Amanda Shires wasn’t making an attempt to name-drop, trustworthy. It’s simply that she’s been working alongside nation music legends since she was 15, so most of the characters who populate her anecdotes occur to wish no introduction.
My onyx ring reminded her of 1 John Prine as soon as gave her — which she promptly dropped down a sewer grate. A couple of years again, when Shires obtained a long-tipped manicure shortly earlier than she needed to play fiddle at a present, Dolly Parton gave her sage recommendation she’s by no means forgotten: “You can’t just show up, you’ve got to practice with the nails.” The first particular person to imagine in her as a songwriter, when she was nonetheless simply an adolescent, was the outlaw nation icon Billy Joe Shaver, who she backed up round the identical time she was gigging with the long-running Western Swing group the Texas Playboys. Shires met Maren Morris, her buddy and bandmate in the supergroup the Highwomen, when Morris was a precocious child of simply “10 or 12” singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” round a campfire when the two of them occurred to be taking part in the identical native competition.
Shires added, in her attribute bone-dry deadpan, “She hasn’t gotten any taller.”
On a moist Friday earlier this month, the singer-songwriter nursed a Diet Coke in a comfortable nook of the Bowery Hotel foyer in Manhattan. Shires, who’s 40 and has been married to the musician Jason Isbell for 9 years, wore a white tank that confirmed off her many tattoos (together with a crimson “Mercy” on her biceps, the title of the couple’s 6-year-old daughter), black jean shorts, and — regardless of her dark-auburn hair nonetheless being a little bit moist from the bathe — a full smoky eye. She was discussing her electrifying new album “Take It Like a Man,” which, if there’s any justice in the world or perhaps simply in Nashville, must make this wildly underrated country-music Zelig right into a family title.
A violinist since childhood, Shires started her profession as a sidewoman. But after taking Shaver’s recommendation and transferring from Texas to Nashville in 2004, she discovered her footing as a solo artist, releasing six more and more refined solo albums and one with the Highwomen, which options Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby. (She can also be a member of Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit.)
Shires hasn’t all the time felt like herself in the recording studio, although. When they first met, Isbell mentioned in a cellphone interview, “She was a great songwriter and singer, but she was terrified” after some dangerous experiences. “Not everybody treated her with respect,” he added, “and a lot of people made her feel small.”
Even after the launch of her wonderful 2018 document “To the Sunset,” the considered recording one other solo album triggered such nervousness that Shires was certain she’d by no means make one once more. She’d come to expertise the studio as like being “under 2,000 magnifying glasses where you’re hearing everything you’ve ever done wrong really loud.”
Rekindling her religion in recording required constructing belief and dealing with the proper folks. She discovered one among them in an unlikely collaborator, the gender-fluid, Los Angeles-based musician Lawrence Rothman, recognized for making daring, haunted indie-folk. Rothman, an enormous fan of the Highwomen’s album, had contacted Shires out of the blue, asking her to sing backup on a brand new music and was shocked when Shires mentioned sure.
“I cold reached out, not expecting it to go down,” Rothman mentioned in a cellphone interview. “Then we got on the phone and had such a great conversation, almost like we were long-lost relatives.” That chemistry carried over into the recording course of, and finally Shires determined she might make one other document, so long as Rothman was producing.
“There’s a lot of dancing now in the studio,” Shires mentioned. “A lot of joy, occasional tears. It’s become a beautiful thing again.”
Isbell mentioned the distinction is palpable: “You’re really hearing her true self on this record.”
Rothman recalled the unimaginable scene that unfolded when Shires wrote the new album’s title observe in a type of artistic trance in early January 2021. A buddy had come over to the Nashville barn that Shires and Isbell transformed into an all-purpose studio — strewn with devices and the summary canvases Shires had began portray in acrylics throughout the lockdown — to present Shires her first haircut in 10 months.
“I was just messing around on the piano,” Rothman mentioned, “and she’s like, ‘Wait, what is that?’” Shires leaped out of her chair — one aspect of her hair chopped shorter than the different — and informed Rothman, “Don’t stop playing!” For the subsequent hour, she sat on the flooring in deep focus, scribbling traces and flipping by notebooks and the index playing cards onto which she transcribes her finest concepts. Suddenly she popped up and informed Rothman to start out recording a voice memo, sang the entirety of what would turn into “Take It Like a Man,” and sat again down to complete getting her hair reduce.
“And then she’s like, ‘All right, what do you think?’” Rothman recalled with an awed chuckle. “And I’m like, ‘Uh, I’ve got to digest. This is like one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.”
“Take It Like a Man” is a haunting torch music that showcases each Shires’s voice — a little bit bit Parton, a little bit bit punk — and one among her strengths as a author, the method her traces might be summary and concrete directly. “The poetic and literal, trying to marry the two together — I think that’s what makes a great songwriter,” Rothman mentioned. “And she’s doing that.”
In Nashville, Shires is an agitator and an issue solver. “If something is wrong, it is not allowed to stay wrong,” Isbell mentioned of his spouse’s outlook. “She refuses to ignore things that she thinks are wrong, and that is a hard way to go about your day.”
Shires’s concept to kind the Highwomen was a direct results of realizing, whereas listening to numerous hours of nation radio on tour, how few feminine artists obtained airplay. (There’s an exquisite video on-line of her calling a station supervisor to ask why he’s not taking part in extra ladies.)
