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British Country music bands

the shiresBritish country music stars, the Shires. Photograph: Pip/Decca

Set that Stetson squarely on your head and hitch up your cutoff jeans, we’re in for a country music revival in the UK this summer.

Spearheaded by the relatively new act the Shires, who became the first British country band to be included in the top 10 albums in the UK Official Charts, there’s more than a nod to Nashville going on at live music venues and festivals up and down the country.

The Shires’ rapid rise – they are the first UK signing to the revived Decca Nashville label, home to country music stars such as Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn – is being seen as remarkable by industry insiders now scrabbling to catch up with the growing interest in country. Brave is the group’s first album, recorded in Tennessee’s Music City.

Last weekend a two-day country music festival at the 02 arena in London was ablaze with broken-hearted lyrics and rootsy stomping music from US acts who are huge back home but whose names will be still relatively unknown to many here – headliners were Luke Bryan and trio Lady Antebellum. However, the 50, 000-strong crowd suggested that the appetite for the genre is growing; tickets for next year’s CountrytoCountry festival are already selling fast as the event looks like becoming an annual staple in Britain’s musical calendar.

Other US big names such as Taylor Swift and LeAnn Rimes have been bringing country-style music into the pop charts, while Dolly Parton’s appearance on last year’s Glastonbury Pyramid stage was a success that took even the organisers by surprise. But leaving behind the Confederate flags and rhinestones are up-and-coming British country acts, including young singer Sasha McVeigh, married couple Claire McArthur-Bain and Paul Bain of Glasgow’s Raintown, and Hampshire twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy of the duo Ward Thomas.

Ben Earle, who formed the Shires with Crissie Rhodes less than two years ago after advertising for a country singer on Facebook, told the Observer that modern country music had something new to offer. He admits they were nervous about how a duo from Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire respectively would go down in America, but says they have had nothing but support and warmth from US country audiences and other bands.

“There was that concern of course that we’d be out of our depth over there, ” he said. “But we felt oddly at home in Nashville; there’s a lot to be said for all that southern hospitality. And that’s what they do, they do country. Country isn’t all achey-breaky hearts, it’s not all about trucks and whisky and all that stuff, it’s very different now. It’s a really broad genre.”

A singer-songwriter since he was a teenager, Earle was transfixed after seeing Lady Antebellum and decided to switch focus. “I think the honesty of the songs – and country songs tend to focus on the lyrics – means it’s very relatable, very liberating. It’s all about the song.

“Different eras of music are so much a response to what’s going on at the time, and country has a bit of warmth about it. This music is awesome. When we first started I didn’t know much about the country scene, but it’s having a huge surge. When we were talking to [BBC2 radio host] Bob Harris he was saying there’s a real tipping point coming – it only takes one or two acts to do well to create a real buzz for everyone.

“`We are seeing country bands from the UK popping up everywhere. And we aren’t singing about moonshine, we’re proud to be British and we have a song called Made in England that’s all about fish and chips and pints.”

Heavy on the ballad and the emotional lyric, typified by fiddles, guitars and harmonicas, country music has its roots deep in the Appalachian mountains from where it emerged in the 1920s, but its origins were also heavily influenced by traditional Celtic ballads from Scotland and Ireland, brought to the US by immigrants from Europe. Even the late country star Johnny Cash often referenced his own Scottish ancestry as being something he believed to be behind his musical talents and he made several trips to Fife to dig around in traditional folk music there and explore his roots.

Harris said: “I’ve been doing the country show for 15 years, and in the whole of that time I’ve never known things to be as exciting as they are today. Country is now appealing to a completely new young generation.”

The British Country Music Awards have been running for some years and is now seeing growing interest from a younger audience. A summer of country loving will be a chance, said music magazine , for “country, one of music’s most maligned genres, to have its day in the sun”.

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