No Strings Attached
For a few years, Lubbock native Amanda Shires thought she could be happy playing backup fiddle and letting other people write the songs. Then she fell in love with words.
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Amanda Shires carefully steps from one rock to another as she makes her way down the trail to the Res, a swimming hole in Sewanee, Tennessee. Hickory trees and various oaks loom overhead, and muddy patches of ground occasionally prompt Shires to take a short leap so she can avoid getting her shoes mucked up. It’s a sweetly bucolic scene, for sure. Or at least it would be, if there weren’t business to attend to.
“Yes, I’m finishing it up today,” she insists, speaking into her iPhone. “And don’t worry, you’re getting major thanks.” Logan Rogers, the president of Lightning Rod Records, is on the other end of the line. He’s sitting in his Nashville office working on the packaging of her forthcoming CD, Down Fell the Doves, and waiting for Shires to get the final version of the liner notes to him. She’s running a bit late.
Then she takes a call from her manager, Tim Bernett, to discuss an improbable collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan rapper Inspectah Deck that she’s trying to get him to arrange. There are other things to talk about—the music-streaming service Spotify wants her to create a playlist for its customers, which she’s been having technical difficulties doing—but the 31-year-old singer-songwriter-fiddler has reached the water’s edge, and it’s time to swim, so business can wait.
Shires spends countless summer afternoons at the Res. From September to May the Lubbock native lives in Nashville and focuses on her music. But for the past three summers, she has headed to Sewanee’s historic University of the South, where she’s getting an MFA. After a hard day of writing in iambic pentameter, these cool waters offer a nice respite.
“No one’s spotted any snakes today,” Shires says as she drifts along on a pair of foam noodles. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are not unknown around here, though Shires, who killed a rattler with a rock when she was a teenager, is probably less terrified of snakes than most people.
Still, danger lurks in these waters, or just along them. Two years ago, Shires and some friends came here for a swim and took turns swinging from a rope tied to a tree that overhangs the Res. When it was Shires’s turn, just before she leaped, she joked, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Hey, I just got health insurance!”—and promptly caught the ring finger of her left hand in the rope, breaking it in three places.
Today she has three screws in the finger, and it doesn’t work quite the way it used to. A few years ago, that could have been a career-ending condition; until then, Shires had been defined by her fiddle playing. Her relationship with the instrument goes back to 1992, when she and her father, Terry, stopped at a pawnshop in Mineral Wells and she spotted an old fiddle on the shelf. “My dad is a hunter and a fisher, and he wanted to negotiate down some prices,” she explains. “It was a trip we made regularly, but this time I saw the fiddle. My family didn’t go to a lot of concerts, and I said, ‘What in the world is that?’ I held it, and it was so mysterious. I told my dad I had to have it. He wasn’t a guy who would get me things, but for some reason he was like, ‘If I get this, will you learn how to play?’ ” She said yes. “Later that day we went to his buddy’s house—I had a fiddle, he had a new knife to show his buddy—and I sat on the porch trying to play it. I broke all the strings.”
Latching onto the violin was, perhaps, Shires’s attempt to gain some stability in her life. Her mother, Marguerite, was eighteen when she had Shires, and she and Terry split when Shires was four, forcing their daughter to divide her time between Lubbock and Mineral Wells. For Shires, the violin was one of the few constants in an adolescence marked by a rotating cast of stepparents and churches (she jokes that she’s “the product of six divorces and four or five baptisms”), and her devotion to it—as well as her mother’s unwavering support—paid off. Suzuki lessons didn’t work out too well, but the western swing of Bob Wills was a revelation, and as a teenager Shires joined his legacy group, the Texas Playboys, where she stood out in a sea of much older men. “That’s where I learned how to improvise,” she says. “You learn the songs, and then they let you play whatever you want for eight bars. And I would be like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, how did you make your solo do that? Why can’t mine do that?’ It opened up a whole new thing: how to express yourself, how to underline a song.” Shires became an in-demand sidewoman, backing up Texas legends like Billy Joe Shaver and Gary P. Nunn. She was a fiddle player, full stop.
