Love and Learn With Amanda Shires
If Amanda Shires is the perfect example of writing what you know, there just might be a box set equivalent of James Joyce’s greatest hits waiting just around the corner.
Now the transplanted Texan fiddler who’s writing up a storm these days in Nashville might admit that’s going a little too far. Though she’s as modest as her upbringing in Lubbock, Shires has a way with words that goes far beyond her 31 years.
Yet the wise wordsmith acts nothing like a know-it-all. In fact, her favorite word in the English language must be learn. Because during a conversation that lasted nearly an hour, she used that action verb almost 30 times while discussing, among many other subjects, her eternal quest for knowledge.
“I was never a person that was the smartest or had the best retention in the room, but I’m kind of an eager learner and I like to learn,” Shires said over the phone about a week before the August 6 release of her fourth solo album, the deeply textured Down Fell the Doves. “I try hard. We can’t all be prodigies.”
The response was to a question about her educational background, but that determined devotion just as easily could have applied to the fiddle, songwriting, relationships or life in general.
Down Fell the Doves (her Lightning Rod Records debut) embodies all those elements through penetrating glimpses of eerie shadows and stunning light. Along with vivid images (“Box Cutters,” which she wrote in a state of “downright sweet delirium,” makes taking a permanent dirt nap sound so tempting) and lush arrangements, there’s Shires’ plaintive, delicate voice that’s guaranteed to break … your heart.
Her warble has been compared with Dolly Parton’s, and Shires’ easy, breezy conversational charm is just as inviting. With a wealth of information to share, her open book is certainly worth exploring:
Having a late morning coffee on a Massachusetts tour stop where she was beginning a series of shows supporting Jason Isbell, Shires already had enjoyed prominent spots with her still-newlywed husband on Letterman and at Newport only days earlier. She sounded ecstatic to be on the road again.
That’s what happens after spending two months of valuable summertime in a classroom at the Sewanee School of Letters, where Shires said she read everything James Joyce ever wrote. “So I’m ready to start practicing noun and verb smashing together,” she said.
Other than needing to finish a paper on “some business about Ulysses,” Shires has completed her third year at Sewanee and needs one more summer of learning to earn her master’s in poetry.
That seems almost inconceivable for someone who admits her interest in writing began while growing up in Lubbock with younger sister Ashley and composing “little girl journal stuff, like some stuff that rhymed bad. Not songs, though. You know, girlie, preteen crap.”
Chapter 1: First Love Affair
Her attraction to playing music happened more impulsively. In Mineral Wells, the Texas town where she was born, Amanda, then 9 1/2, was spending the summer with her divorced dad Terry. Spotting a Lark fiddle on the wall of A.D. Garrett’s pawn shop, Shires said, “Something about it was just beautiful to me and I was just like … I wanted to know how to do whatever it is that that does.
“I’d never before identified with the fiddle or violin. Something about that day when we were trying to figure out what little sound I could get out of it, I just thought it was its own thing and wanted to know more about it. Not that I’m trying to be all hippie or anything, but it felt like it was its own soul or something. I just fell in love with it somehow.”
A “classic rock guy,” Terry Shires wanted to hear the Who and the Doors on the radio instead of the Roger Miller and George Jones songs that her granddad favored, but he still paid $65 for the instrument.
“I don’t know if it was predestined for me because I don’t know that much about the universe,” said Shires, whose perceptive and worldly insights make that last part hard to believe. “But it seems like it was just there and it was supposed to be. That we were supposed to be together — me and the violin/fiddle. And now I carry it wherever I go.”
Of course, she didn’t mean that specific one because, as Shires pointed out, she has since upgraded, with her father and uncle chipping in for a $500 model about the time she was entering ninth grade. “I swear if you get me another one, I’ll be able to do a little bit more with it,” Shires pleaded, wanting to improve her position in the school orchestra.
Chapter 2: Hitting the Learning Curve
After years of lessons at Bayless Elementary, performing with the Lubbock Youth Symphony Orchestra and classical training with Lanny Fiel, the private violin instructor who taught her “Spanish Two Step” and introduced her to the Texas Playboys, the real learning came.
