Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes make up The Shires, a country duo who have found moderate success in the radio space left in-between Lady Antebellum albums. Their first full-length release, Brave (2015), was well-received commercially, and their second, My Universe (2016), followed suit. Which would all be relatively uninteresting – aside from the fact that they’re British. In fact, they’re the first British band to be signed to a major Nashville label, one of the markers of country music authenticity if ever there was one, even if the above success was largely British-borne.

This transatlantic ambivalence poses some problems for The Shires. The country genre may not be exclusively American – Keith Urban, one of country’s greatest stars, was born in New Zealand. However, the iconography of both so many “classic” country subgenres and contemporary bro-country acts like Florida Georgia Line put forward a vision of the American South: Cadillacs, cold beers, an elusive Southern belle body, and so on. These symbols are regionally specific, and imagine a Southern nationality that differentiates itself from that of the Northern United States. In turn, this stereotypically conservative-voting region charges country lyrics with a political currency. Country music thus often demarcates a Southern conservatism – whether or not those living in the actually extremely varied American South reckon it an accurate representation of their culture, or even like country music at all. Some other symbols are more obvious: country’s go-to of working-class farmers and their tractors taps into the history of the South’s agricultural economy and, by extension, the fraught racial tensions – or outright racism – that followed the Civil War. The projection of a specific sense of “Southernness” in country music is a nationalistic challenge to the legacy of reunification.

In a genre that relies so heavily, then, on a sense of the local, it is logical to imagine The Shires running into some problems relating to the authenticity of their own music, given their international heritage. The duo get their name from the pair’s homes: Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, regions with an obviously very different literary imagination than Tim McGraw’s. If this all seems diffuse, The Shires are well aware of this seemingly contradictory relationship between their nationality and their genre. The second track on their first album, “Nashville Grey Skies”, accordingly does some work for them. The song’s chorus imagines the “buid[ing]” of “Nashville underneath these [British] grey skies”.[1] Nashville, widely considered the home of country music, becomes metonymic for the genre and tries to authenticate The Shires’ proposition of a British brand of country music:

Well they’ll say it’s way too cold for cut-off jeans,

and they won’t be drinking moonshine but G&Ts.

They’ll be country boys at heart,

dancing with sweet country girls all night.

The two contrasts in the opening lines above admit Britain’s seeming inappropriateness as a location for the typical country romance. This is only a rhetorical gesture, though, luring the listener in; The Shires’ authenticity soon comes in their locating of country-ness in the “heart” of a romantic individual. The regionalism is channeled into a more abstract version of Southern nationalism that is suggestive less of the Southern United States than it is of that alleged human universal: romance.

For The Shires, this seems to be enough dwelling on their background for the time being; in most of the rest of the album, they deliver a standard pop country affair, from the go-to chorus sing-along of “get a little drunk on a Friday night” (“Friday Night”) to the staple-of-the-genre meditation on love (“I Just Wanna Love You”). In fact, the album gets suspiciously too American. Its eighth track, “State Lines”, deploys the metaphor of “driving across the Mason-Dixon line”. It’s a romantic connection with obvious sexual connotations, but at the same time demonstrates The Shires’ collection of experiences from a variety of American states. They check off the “sands in Arizona”, “California wine”, the Mississippi River, and Louisianan hurricanes among others; their repetition is a little on-the-nose, but the bottom line is that the pair want it to seem like they know their America.

But just when you’re about to write off The Shires as just another country band who happen to be from the United Kingdom, something more interesting pops up. The album’s penultimate track, so-often left open for a reflective ballad, inverts the group’s iconography:

I only want a beer if it’s poured in a pint,

and I’m only gonna drink it if we’re drinking all night,

’cause I’ve seen them sipping their wine in Paris and Italy,

but it’s my country’s pearls that I love, yeah they’re good enough for me.

(“Made in England”)

The beer comment here is a not-so-veiled reference to the image of the country artist drinking beer from a bottle, and is suggestive, like the rest of the song, of the group’s contrasting “little island”, with its “rainy days” and “milk in […] tea”. There’s equally “nothing like a Friday night fish and chips” on the west side of the Atlantic. Combined with the track’s melancholic guitar, these lyrics suggest of a nostalgic longing for place. And this indeed is the theme of countless country songs, in which the South is figured as a cherished home for the Southern troubadour. But for The Shires, this feeling goes transatlantic: it is England that is “nowhere [they’d] rather be”, and that is “more than home” for Earle and Rhodes.

Whether they are respectful of their genre’s tradition elsewhere in the album or not, this move in “Made in England” is a politically suggestive one. Though the association of the South with racism is both overdone and unfairly general, that there is a widespread association of multiculturalism and internationalism with the Northern United States is undeniable, and the aforementioned nationalism of country music deploys these borders. Tellingly, former President Barrack Obama included an array of genres on his 2016 summer playlists—but there was no country.[2] The Shires’ displacement of Southern culture thus wrestles country away from its nationalistic stringency, and discharges it elsewhere: in the ‘shires.

The Shires are with Brave forced to appropriate their genre’s attachment to place in a stereotypical pop country album; but in doing so they displace the regionality of country music to a transatlantic space to which the iconography of a pastoral South is resistant. In a world of American jingoism and rhetorical set pieces like “America for Americans”, on The Shires’ part this is a decisively – if probably unintentional – political act.

[1] The Shires. Brave. Decca, 2015.

[2] ‘Presidential Pardon? POTUS Barack Obama Shows No Love for Country Music on His New Playlists.’ Nash Country Daily, 15th Aug. 2016. http://www.nashcountrydaily.com/2016/08/15/presidential-pardon-potus-barack-obama-shows-no-love-for-country-music-on-his-new-playlists/