The Shires perform live at the Corn ExchangeSianna King with permission for Varsity

The Shires are the most successful UK country act of all time: despite being far from a household name, the duo’s five albums have all reached the UK’s top ten, and they are the only UK country act in history to sign with a major Nashville label. Of course, they do have something of a monopoly power over here (Ward Thomas being the only other UK country act to have gained any traction in recent years) as, despite US artists touring with increasing frequency on this side of the Atlantic, country remains on the fringes of our national music scene.

“The Shires’ show [...] was somewhat hindered by an over-reliance on their older, weaker tracks”

That said, the charming duo of Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes, hailing respectively from home counties Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, have settled remarkably well into their niche since forming the band in 2013. Producing inoffensive country-pop in the vein of Lady A and Little Big Town, they quickly gained a small but rabid following, and their return to Cambridge on Sunday night made it clear that these fans aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

While The Shires’ tracks are often overproduced to the point of soullessness, their work translates much better live on stage. The majority of the setlist was based upon the overwrought party tracks (“Friday Night”, “Tonight”) and unconvincing panders to an American audience (“State Lines”, “Nashville Grey Skies”), which made up their 2015 debut, Brave, and were popular with the Cambridge audience, but the decision to lean so heavily on their older material seems like a missed opportunity in hindsight. The band are currently out touring their new record, 10 Year Plan, which is arguably much stronger than their previous efforts, and which wound up providing many of the standout moments last night.

“If you like country-pop, easy-listening, or just want to have a good time [...], it’s well worth buying a ticket to The Shires’ tour”

Eric Paslay co-written “A Bar Without You”, Crissie’s mum’s favourite “Wild Hearts”, and the highly catchy single “Cut Me Loose” were among these, and midway through the show, the duo took a pause to cut down their setup and perform a handful of acoustic tracks, which worked wonders. For, although it sometimes gets lost in the production, Crissie and Ben are both excellent musicians: Crissie’s vocals shone on a stripped-down rendition of new song “Side By Side” and older fan-favourite ballad “Daddy’s Little Girl”, and the pair’s harmonies were strong on newer ballad “Plot Twist”. The choice to place the first song Ben ever showed to Crissie, “Black and White”, beside “Side By Side” on the setlist was a touching one: it demonstrated the growth of his songwriting over the past decade and generated more than a few smiles.


Mountain View

Exit, pursued by a bear: BROCKHAMPTON’s belated break-up

Ultimately, The Shires’ show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange was somewhat hindered by an over-reliance on their older, weaker tracks, and by their over-insistence that they are, in fact, “country”: they mentioned their passion for the genre more than a few times throughout the evening, and Ben introduced “Plot Twist” by saying that, when writing it, he was worried that one of the chords in the chorus “wasn’t country enough”. It felt painfully awkward to hear, and I couldn’t imagine any of the US country acts I’ve seen dropping that line into a live show. It’s also a pretty ironic statement, given that their music is far removed from traditional country anyway. As they are both so talented that it seems The Shires might find more freedom and success in their music if they took a step back from the party-centric, country-labelled box they’ve constructed for themselves, and instead embraced a process of creating from the heart.

The finer details aside, though, The Shires sure put on one hell of a fun show. They know their audience inside and out, and their winning combination of talent and passion are inescapable – they encourage audience participation, singalongs, and offering up heartfelt anecdotes throughout; they seemed to enjoy the set almost as much as the Cambridge crowd did. If you like country-pop, easy-listening, or just want to have a good time with a pint or three or four, it’s well worth buying a ticket to The Shires’ tour when they next head round your way.