Her mother, Marguerite Fallon, agreed to let Amanda meet and perform with some veteran members of Bob Wills’ backing band such as Frankie McWhorter in Turkey, Texas, and Tommy Allsup “or I could go out on the weekends and play at the bars as long as my grades were up. She was cool. She pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, but she made a few good rules that I needed.”
That included keeping up with classical training, some of which Shires found to be boring.
“I’m really glad that my mom didn’t let me make my decisions based on my young … I had no frontal lobe development. I’m glad she made me to do some stuff I didn’t want to do just because she’s smarter than me sometimes.
“I didn’t know that it was important to have any kind of technical training in music. If it was up to me, I would’ve just learned only fiddle tunes. But now I think that what I learned with the classical tradition like the tuning and tone is a big deal and how to use the bow and get the most out of it. It’s really important and actually goes pretty far when you’re playing in a rock band.”
Chapter 3: Fiddler or Violinist?
Through all the training, there’s one undeniable lesson that Shires has learned: “I think the thing about the violin is that you can spend you whole life and still never master it.”
After 15 years of performing Western swing, bluegrass and traditional country and western, the musician who has tried the mandolin, recently took up the ukulele and dreams of learning the lap steel guitar still deliberates when asked to choose between two variations of the same job title.
“I consider myself more of a rock ‘n’ roll fiddler,” she finally said. “But I don’t get offended if I’m called either one. I’ll take either one. ’Cause they’re both great, and I can do both. But it’s more of a blend. And I also think it’s a violin when you’re selling it and a fiddle when you’re buying it.”
Chapter 4: All the Write Moves
That a petite but strong-willed woman can pack such a powerful punch line should come as no surprise.
After all, she not only plays balls-out rockers such as “Wasted and Rollin’ ” but also makes beautifully sophisticated sounds on “Bulletproof,” “The Drop and Lift” and “The Garden (What a Mess),” all among the 11 songs she wrote for Down Fell the Doves.
It was recorded at producer Andy LeMaster’s Chase Park Transduction studio in Athens, Georgia, with able assists from Isbell’s churning guitars and two of his 400 Unit members — Chad Gamble (drums) and Jimbo Hart (bass).
“Look Like a Bird,” the album-opening salvo in which Shires envisions being “careless, weightless and free,” came after much of the other material, 10 of 14 songs that made the final cut, manifested itself during a tumultuous two-year period in Shire’s life.
Looking back, Shires didn’t mince words, saying: “I was kinda in a spot of everything being destroyed.”
The title — taken from a line in album-closer “The Garden (What a Mess)” — “best represents the collection of songs,” Shires said.
“I felt like the way that birds can ascend and descend into both realms,” she added, bringing to mind “The Drop and Lift,” with references to sparrows and Falling is the closest to flying I believe we’ll ever get.
“It just fit in kind of a cycle like the good and the bad, the dark and the light. You can’t rebuild anything without some destruction.”
Chapter 5: Dark Passenger
A four-year relationship ended, one she termed “a difficult breakup,” and her third fiddle, one she owned for more than a decade and used in writing most of this record, got smashed to pieces in an onstage accident. The most harrowing — and possibly career-threatening — event occurred in July 2011, not long after the release of Carrying Lightning, her third solo record.
With school out for the day, some summer fun in the sun at Saint Andrews Lake near Sewanee was interrupted when Shires’ left ring finger got caught in a rope swing and was broken in three places. When she got out of the water, “I lifted the thing up and it was on completely backwards,” said Shires, who went to the emergency room still in her swimsuit but was in so much pain that she didn’t realize X-rays of the wrong hand were taken.
The healing process was further delayed after Isbell, becoming a faithful friend, drove Shires to an appointment with her own hand surgeon, who had to wait 10 days for the tendon in her finger to relax before operating. The injury still bothers Shires on occasion, serving as a constant reminder that those three pins in her finger are there to stay.
“That was a little tough just knowing, no matter what, there’s always gonna be a little problem there,” Shires said of the mental anguish that came along with the physical discomfort.
It might have taken months of occupational therapy to realize that, as Shires slowly started to try playing the fiddle again.
“It was pretty depressing, you know,” she said, not sounding the least bit sorry for herself. “I was trying to play and all my muscle memory had gone away by that time. I had practiced every day and worked on it and now I couldn’t. So when I got it back, it took some time for it to get some strength. Then it was like not giving up, that kind of thing. And then accepting, ‘OK, I’m not gonna be able to always do it with that finger ’cause sometimes your synapses fire and your finger doesn’t care. It just sits there.’
