For Mercy’s Sake
Amanda Shires on the birth of an album and becoming a matriarch.
The fiddle-playing, warble-voiced singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, wife of Americana music poster boy Jason Isbell, was “pregnant as hell” when she wrote her new album, My Piece of Land, out September 16. She had been trying to stay busy in anticipation of the arrival of their daughter, Mercy. When all of the domestic chores were done, she turned to writing songs like “Nursery Rhyme.” A playful ditty that begins with the refrain “If you aren’t tip-toeing, then you’re stomping across my mind. / And I know it’s time, I know it’s way past time,” the song talks about pulling weeds, washing the car, and staining the deck as ways to preoccupy herself.
“After doing everything I could possibly do, then I was left alone in the house to face myself and unpack what I was feeling,” Shires said. “I had to start thinking about the child I’m bringing into the world. And that’s why I started writing the record. And that’s how that song started.”
Shires finished recording My Piece of Land three days before she gave birth, on September 1, 2015 (happy first birthday, Mercy). On Thursday she will play her first Texas date in support of it, in Midland, with a hometown show in Lubbock the following evening. Like most first-timers dealing with impending motherhood, she wondered how it would all work out, or if it even could. “Did I have to give everything up?” Shires asked herself. “Selfishly, what am I trading to have this wonderful child?”
But it’s not just a mom album. Wed to Isbell in 2013, Shires was also processing marriage and trying to cope with her sense of home—to a small degree as a native Texan digging deeper roots in Nashville, and to a large degree as the matriarch of a new family. The album became a sort of wrestling match between Shires and her identity.
She wrote all the songs, save for one, during her pregnancy. “Mineral Wells,” recorded on her 2009 album West Cross Timbers, makes a reprise here. It’s a tender origin story for Shires, about a girl born to young parents who divorced when she was only five. Shires had two places to call home—Lubbock, where her mom lived, and Mineral Wells, where her dad lived—yet she dreamed of being in the Brazos River, among the pines and cypress. “That song, I play it all the time,” Shires said. “I still need it in the kind of way that it makes me feel good to play it. And I still feel those ways that I feel when I wrote it. And I didn’t want it to get lost.”
Shires wrote “Mineral Wells” when she left Texas for Nashville. The move was prompted in part by Billy Joe Shaver, the legendary Texas outlaw country singer-songwriter. He had encouraged her to branch out as a writer and front woman. Before then she’d been a backing musician for a number of bands, including the Texas Playboys, post-Bob Wills, with whom as a fifteen-year-old she learned how to play improvisational fiddle, and later with the Thrift Store Cowboys, where she learned how to play rock-and-roll fiddle.
Shires recalled a time she rode to a show with Shaver as her a-ha moment. She laughingly remembered the two fuzzbusters he had because he was driving like ninety miles an hour. “He was talking about songwriting and being very complimentary,” Shires said. “It was the inception of me becoming an artist.”
In Nashville, Shires met Isbell, who was on the sober path after being exiled from the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers for his drunken ways. Shires and Isbell’s music became increasingly intertwined. They perform together on each other’s albums and on tours. They also share the same producer, Dave Cobb, the Grammy winner who’s worked with Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Shires said she enlisted Cobb because he’s a good listener who operates on instinct and is open to ideas. Plus, he’s a good “snack buddy,” and always has Cheez-Its and doughnuts around.
“He’s studied so many country and R&B records,” Shires said. “It’s easy to talk to him when you’re trying to talk about sound, like I think a bass line from this Etta James song might be cool. He understands that because he’s studied the same music that we all have. So it’s easy to try and relate what you want to hear on yours to somebody else’s work. Sometimes that’s the only way you can talk about something so vague and abstract as music can be.”
For his part, Isbell, who will perform at the Midland show, co-wrote two songs on My Piece of Land and plays guitar and harmonizes with Shires elsewhere. The two tend to stay out of the way of each other’s creative process and help only when needed. That time came with “Harmless,” a tender love song.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to find a chord because I’m a fiddle player, and it’s a melodic instrument,” she said. “I do my best at the tenor guitar and the ukulele, but sometimes I’m like, this is the note that I hear and I can’t find the chord that fits this note. What is it? So he’ll sit around for fifteen minutes and try every chord he can think of until we get to the right one. In ‘Harmless,’ the chord going into the bridge—the B flat—he helped me find that chord.”
In the spring Shires hopes to graduate with an MFA in poetry from the University of the South, also known as Sewanee. She is currently working on her thesis, a book of poems. It’s bound to further her story as a mother and a wife. “I can’t help what’s influencing me at the time,” Shires said, “and what my hormones are driving me to do and say.”
Al G. Langford Chaparral Center and Cactus Theater, September 8 & 9, amandashiresmusic.com
Other Events Around Texas
Rock and Roll Rorschach
The Austin photographer Sarah Frankie Linder took pictures of bands including the Flaming Lips, Snoop Dogg, and Depeche Mode using an auto-focus effect that blurs images beyond recognition. The resulting exhibit, “On the Bright Side,” opening Friday with an artist reception, features live shots of these bands, reduced to random swatches of colors, as if perceived by a concertgoer on really good drugs. Modern Rocks Gallery, September 2, 7 p.m., modernrocksgallery.com
AUSTIN / DALLAS / EL PASO / HOUSTON / LAREDO / LUBBOCK / NEW BRAUNFELS / RICHARDSON / SAN ANTONIO
Master of Peculiarity
With films like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Mars Attacks!, a monthlong movie marathon of works by Tim Burton might be best suited for October. But in order to build buzz for his new movie, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, out September 30—and perhaps to inspire some choice Halloween costumes—Alamo Drafthouse is hosting “Septemburton,” with screenings of the aforementioned films in addition to a couple of others. Alamo Drafthouse, September 2–30, drafthouse.com/septemburton
On the Catwalk
Even with credentials, getting access to fashion week affairs in New York, Paris, or Milan, can be a bear. So the style-inclined folks of Texas took matters into their own hands and created Fashion X Dallas, now in its third year, with three days of runway shows attended by celebrities like LeeAnn Locken, from The Real Housewives of Dallas, and Linda Gray, who played Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas. Fashion Industry Gallery, September 8–10, fashionxdallas.com
Not Fade Away
Were it not for a freak plane crash, Buddy Holly might still be alive to sing “That’ll Be the Day” in celebration of his eightieth birthday. In his absence, it is our responsibility as Texans to party—and to claim our stake in the birth of rock and roll—at “Buddy’s 80th Birthday Bash,” featuring three days of live music, screenings of The Real Buddy Holly Story, and a workshop focused on the creation of poodle skirts and miniature hot rods. Buddy Holly Center, September 2, 7, & 10, mylubbock.us
There’s only so much barbecue and Tex-Mex a Texan can take, which is in part why the chef Jason Dady opened Tre Enoteca. Dady’s love for Italian fare will spill over Tuesday through Saturday as part of his Texas Chefs Week event, during which four other chefs from around the state, including James Beard winners from Austin and Dallas, will join him in preparing a meal every night dedicated to the Calabria, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont, Tuscany, and Umbria regions of Italy. Tre Enoteca, September 6–10, jasondady.com/email/txchefweek2016.gif