Spotlight: Amanda Shires
by Rob Slater on September 21, 2016
“It took me six times before I could stand up correctly,” Amanda Shires says with a laugh as she reflects on her experiences playing shows with country and folk legend John Prine. On September 30, the two will share the stage once again at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, where Shires will sample tracks from her latest release, My Piece of Land, before the iconic Prine hits the stage. “You get around them and you don’t know what to say,” she jokes of meeting her musical idols. “You forget your questions and all the words leave your face.”
As her recent social media activity—including tweets from a Radiohead concert at Madison Square Garden and gushing Instagram photos of family time with her daughter backstage at the Grand Ole Opry—surely proves, Shires isn’t afraid to still geek out a bit about musical heroes like Ryan Adams, whom she opened for during a stretch of shows this summer, including a festive outing at New York’s Central Park SummerStage in July. “He’s one of the best,” Shires says, recalling an April 2015 gig at the Ryman when she and husband Jason Isbell sat in with Adams for the Whiskeytown classic “Jacksonville Skyline” and “16 Days.”
Shires admits that her memory of that night is foggy, due to her intense Adams fandom (“I was kind of like, ‘How do you make a C chord? Dammit, what’s happened to me?!’”), and also because much has happened since that night in Shires’ new adopted home of Nashville. Shires was about four months pregnant when she joined Adams onstage, and she would soon break from her usual slot in Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit, to prepare for the birth of their first child, daughter Mercy, who arrived on Sept. 1, 2015.
Being “encumbered” by her pregnancy, as she puts it, spawned My Piece of Land, her latest fiddle-and-ukulele-driven solo record.
“I had done everything I could think of as far as nesting,” Shires explains of the cabin fever that grew when she departed from life on the road. “I ran out of distractions and started having to face myself and started writing just to write and play music. A few songs started becoming a collection.”
Unsure of whether or not she actually wanted to release the tunes—a batch that she says truly hones her writing style as “dealing with my own problems and emotions”— Shires phoned producer Dave Cobb, whose discography includes Isbell’s Southeastern and Something More Than Free, and asked if he’d be interested in taking on the project. “I just needed some stuff¢ to do and, sure enough, it became a record,” she said.
As she surveys the final product, Shires points to the flamenco-guitar-infused “Slippin’,” born out of “hormone-induced anxiety” (She sings: “Tonight could be the night you go slipping away from me”) that was ultimately quelled by Isbell. “I played it for him and he was like, ‘That’s a good song, but you know that’s not true. Everything is fine here.’ In that way, it was helpful and, after I had the baby, those feelings went back to a normal range.”
Shires grew up in Lubbock, a small city in Northwest Texas best known for being the home of Texas Tech University and music legend Buddy Holly. She initially gravitated to the violin and played in her school orchestra, but admits that the conservative setting bored her. In college, she started expanding her musical breadth and explored roots music, joining the Texas Playboys and Thrift Store Cowboys. Shires also began sitting in regularly at Lubbock Americana safe-haven The Blue Light, where she came across one of the original country-music outlaws, Billy Joe Shaver, who told her to move from being a side-person to front-woman and pursue songwriting.
“He thought I had something,” she says, while also noting that, in Texas, “I couldn’t get away from the side person. My name is attached to just being a fiddle player, so I moved to Nashville and started waiting tables and recording records. And here we sit.”
Shires admits that her first forays into the competitive Nashville scene included “lots of trial and error.” As she recounts, “You have to find what it is that you really want to do. I recommend doing that before you move here, but if you want to do music, you probably ought to know what kind of music you want to do because you might wind up every Wednesday playing covers, like I did for a little while. And that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Today, Shires is clearly following her own muse, dividing her time between her music, family and a master’s degree program in poetry through The University of the South in Tennessee. She says the decision to pursue that degree came from “nerdy things” like “what to read, how to edit, why one word over another.” Shires faces the challenge like she does most things in her life— with an infectious laugh and a sense of humor, saying, “I love Middle English. James Joyce is my spirit animal—not.”