The biggest country music act in the moment on British music charts is not from Nashville. They’re not even from the US.
They’re from Hurtwood. That’s right, Ward Thomas, a twin sister duo that NME predicts will beat Jamie T to the No 1 album spot this week, is a professed country act. Their second album, Cartwheels, is currently ahead of Jamie T’s fourth album, Trick, by 750 units.
If American readers think Ward Thomas is the name of their insurance clerk or district court judge, there’s good reason. Sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas are focusing exclusively on breakthrough success in their native country and don’t yet have a profile on US shores. That is unusual for artists whose music is so obviously intended for country radio. With its chugging guitars and dramatic peaks, Carry You Home, the first song from the new album, sounds designed to please those strict radio paradigms, despite its bland, forgettable lyrics. There are elements of U2 and Avril Lavigne in the music, typical of what you’ll hear on the country dial today, but both women sing lead harmony, which distinguishes them from the wider pack of Nashville newcomers.The duo started writing songs as teenagers, inspired by a love of the Dixie Chicks. They worked with UK-based songwriters Matt Greaves, a local producer, and Ann Bailey, a professional backup singer. A 2014 debut album created a buzz after it topped the UK’s iTunes country chart and won album of the year at the British Country Music Awards, which focuses primarily on UK artists.
For the new album, the twins laid down some Nashville roots, albeit briefly, when they travelled there to work with both Bobby Blazier, a songwriter and producer who worked with Wynonna Judd and cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey, and Chris Rodriguez, a session musician whose credits include Shania Twain and Lee Ann Womack.
The country music scene in the UK is a small one but has grown in recent years. Today, according to British Phonographic Industry (BPI) figures, country music represents 2.3% of the total UK album market, its highest level in nine years. Nashville stars now routinely play London’s Country 2 Country festival.
Other factors that have helped drive up country music include the success of the television show Nashville, which airs on More4, and the importing of the city’s biggest country stars to the UK, including an uproariously received appearance by Dolly Parton at Glastonbury two years ago.
Of course, country music originated from British folk ballads that made their way across the Atlantic. There they were passed down among generations, resulting in early string music played at home in the Appalachian mountains and other rural regions of the south and midwest before migrating to cities early last century. The British Invasion is often credited with reintroducing blues music to American audiences, but many of those bands, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to the Kinks, were also enamored with country stars and replicated their music through covers or their own take on the music. When punks turned their back on country, the British art-punk band the Mekons embraced it, with cofounder Jon Langford evolving into one of the strongest voices in championing Nashville forefathers like Hank Williams, as well as the darker origins of the music that contemporary Nashville has downplayed or disowned.
The British band that probably paved the smoothest path for Ward Thomas is the Shires, the first UK country band to enter the top 10 of the UK album charts, which they did last year. The duo also became the first British country band to sign to an American major label, UMG Nashville. A new album is expected in October.