Amanda Shires Leans On Her Life Lessons
By the time she appeared with Billy Joe Shaver at the Open Highway Festival in St. Louis, it seemed like a lifetime ago when Amanda Shires impulsively jumped onstage to play fiddle at one of Shaver’s shows.
Shaver hired the young Texan fiddler but saw something else in her. One day he pulled her aside one day and encouraged her to think beyond a career as a sideman and to write her own songs. It might have been some of the best advice he’d give anyone.
When Amanda Shires was just fifteen, she was part of the Texas Playboys. The apostles and descendants of Bob Wills used to put her in situations that would make her feel awkward and maybe a little scared, especially when it was her turn to improvise. It was on the job training and a little fun for the older legends who took pleasure in watching the nervous young girl.
When she stopped by the Acme Radio studios to talk with Roots Now host Barry Mazor, there was emotion in her voice as she named the men of the Texas Playboys.
There was Frankie McWhorter, Bobby Boatright, Johnny Gimble and Tommy Allsup.
“I almost just cried,” she admitted on air, the sound of Allsup’s name striking a chord just a few weeks removed from his passing.
No doubt each would have been proud if they could have seen her on tour this past Fall. When Shires stepped onstage at Gypsy Sally’s in Washington DC and spoke the opening words of “You Are My Home,” it was like a declaration and personal manifesto–a marker of how far her life has come since she sat on Frankie McWhorter’s porch in Lubbock learning fiddle tunes.
The first time Shires sang with the Texas Playboys, she had to hold Leon Rausch’s hand. Now, alternating between fiddle, electric guitar and mandolin, she was the confident bandleader of a four-piece ensemble. There was authority in her fiddle from the time she came onstage, soon followed by quieter and introspective moments. Her understated electric guitar gave extra resonance to the reverie of “Swimmer” she whistled underneath its hypnotic melody.
When Shires headed for Nashville, she waitressed to support herself for several years until her album Carry Lightning. Shortly after her arrival, she wrote a song called “Mineral Wells” that reflected her longing for home.
At night I dream I’m in the Brazos River
Pines and cypress of the West Cross Timbers
And oh, I know, it shows
I’m another one still thirsting for my home
Shires’ parents divorced and she split time between the beauty of Mineral Wells and the flat dusty terrain of Lubbock. If you take the girl out of Texas, you can’t take Texas out of the girl. As she entered the studio to record My Piece of Land, Shires was two weeks from giving birth. With a new baby on the way, she started thinking about her childhood and sense of home and what it would mean for her soon to be born daughter Mercy.
To understand her growth, compare the recording of “Mineral Wells” on My Piece of Land with the version she made on West Cross Timbers. Today the original sounds like a diary entry. Revisited almost a decade later on My Piece of Land, it’s expansive. It’s as if you can feel Shires under the Texas stars with Dave Cobb’s production and husband Jason Isbell’s guitar accentuating the vast Texas landscape –and Shires bringing her life’s experience into the narrative.
Onstage at Gypsy Sally’s, Shires confided she wondered what life would be like recording and touring with a new baby. She seemed about to reveal a secret when someone shouted “you can have it all.”
“The point is, it’s too poignant,” she demurred, as if the hollering broke her train of thought. “Here’s to more songs” and went into the soulful confessional of “I Know What It’s Like,” redirecting the conversation to her testament of inner fortitude.
It was late in the set when Shires sang a song dedicated to her one year-old, the child who can be seen on Twitter carrying the album My Piece of Land like a toy. Here was Shires celebrating the joys of being a doting mother, borrowing “Daughter” and the words of Loudon Wainwright as her own:
Everything she sees
She says she wants
Everything she wants
I see she gets
That’s my daughter
It’s been more than two years since Shires stood onstage at the Americana Music Awards alongside her husband Jason Isbell. That night Isbell, a recovering alcoholic, confessed that the scariest moment of his life was when he had to play “Cover Me Up” the first time for his wife. Onstage by herself at Gypsy Sally’s as she played the eloquent “Slippin’,” it was easy to miss the song’s message about the fragility of daily life.
Shires, who is just a few weeks from turning thirty-five, cajoled her band members. There was teasing to be done about her guitarist’s sexy hair and an announcement about the bass player’s birthday. Perhaps her banter owed itself to her training with the Texas Playboys, namely how to be happy touring. “You show up with your gear and clean clothes,” she said on Roots Now. “You have fun and the audience has fun and you all have fun together. There’s a lot of old school lessons in there.”
Shires is just about finished with her Masters In Fine Arts degree from the Sewannee School of Letters. Her studies and thesis have already helped bridge the gap from writing songs solely on instinct to a better understanding of how to structure the images in her mind.
After she moved to Nashville, she thought about Shaver’s advice about what it meant to be a songwriter. Over the last decade she’s slowly built a body of work. It includes the fanciful musings of “ A Song For Leonard Cohen,” a wistful, whimsical reverie in which Shires imagines meeting the mysterious man with the dark voice. It provided some solace during the days following the late songwriter’s passing.
Late in her set someone is heard by the stage to say “Play it like Frissell!” It’s a nod to a moment Shires had with her husband during the making of Down Fell The Doves. Isbell asked her at one point, “Should I play it like Frisell?” thinking of guitarist Bill Frisell. Shires assumed he meant Lefty Frizell and wondered why. A confusing conversation ensued. Onstage it prompts a wide smile from Shires who turns, slightly jolted but quick on the comeback: “You know there are two.”
Onstage, Shires casts the merchandise table as the place to meet friends. She revels us in the fanciful tale of Tiger Bill, the protagonist of “Bulletproof.” With great storytelling skills, she embellishes the mythology of a man who brought her a mystical bag at a show in Tampa. Shires opened it to find Siberian tiger claws and whiskers and spun the tale of how she became bulletproof.
All of which to say we might not have learned about her encounter with Leonard Cohen, the legend of Tiger Bill and everything since had it not been for one Billy Joe Shaver.
If you see him in your travels, be sure to thank him for all of us.