But that began to shift ten years ago, when she was touring with Shaver. “Billy Joe and I were doing this long drive in Texas, from somewhere to somewhere, and he said, ‘Put on that fiddle record of yours.’ ” Shires had just made a demo to send to prospective employers, which included two of her own songs that she had sung on, to show bandleaders she could do that too. When the CD was over, Shaver told her she should be a songwriter. At first she thought it was his polite way of firing her, until she realized he was sincere. “It was really nice of him,” Shires says, “because I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about what he tells other people.”
It took a while for Shires to have as much confidence in herself as Shaver did. But her bandmates in the Lubbock alt-country group the Thrift Store Cowboys encouraged her to write more, and she realized she had found something that called to her as powerfully as the fiddle. “I wanted to write songs, like Billy Joe Shaver said,” she says. “One day I’ll write one as good as his.”
In 2008 Shires decided she’d had enough of playing other people’s music and moved to Nashville to establish herself as a singer and songwriter. The first album she recorded there, 2009’s West Cross Timbers, was still in a squarely rootsy vein, but Sew Your Heart With Wires, a collaboration that same year with the songwriter Rod Picott, slightly moved the needle.
The real change came with 2011’s Carrying Lightning, which, like her previous albums, was self-released—and unlike them drew the sort of attention that doesn’t usually accrue to artists who put out their own music, including raves from NPR, Garden & Gun magazine, and Texas Music magazine, which named her its Artist of the Year. The higher profile made sense: Carrying Lightning is a songwriter’s record that found Shires edging away from her roots and entering the territory occupied by Americana artists like Lucinda Williams and Josh Ritter. Her violin is present, but its mournful sound is a far cry from the spryness of western swing fiddling.
Down Fell the Doves, her first release on a real label, is an even more radical break. From the first track, “Look Like a Bird,” which is made up almost entirely of a one-note drone, a sampled drumbeat, ghostly guitar notes, and Shires’s fiddle and multitracked voice, it’s clear that she has burned off the last vestiges of her western swing heritage, which makes sense to the eight thousand or so people who follow her on Twitter, where she’ll often give a shoutout to Radiohead or 2Pac or the National. “When you’re making your own music rather than working for somebody else, you have more freedom to make noise,” she says. “You don’t get fired for it.” Logan Rogers thinks that Shires is now part of a sorority of artists, such as Neko Case and Cat Power, who transcend categories like country and Americana. You don’t need the full use of your left hand’s ring finger to make a record like this.
Though you do need to have lived a bit. After Carrying Lightning came out, Shires experienced a classic annus horribilis: in addition to breaking her finger, she broke up with her longtime boyfriend and saw the violin she had played for fifteen years fall and break into shards onstage. Down Fell the Doves is appropriately dark, though Shires resists the notion that the record is a downer. She even insists that the suicide song “Box Cutters” (“Fall from a tractor / into the blades / The sun comes up / Just your bones remain”) is funny. “I think sometimes admitting things just makes them lighter,” she says. “I’m a fan of the dark, but I’m not really a dark person at all. When a bad thing happens, there’s only one way to get rid of it—in a song.”
In the midst of her broken year, Shires got involved with the alt-country artist Jason Isbell, a former member of the popular Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers. Isbell and Shires seem to bring out the best in each other artistically—they tour together and play on each other’s albums and record for the same label. But Isbell had been a bad drunk for a long time; that’s one reason he’s a former Drive-By Trucker. “Eighty percent of the day he was a person I didn’t know,” Shires says. “But I loved and adored the other twenty percent.” It was Shires who finally helped get Isbell into rehab—a harrowing story in her telling—and she’s proud that he’s been sober for more than eighteen months. “Now I get the person that I was in love with eighty percent of the time,” she says. “The other twenty percent he needs coffee or food.” They married in February.
Signs of the couple’s conflicted relationship—or perhaps of one of Shires’s previous relationships, or maybe just some other couple’s; she’s not telling—are all over Down Fell the Doves, in lyrics like this passage near the end of the album that you could imagine one of her poetry professors appreciating:
He overturned the silver fountain
Now its water’s running mud
And ruined all reflections
And ruined my love.
“Words are my deal right now, even over music,” says the part-time literature student, clasping a marked-up copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and her scrawled-over sketchbook. “I love ’em. I love the way they sound. I love what they mean.” And there’s music in them too. “I love what they sound like without knowing what they mean.”