When Rothman, who makes use of they/them pronouns, got here to Nashville to supply the document, they noticed Shires change into the same mode, correcting individuals who misgendered them and drawing consideration to gender-segregated services. “Over two or three months, all of a sudden the bathrooms in restaurants and the recording studios were changing to gender-neutral,” Rothman mentioned. “She really went around town and schooled everybody, which was kind of amazing. She really made it feel welcoming and like not a big deal.”
AS A SONGWRITER Shires’s musical influences are remarkably diversified. On Twitter she identifies as a “Disciple of Leonard Cohen” (she additionally does a hell of an “I’m Your Man” cover) and posts about her admiration of Kendrick Lamar. Mixed metaphors make her pores and skin crawl; principally anybody who appreciates the infinite energy of a well-chosen phrase, she mentioned, is all proper by her.
In 2011, she enrolled in a graduate program at Sewanee: The University of the South to get an M.F.A. in poetry. “I just needed more tools in the toolbox,” Shires mentioned. But she believes that the diploma, which she completed in 2017 after taking a while off to have Mercy, helped her turn into a extra exact author, higher capable of seize what’s “vague about emotions and the human experience with as much accuracy as possible,” as she put it.
That actually contains the robust stuff. While there are just a few upbeat numbers on “Take It Like a Man,” which is out July 29, a misty melancholy hangs over the majority of the document.
“Empty Cups,” which options tight harmonies from Morris, is an aching chronicle of a longtime couple drifting aside. “Can you just stop with these little wars?/Can you just hold on and hope a little longer?,” Shires asks on the attractive, soulful ballad “Lonely at Night,” written together with her buddy Peter Levin. Perhaps the most devastating music, although, is “Fault Lines,” one among the first she wrote for the album, throughout a interval when she and Isbell had been navigating what she known as “a disconnect.”
When Isbell heard a demo of “Fault Lines,” he mentioned, “the first thing I noticed was that it’s a very good song. Rule No. 1 with us is, if the song’s good, it goes on the record. Everything else, we’ll figure out.” (He informed his model of this difficult interval of their marriage on his personal 2020 album, “Reunions.”)
Being a part of a Nashville energy couple didn’t make Shires wish to paint a very rosy portrait of her relationship — simply the reverse, truly. “Because we’re a married couple in love, I didn’t want folks to think that if they’re in a marriage and it doesn’t look like that, that something’s wrong with theirs,” she mentioned. “Not like I’m trying to expose my own marriage or anything. All I’m trying to do is tell the truth that it’s hard, and that people go through disconnects and that sometimes the idea of finding your way back seems like, Why? But it’s possible.”
Isbell performs guitar on almost each music on the album (which was recorded dwell to tape in Nashville’s storied RCA Studio B) — the most brutal ones about marital difficulties, and the heartfelt “Stupid Love,” which begins with one among Shires’s sweetest lyrics: “You were smiling so much you kissed me with your teeth.”
In September 2020, Shires and Isbell launched a duet known as “The Problem,” a stirring story music a couple of younger couple contemplating an abortion; all proceeds from the music went to Alabama’s Yellowhammer Fund.
Last August, whereas on tour in Texas with the 400 Unit, Shires started experiencing belly ache that she at first selected to disregard, as a result of the pandemic had derailed dwell music for therefore lengthy, “I was like, ‘I’m going to play music now! I don’t feel anything! I feel great!’” she recalled with a weary chuckle.
Then one morning she fell to the floor in ache and was rushed to the hospital, the place docs informed her she had suffered an ectopic being pregnant that progressed far sufficient that one among her fallopian tubes had burst. (“I have a high pain tolerance,” she mentioned, as soon as once more in deadpan.) The expertise prompted her to jot down a piece for Rolling Stone decrying the Texas abortion ban that would have affected her remedy had it been handed just some weeks earlier.
She urged — by title — extra nation artists to take a stand about the then imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade. “Where are our Nashville folks?” Shires wrote. “Are they just going to sit around and drink beer? I want Garth Brooks out there telling people that women’s health is a priority. That’s what I want. Why not? What does he have to lose?”
In 2022, when success in nation music remains to be tied to establishments like radio that don’t reward rocking the boat, being as outspoken as Shires is an enormous threat. But she wouldn’t have it every other method. “She’s a searcher, and that’s probably the thing that she values most in herself and other people,” Isbell mentioned.
That individualistic streak makes Shires appear to be a modern-day nation outlaw, making use of the rugged and righteously combative spirit of elders like Shaver and Prine to the model of Nashville she finds herself inhabiting — and difficult to alter. That’s the animating spirit, too, she mentioned, behind the provocative album title “Take It Like a Man.”
“To be successful as a woman working in an industry, we’re taught you’re not supposed to get emotional,” Shires mentioned. “Don’t cry, don’t have your feelings. Be strong, show your strength, be stoic.” The music had sprung from her realization that true power truly comes from “being vulnerable, saying your feelings, and also having the courage to just be” — which Shires actually has in spades.
“So,” she added with a fiery chuckle, pointing a finger at an imaginary enemy, “how ’bout you take that like a man?”