“But, I mean, I’m not down about it or anything. I’m grateful because I can still play and it rededicated me to music. I still feel like the purpose is to express and emote … I think all the real parts of music are still there. While I might be a little technically limited, I’m not worried about it.”
Shires mentioned that jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and Billy Joe Shaver, the country performer she credits for encouraging her to write songs in the first place, lost feeling or parts of their fingers, and still did OK. Then she self-effacingly added: “There’s nothing else that I really wanted to do. And I can’t say that I’m actually that great at anything else, so I kept on with that.”
So how did the bright light at the end of this tunnel of doom and gloom suddenly appear?
Shires’ casual friendship with Isbell, whom she has known for 12 years, got serious, and her part in his sobriety since February 2012 has only strengthened their relationship.
Chapter 6: Time to Shine Again
“We started spending so much time going to the movies and eating dinner, so we decided every other day we were going to go to opposite ends of the house and just write a song and then see what happens,” Shires said of the writing exercises Isbell described in our previous interview.
“Devastate” and “A Song for Leonard Cohen,” her sweet ode to the Canadian Bob Dylan that includes Isbell’s cool, jazzy turn on the piano, came directly out of that, along with songs her future husband was writing for the recently released Southeastern.
Shires, who has lyrics to Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” tattooed on her arm, and Isbell recently saw the 78-year-old folk hero perform in Memphis, but she doesn’t seem quite ready for either a meet-and-greet or his opinion of her personal fan letter.
“I wouldn’t have written it if I thought he would ever hear it,” she said, feeling intimidated by that prospect. “I wrote it because it was part of the writing exercise. I wrote the song and wrote what I felt and arranged the words and the chords and then I was like, ‘All right, now let’s go to the movies.’ ”
Known for working with artists like Todd Snider, Justin Townes Earle and Shovels and Rope, Shires has been a de facto member of the 400 Unit, but isn’t quite ready for a songwriting collaboration with Isbell. “It’s like going into a candy store; there’s a whole bunch of candy here we can eat but we should probably save some of it for tomorrow,” she said, laughing.
For now when it comes to songwriting, Shires relies wholeheartedly on the man she married in February for songwriting advice and input. (Isbell, right, with Shires at the Hangout Festival in May.)
“There’s nothing scarier than writing a song and then you’ve already made this decision that you’re gonna play it for the other person that you care about most in the world,” Shires said.
“But when we did that, I feel like we developed stronger communication because we learned … you know, we saw each other’s weaknesses and strengths. … We only want the other person to be as good as they can be, so now when I think about it, I’m like, well, there’s nobody else I want to hear this song first than him.”
Paraphrasing a conversation, Shires recalled telling Isbell, “Like give me a real opinion. I don’t want some bull crap where (you say), ‘It’s great.’ Tell me what’s wrong with it. I trust you, you know.”
So does she get that honest feedback? “Oh, hell yeah,” Shires said demonstratively, adding that she does the same with him.
The creative couple who recently graced the cover of Lone Star Music magazine as Grant Wood-inspired Americana Gothic characters obviously have a lot in common — from a twisted sense of humor to their storytelling talent.
Though the lanky Isbell must be at least a foot taller than his pint-sized bride, Little Shit is one of the pet names they call each other, Shires said, along with “Chicken Squat, but sort of like Chicken Shit. They’re mostly meant to be absurd. You know, we’re big fans of the absurd.”
Not that such silliness will end up in her school-ending thesis, an ambitious project that might involve tracing murder ballads and other such literary works back to Appalachia, then redoing them.
Initially enrolling “just because I started falling in love with words and I’d always been a fan of literature and reading,” Shires hopes she leaves the School of Letters with some “tools for the toolbox” while becoming “more precise and exact” as a songwriter.
“I started trying to incorporate it as I’ve been learning, but I don’t think I’ve learned everything I can learn yet,” she said, managing to work the “L” word thrice into one sentence.
In an intense program where anything less than a B grade is considered a failure, the faculty better give Shires bonus points and a gold star for Down Fell the Doves.
Publicity photos by Erica Shires (sunglasses) and Jimmy Collins. Concert photos by Michael Bialas.