A couple of weeks ago Sounds like Nashville announced a special showcase gig for rising UK duo The Shires on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. If you hadn’t already guessed, Sounds Like Nashville is part of Universal Music and covers their country music acts in the UK. Lots of people signed up to attend the showcase, to be held at the Gibson Guitar Studio in London, and then a whole lot more did the same when the special guest who would also be playing was announced as Cassadee Pope. Cassadee won the 2012 version of The Voice over in America, and after pop punk beginnings has forged a career in country music over the last 18 months.
I arrived at about 6.30pm for a 7pm start and there was already a modest queue of about 20-25 people, some of whom I overheard saying they had been there since 11am for the meet and greet with Cassadee. Being typically British we all played on our mobile phones rather than striking up conversation with strangers – not the done thing here is it? I have to admit I did feel ever so slightly pretentious when I got to the girl with the list and she looked for my name, because at that point I had to inform her I was actually on the press/media list. From jobs and other hobbies I’ve had many freebies and opportunities over the years, but I still feel honoured and privileged when they are thrown my way. Put your hankies away – emotional part over! Once inside I grabbed a beer with Chris Country as mini hot dogs and hamburgers did the rounds while we waited.
Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes are a country music duo who have shot to relative fame in the past few months after the release of their debut single Nashville Grey Skies, which a few weeks ago made it to the A list on the BBC Radio 2 playlist. As my station of choice this means I regularly get to hear a cracking song from a UK country music act. That’s a pretty big deal, and I felt especially proud when Chris Evans not only played it last Friday, but discussed it with his team on air too. It got a thumbs up from everyone in case you were wondering. Having just returned from recording their album in both Nashville and then Sweden, The Shires came on stage first, and boy did they look happy to be there.
Quite a few times we’ve seen television shows prove that anyone can be made to sound good with the right equipment and producer, so it’s always great to see an act who can sing live every bit as well as their records would have you believe. I never had any doubt with The Shires, especially after hearing them play a session for Bob Harris, but they exceeded my expectations last night, and then some. Crissie’s voice is a thing of divine beauty and it seems utterly effortless for her to switch between magnificently controlled power and gorgeous subtle tones, depending on what the song calls for. Ben is multi instrumentalist who not only plays guitar, and last night piano for one song too, but excels in his own solo vocal spots while adding perfect harmonies throughout.
When they played Nashville Grey Skies I surprised myself with how well I knew it, and found myself singing along. This is something they commented on – not just to me, the whole crowd – how amazed they are that people know the words to their songs. When Ben and Crissie did talk between songs, they came across really well and endeared themselves to the audience with their passion and down to earth personalties. The Shires are a duo who you know will do well because of how fantastic they sound, but you also want to do well because of nice they are. That’s a powerful combination right there.
One of the highlights for me was the chemistry that they have when they are performing. When Crissie is hitting long high notes that are blowing the audience away, Ben is looking on with knowing pride. Then when Ben was singing at the piano Crissie was reciprocating that pride. Watching The Shires play live is an absolute pleasure and I found myself getting lost in the music, in between taking photos of course. They even split the room in two and had us singing different parts of the last song – emotion, connection and participation – good job guys. With just four songs it was enough to give us a taste of what they can do, but not too much that I didn’t come away with an almost rabid anticipation for their album coming out later this year.
I’ll admit that coming into this showcase I didn’t know a great deal about Cassadee Pope, other than The Voice connection, which she’ll probably be asked about for a good few years yet. If I’m honest I was expecting a pop singer with a hint of country, aimed more at the teen audiences than myself. I was wrong – from the moment she came on stage it was obvious she was just as thrilled to be on stage as The Shires, and every bit as humble too. Coming from The Voice probably makes her try even harder to shut up critics who will label her as a reality show contestant without even seeing what she has to offer.
Cassadee’s debut album, Frame By Frame, comes out Monday in the UK, and she opened her set with Champagne, which is actually one of the few songs on her album she didn’t have a hand in writing. Oh you didn’t know? Yes, as well as playing guitar she writes a lot of her material too, which like her song 11, means their is a deep personal, connection to what she is singing.
Now let’s talk about that singing, and I can see from last night why she won a contest titled The Voice. There were moments in her 4 song set where she held high notes so long and with such control that it hardly seemed possible. Cassadee puts everything into vocal performance, and a little bit more for good measure. It’s never too much though, and it never sounds shouty like too many singers end up doing. She sings with so much raw emotion and you can see while she’s doing it that she really believes in what she’s singing and it’s coming straight from the heart.
Was it country though? Now admittedly it always sounded more country when you have a stripped down live performance, but the words the music and the message, yes, Cassadee Pope is definitely country music. There’s no arguing that she’s swinging towards the pop side of country, but if Taylor Swift is still being nominated for country music awards then Cassadee Pope is deserving of her two CMT Music Awards nominations and place in country music. She’s a very charming and talented singer, who in spite of the lofty status her Stateside success has given her, seems very grounded and loving what she’s doing and where she’s at right now. I went in slightly sceptical, but I came out with every intention of buying her album when it’s released, and looking out for her to come back and put on some more shows here.
Sounds Like Nashville
The evening was introduced as the first of such events, and I’m hoping it’s not too long until we get the next. The whole showcase was very well organised and the Gibson Guitar Studio was the perfect setting, with fantastic acoustics. More than anything it’s made me very excited about both The Shires and Cassadee Pope, and what the future holds for them.