyrics are everything in country music; we only use the same four basic chords, so the music is just the seat for the words to sit on. I found that some lyrics came quickly – ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ was a fast song to write; ‘I Just Wanna Love You’ came together in about an hour; but sometimes I can spend an entire day getting the words just how I want them because they are the entire focus of the record – and they have to be right.’
By the time you read this, the Shires will have played at the legendary The Grand Ole Opry venue in Nashville. Ben is both excited and nervous about such a huge event. ‘Yeah, we knew there had to be a time when we played in America, and took our country music over to them – and our first date is at The Opry, so no pressure!’
The Shires’ record-breaking debut album Brave is out now. They tour the UK throughout October, and their latest single ‘State Lines’ is available on iTunes.