Settling down backstage at last weekend’s TENNESSEE FIELDS festival for an impromptu interview with the boys from ESSEX COUNTY – aka band of brothers Nate, Mark and Kieran Bass – feels a bit like stepping into a reality TV show, says SSC’s own Essex-based reporter Alison Dewar.
Parachuted in to the festival as a late replacement for Clayton Smalley, Essex County’s career has been a rollercoaster of amazing highs and (a few) lows along the way.
With Mark and Nate sharing lead vocals (Mark also plays guitar and Nate the drums) and younger brother Kieran on vocals, guitar and bass, there’s no doubting their musical talents – as the reception from the Tennessee Fields crowd underlined on Saturday night.
It’s clear that over the years a huge amount of perseverance and hard work, combined with a sprinkling of fairy dust, has given them some impressive breaks…from the couple they met whilst performing on a Disney cruise ship who not only encouraged them to try their luck in Nashville but helped fund them too; to the time they went to a Hal Ketchum gig and ended up sharing a stage with the man himself … of which more later.
Their Tennessee Fields appearance was their first UK gig since coming back home to Essex to visit family earlier this year. Thanks to travel restrictions, they’re still here several months later, but they’ve certainly not been idle, recording at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London with Sonia Leigh and again in London with The Vamps’ James McVey.
Besides zoom writing and a streamed Nashville Meets London session in February, they’ve also taken on more down-to-earth day jobs – Kieran has been working in Argos, Mark has been helping their Dad with his carpet fitting business and Nate has been doing a bit of plumbing. As he says, it has certainly kept them grounded.
After spending 20 minutes in their company one thing is clear – they are having the time of their lives and they don’t take themselves too seriously – apart that is, from their music. And while Nate is the leader of the pack when it comes to interviews, like any group of siblings they finish each other’s sentences and enjoy taking the proverbial p**s out of each other at every opportunity.
Their So Good EP from 2020 spawned songs including title track So Good (taking centre stage alongside them in a US Chevrolet commercial no less), 11:11 and party anthem Cheers to You which featured such country luminaries as The Oak Ridge Boys, Restless Heart and Tanya Tucker.
Talking about their talents, the band’s Grammy-winning producer Ron Fair says: “We’re hoping they’re the biggest country act to ever come from the United Kingdom. Mark is a savant of the guitar. Kieran is lockstep in all the harmony parts and a super consistent singer with fantastic tone. And Nate has this vintage tone that’s old school, but new school. It’s elegant, but it’s very masculine and satisfying. In the studio, we can use it as a weapon.”
So how exactly did they get to such dizzy heights?
Their journey began after they started music lessons as youngsters at home in Essex. Just six months later, Mark scooped Guitarist of the Year (aged 11) in a competition run by Guitarist magazine and judged by no less than Brian May and Eric Clapton, among others. The victory celebrations were short-lived however as, not long after being awarded his prize on stage at Wembley Stadium, that axe guitar was stolen, never to be seen again.
Undeterred, they continued to play at various gigs – a mixture of the soundtracks they had grown up listening to in their mum’s car, including Americana and country classics like George Strait and Hal Ketchum through to The Eagles, Bon Jovi, Restless Heart and Rascal Flatts, before embracing their own love of hard rock.
Under the name Next of Kin, in the late 1990s, they toured with Britney Spears, Westlife and Boyzone before being dropped by their record label. Then, in 2013, they bounced back to appear on TV talent show the X Factor.
It was their mother Diane who taught them how to write songs (she and their father David were both in the TF festival crowd), and Can’t Find Me which the siblings wrote with her is not just one of their best known but is also described by Nate as “the song that took them to Nashville”.
The route there was long and winding and finally came after a stint as a ‘house band’ on a cruise ship before their lives changed for ever. Nate explains: “We came off playing on a Disney cruise ship in Florida, having made friends with a couple from Indiana who invited us to stay with them and said we should try our luck in Music City.
“It was what our Mum had always been telling us we should do. When we got there, we played for Martina McBride’s husband John and record producer Dann Huff, who started producing our tracks, and that’s how it all started. They paved the way in Nashville for us and the last couple of years have been a real game-changer.”
Before long, the three brothers were writing songs with the likes of Victoria Shaw (co-writer of Garth Brooks’ number one hit The River) and Kent Blazy (also a co-writer for Brooks), as well many others.
A spontaneous gig in the offices of Nashville merch company Richards and Southern led to an introduction to their now manager, Rob Beckham, the co-founder of Artist Management Group (AMG) whose rollcall of artists includes country superstar Brad Paisley.
Had the pandemic not intervened, they would have been sharing a stage with Paisley but instead they have been using the time as a ‘breathing space’, learning new music and writing new songs, as well as rehearsing both in Nashville and more recently back here in the UK.
As is often the way, one success story led to another. Nate continues: “We met Hal Ketchum and wanted to get a picture with him. He asked if we were in a band and the next thing, he’d invited us to his show, then asked us up on stage, handed us some guitars and we had a singalong – it was amazing to do that with someone we had grown up listening to in the car with our Mum.”
Kieran says Nashville’s songwriting community is much more collaborative and embracing than back home in the UK, giving them opportunities to write alongside fellow writers and producers, including Fair and Hall of Fame songwriter and producer Steve Dorff.
It was Dorff’s son Andrew who co-wrote their hit ‘wedding song’ For You, alongside Josh Osborne, also co-writing with Jaren Johnston and Jimmy Robbins on Love At First, released by the band last year.
Since being back in the UK, Nate says: “We have been writing with people over Skype and Zoom, so when we get back to Nashville we can start collaborating again. Warners (Warner Chappell Music) put us in touch with producer and songwriter Brandon Hood and we’ve been doing some stuff together on Skype.
“We’ve also been working with Ben (Earle) from The Shires on a great poppy radio song and we’re really excited about that.”
They agree however, that no matter how good the technology is, the face-to-face collaboration is what makes the songs more “heartfelt” to use Mark’s word.
Finding the gems
And as much as they enjoy writing their own songs (Kieran says their back catalogue goes on for miles) Nate admits: “We’re about the music and the melody – we always work better if there is a lyricist to help us say what we want to say.
“The cool thing about Nashville and being part of that community is that a lot of people go there to write their own songs, so if someone pitches a song to us, we’ll sing it.
“Songs are there to be used, thousands and thousands of songs a month sit in storage and there are so many beautiful lyrics, you have to find the great little gems.”
Proud to be one of the few family acts on today’s country scene – and currently the only British group of brothers – they say that since the day they arrived they have been embraced by both the Nashville community and their audiences, many of whom are “fascinated” by their Essex accents.
I’d love to be a fly on the wall at some of their US gigs as they admit that audiences frequently say “we can’t understand what you say, but we love your music” – the song American Birds no doubt being a case in point. I’m not sure ‘birds’ is a term American audiences would be familiar with unless they’ve tuned into TOWIE.
Talking of which, if you need a laugh, see their Southern Slang tutorials on their Facebook page as they try to get to grips with some of the local lingo, and look out for their homegrown livestreamed gigs from the kitchen – (https://www.facebook.com/OneCountry/videos/872608983235124).
Of course, after spending the last few months back home here in not so sunny Essex, they might just need a translator by the time they head back West. In whatever language however, it’s clear that as soon as they get back into the studio, there’ll be plenty of new music and new hits to come from Essex County.
Thanks to Nate, Mark and Kieran for making time to talk to an Essex girl. (I use the term girl loosely)…Alison
Official Website: https://www.essexcountyband.com/
Photos – Craig Dewar