The unlikely new queens of country
Helen Brown meets the animalmad English twins who became the toast of Nashville
Their accents may be more “hoorah” than “yee-hah”, but last autumn Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas became the first British country act to top the UK album charts. Now the 23-year-old twins from the sleepy Hampshire village of Liss are gearing up to support Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks when the rock legends play Hyde Park in July. No wonder they’re “a bit dazed”.
“We love Stevie Nicks,” gush the sisters, when I meet them at their publicist’s office in north London. “Fleetwood Mac and the Dixie Chicks are our favourite bands. When we were growing up our parents were in a Seventies covers band. Mum was the singer, she was Stevie Nicks.” The wholesome sincerity of their enthusiasm is irresistible. They’re ridiculously likeable and totally lacking in the diva-esque attitude that was once standard issue in pop stars their age.
“It’s cool to be nice now,” they grin, and they’re right. Modern music’s most successful stars – Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran – have built their brands on their accessible relationships with their fans, smiling and waving even at the haters as they sensibly expand their property portfolios. “One moment of rudeness could ruin your career,” says Lizzy, the selfconfessed “more spontaneous, extroverted” blonde. “If Ed Sheeran had an off day and flipped out it would go viral, it would be on the internet forever. It would be a disaster.
“Our mum told us never to swear in interviews,” she adds. “She said never discuss religion or politics. And she told us to be ourselves.”
“But,” laughs Catherine, the “more calculating, introverted” brunette, “how could we be ourselves and not swear?” A pause. “But Mum’s right,” she continues. “When it comes to religion and politics, we aren’t experts. We like tea and knitting and baking.”
So we’re never going to catch them getting embroiled in tabloid scandals? “No!” says Lizzy, appalled. “That’s one of the things we like about the country music scene – people are just so polite!”
Over the past five years, country music has seen a surge in popularity in Britain. It’s partly driven by fans of Taylor Swift’s pop hits discovering her country back catalogue, and partly by so-called nu-folk acts such as Mumford & Sons bringing banjos back into the mainstream. The launch of the annual Country2Country music festival in 2013 brought big hitters including Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley to London’s O2 Arena. Dolly Parton headlined Glastonbury in 2014 and by 2016 Americana had its own UK chart.
“Country used to be a dirty word here,” says Lizzy, clearly irritated by the long-standing British snobbery against “songs about cowboys and trucks and dirt roads”. She thinks it’s really always been a guilty pleasure and that we’re finally coming out of the closet. “We grew up loving it,” says Catherine. “Our granny would sing us Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline – great, deep, emotional songs.”
The girls were raised in rural bliss on an old livestock farm. Their father is a former amateur jockey who now runs an upmarket removals business. An adventurous spirit, Anthony Ward Thomas attempted to cross the Atlantic in a two-man pedalo (aged 58) last year, to raise money for a children’s hospice, but was rescued after suffering heart problems 600 miles into the voyage. Their mother is a painter who specialises in large oils of horses.
At convent school the twins were nicknamed “Scruff One” and “Scruff Two” because they often went riding before lessons and had to walk through a muddy field to get to the bus stop. At home they were “always singing, harmonising”, often with their brother Tom who is six years older and now an actor. They began playing guitar in their early teens. A Canadian cousin introduced them to the Dixie Chicks and their love of the Texan band’s country pop inspired them to take a songwriting course at school.
One of their teachers had contacts in Nashville, sent out a demo tape of their singing and the day after taking their final A-level exam the girls were on a plane to record their UK chart-topping debut album, 2014’s From Where We Stand. The Americans were charmed by their
‘Country used to be a dirty word in British music – but we grew up loving it’