Amanda Shires began her career performing with the Texas Playboys and since beginning her solo career, she has made appearances on records by American Aquarium, Justin Townes Earle, Todd Snider, Shovels & Rope, Cory Branan and on three by Jason Isbell (who happens to be her husband). Most recently, she showed up on John Prine’s For Better, Or Worse on the Texas-tinged “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, And Loud, Loud Music.”
And while raising a one-year-old, she has also managed to release her sixth solo album, My Piece of Land. The supporting tour, which brings her to the Magic City for the first time since January 2015, will keep her from Mercy Rose for three weeks, a frightening thought for Shires but an important example to set.
“I’m just now internalizing that I won’t see her for that many days in a row,” she said. “It’s terrifying and I’m full of guilt, but I’m hoping that this is the only time that I’ll be gone for that length of time without seeing her. And I’m also hoping that maybe she might learn that one day she, too, can have a child and [also] follow her dreams.”
She was as afraid of a future that she didn’t know as any other expectant mother. But reality assured her that she could have both a family and a career; proceeding with both has been easy, and she’s eager to be a strong female role model for Mercy Rose.
“I used to wonder when I was pregnant — around that 33-week mark when I was having to face myself and the idea of bringing a child into the world and what that meant; I was thinking a lot about if I would still be able to do all of these things,” she said. “I worried about if I would be a good mom and all of this business and then once I had her, I discovered that nothing has changed in a negative way at all. Everything is more beautiful and enhanced and psychedelic. With anything that’s your passion, you have time in the day. Are you gonna use that time to do the work you need to do or are you gonna watch Netflix?”
The new record was largely penned during her pregnancy. Since her daughter’s arrival, Shires has seen the world through new eyes.
“I always thought that I was good at observing things, but I think she has really sharpened my observational eye in a way,” she said. “Normally you walk into a room and see some tables and chairs. Maybe some books lying around. But watching her walk through the world, you begin to notice things like your own shadow and where that’s at and how crazy your own hand is; that lights and electricity work.”
Shires is approaching a different sound on this record, especially on tracks like “My Love (The Storm),” “You Are My Home” and on the track currently in heavy rotation at Birmingham Mountain Radio, “When You’re Gone.” Sometimes it’s a little darker and sometimes it’s a little more rock and roll. It’s a sound that she largely attributes to producer Dave Cobb’s style.
“When you go in to record with him, he doesn’t want you to know the songs and he doesn’t want you to have demos. He wants you to have your song that you’ve written. You come in with it and you play it for him and the musicians and then together, you play the song. That does a lot for what the intention and meaning of songs are; for me, in the past, I’ve gone in with demos and worked to tedium over parts and arrangements and sometimes to a fault. With him, you just go in and you’re playing the song and there’s no time to be self conscious about the record button being on. You’re in the song and you’re in the moment and you’re all creating this thing together. It just goes naturally and organically. It’s like if you have a radio antenna and it was catching the song for you. It’s a communal thing. When you’re playing with a group of people and you all love each other’s playing and you trust each other, there’s no time to do anything but play the music. It’s pure.”
It was the first time that she had approached recording a record that way. She blames social constructs for a mentality that she’d appear foolish without presenting a more complete project upon arrival at the studio. The new approach worked, and she’ll welcome it again.
“It’s an idea that I had never considered,” she said. “I always thought that you go into the studio fully prepared and ready to show a completed work. Not really bare bones; for some reason, I thought that wasn’t supposed to be as easy as it was.”
She has recorded on a lot of other records; and she spent a lot of time as a session player in Nashville. As she grows older and balances her family with her own touring schedule and Isbell’s, she maintains the luxury to be selective about the projects that she takes on.
“I have a strict rule that I’ll only play as a side player for people that I can learn something from,” she said. “That’s a selfish reason. [laughs] I’ll play in other people’s bands if I can learn something from them or that maybe some part of John Prine’s lyrical skills will rub off on me.”
As if touring with two bands and raising a child isn’t enough, she’s also nearing the completion of her MFA from The University of the South. A recent setback in Chicago was difficult to overcome.
“Completing the coursework was amazing and a huge relief,” she said. “I had half of my thesis done and I got robbed in Chicago. We were onstage when the van was broken into, so luckily they didn’t steal any gear. The only thing in there was my backpack, which had all of my notes from school and all of the notes that professors wrote on my work. It had my computer and my car keys. I asked them if I could have an extension and they said no. It was like my dog ate my homework. But I’ll be done with my thesis in the spring.”
At this year’s Americana Fest, Isbell was presented with the Album of the Year moments before George Strait presented Jim Lauderdale with the Wagonmaster Award, allowing Shires a moment to meet a fellow Texan and a childhood hero for the first time in her life.
“I saw [Strait] and I said, ‘Holy [expletive]! It’s you!” she said. “And he said, ‘It’s me!’ [laughs] Then I went on this diatribe of everything that I ever wanted to tell him and I said it all in 30 seconds. I totally fangirled out on him. He was on his way to the bathroom and I knew that he didn’t really want to talk to me, so that’s why I was quick. I said, ‘I cannot believe I get to meet you. You used to rodeo across the street from my dad’s house and I love you and I love the Ace in the Hole Band and Johnny Gimble and I love that you love Bob Wills…’ I just kept telling him strings and strings of things that didn’t really go together. Then I said, ‘Can we take a picture?’
She found herself so lost in the moment that she didn’t mention her own time with the Texas Playboys. “If I had, maybe he would have talked to me longer,” she laughed.
Her Piece of Land is physically in Nashville now, but her piece of land is wherever she can find herself with her family. Shires and Isbell have built a support system around them that allows them to bring their daughter on the road for the longer tours, and as long as the other is able, neither will be traveling alone.
“When I’m not playing shows, I go play with him and when he’s not playing shows, he’ll come play with me,” she said. “We’ve discovered that when one of us is at home, it’s pretty lonely at the house looking at each other’s things. We both like to play music so much and we’re lucky to have jobs that we both really like. They don’t feel like jobs. The only job is the traveling. Whenever our schedules allow for it, we do that. Our home is being together and wherever that is doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be at our physical address.”
Amanda Shires performs at Vulcan Aftertunes on Sunday, October 23. Birmingham’s Jesse Payne opens the show at 2:30 p.m., while Amanda’s set begins at 4 p.m. Tickets are $15.