“We’ve got to keep it all alive, and help your history survive. Respect the people who were here before us.”
“Turning on the radio I’m fed up with these single-minded lines. Does anybody stop and think there’s more to words than just a stupid rhyme?
“And I wonder if they’ll ever see the signs. That we’re hungry for a message that inspires.”
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These aren’t lyrics taken from Dale Watson songs. They’re lyrics from Ward Thomas. And Ward Thomas is not some grizzly country music Outlaw in motorcycle fashion looking to start a fist fight with Florida Georgia Line, it’s two 21-year-old fraternal twins from England who sing country music. Yes, not much makes sense here, but sometimes that’s sign that you’re on to something that isn’t just unique, but exceptional. And that’s what Ward Thomas is.
On October 25th, the 10th annual British Country Music Awards, or BCMA’s went down in London. Oh, you weren’t exactly tuned into the BCMA’s you say? First time hearing about them? Well Ward Thomas was bestowed with Duo of the Year honors, though they weren’t there to accept them. Lizzie Ward Thomas—the blonde-haired one—was in Zambia at the time on a six week trip to care for orphaned Chimpanzees. This is the same kind of socially-conscious, self-aware, a forward-thinking mindset these twins approach their music with, and it is as astounding as it is inspiring and enjoyable to listen to.
Let’s establish something right off the bat here: this is not traditional country. And nor should it be. If these two girls got up on stage and tried to twang it up, it would be disingenuous. It would be an act as opposed to an authentic expression of themselves and their personal experiences, which is exactly what you get from their music. They’re 21-year-old girls from the U.K., but that doesn’t mean they don’t have country music in their hearts or their narratives. It just means they may be inspired just as much by Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac as Johnny Cash.
Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas grew up on a livestock farm in the countryside of Hampshire in England. “It is our early years of living on the farm that give us our country roots: Cows, chickens, pigs and goats have the same language in rural England as they do below America’s Mason-Dixon line,” says the duo. Their parents were in a band together, and they began to sing as a duo at an early age. At the same time, Catherine and Lizzy’s family scene wasn’t idyllic. Their parents divorced when they were 12-years-old, and their scars come through in their music just as much as their ideals.
Ward Thomas is Maddie & Tae without the baggage or the need for qualifiers or quips like “Oh, but at least it’s better than Bro-Country.” Ward Davis is First Aid Kit but with a more sensible, positive, and wide-appealing sound that doesn’t shed the intelligence or inspiration from the listening experience to get there.
These girls have a song called “The Good And The Right” for crying out loud, where they very directly criticize the direction of culture and the priorities of society in the modern age. They have a song called “Way Back When” that directly challenges the whole “evolution” argument made by modern country music that claims paying respect to the past is tantamount to going back and believing the world is flat. Notice in the line, ““We’ve got to keep it all alive, and help your history survive,” they use “your” instead of “our” in reference to history. These young ladies understand that they’re visitors in the country music space. But at the same time, being studied and concerned about the music, they’re willing to speak up.
But most importantly, Ward Thomas understands that all of this is interconnected. If you have bad music, eventually this leads to a bad culture, and bad actions, and a broken society. These girls are not out to save country music, they’re out to save their generation, and do so not just by offering criticism and complaint, but by attempting to inspire others.
And this isn’t just about idealistic judgement by a couple of young women. A line in the song “The Good And The Right” says, “I’m as guilty as the rest, gotta spread my wings and leave this nest.” Aside from the incredible beauty that can be captured when two close siblings harmonize, possibly Ward Thomas’ best asset is understanding they’re two young girls from England trying to do something in a art form foreign to their native soil, and that one must have an intimate, personal understanding of all of the emotions and pitfalls of the human condition to perform country music correctly.
This is one of the reasons Lizzie is running off to Africa. It’s also the reason these girls starting coming to Nashville after finishing school study country music, to write songs, to work on songs with others, to record music, and to understand country from the inside out.
And before you begin to think that this all sounds a little too heady or esoteric for the wide ear music must reach to be effective, just listen to it. The criticism from many is going to be that it’s too fluffy. But there’s excellent balance in Ward Thomas, and it all resides well within the borders of the two sisters’ experiences. They can release outspoken songs like “The Good And The Right” and “Way Back When,” but they can also do fun songs that don’t make you feel stupid like “Push For The Stride” or “Town Called Ugley” which features Vince Gill. They can do some very deep, painful ballads like “From Where I Stand.” And the entire time, their vocals are on par with some of the best of the sister pairings we’ve heard throughout country music history. And they write or co-write all of their songs aside from the obvious covers.
Of course some of the production is more indicative of rock in moments, or otherwise can be second guessed. But think of how advanced this is for two young women from England making country music, and not for the American market, but for the British market. They released their debut album From Where We Stand in 2014, but it didn’t reach North America in wide downloadable or streaming form until March of 2015. The CD still doesn’t seem to be distributed in North America.
But if there was ever an act that American country music needed more, it would be Ward Thomas. And not because they’re traditional country, but because they’re pop country, but pop country that actually says something, assumes an intelligent audience, and attempts to inspire and entertain the public without making you feel stupid.
I’m not sure enough can be said about Ward Thomas. If country music is to be saved, then it has to happen in all sectors of the music, from bluegrass, to traditional country, to Outlaw and honky tonk, and to country pop that will appeal to young women, and to adults that are tired of the pop tart fest, and the poor messages it’s sending to listeners at large.
Someone, anyone, get these girls over here and give them the support they deserve. American country music needs Ward Thomas.
Two Guns Up.
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Editor’s Note: I’m going to load you down with YouTube’s, but it is the best way to explore this band.