Amanda Shires wasn’t attempting to name-drop, honest. It’s just that she’s been working alongside country music legends since she was 15, so a lot of the characters who populate her anecdotes occur to wish no introduction.
My onyx ring reminded her of 1 John Prine once gave her — which she promptly dropped down a sewer grate. A couple of years back, when Shires got a long-tipped manicure shortly before she needed to play fiddle at a show, Dolly Parton gave her sage advice she’s never forgotten: “You possibly can’t just show up, you’ve got to practice with the nails.” The primary person to consider in her as a songwriter, when she was still just an adolescent, was the outlaw country icon Billy Joe Shaver, with whom she played within the long-running Western Swing group the Texas Playboys. Shires met Maren Morris, her friend and bandmate within the supergroup the Highwomen, when Morris was a precocious kid of just “10 or 12” singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” around a campfire when the 2 of them happened to be playing the identical local festival.
Shires added, in her characteristic bone-dry deadpan, “She hasn’t gotten any taller.”
On a damp Friday earlier this month, the singer-songwriter nursed a Food plan Coke in a comfortable corner of the Bowery Hotel lobby in Manhattan. Shires, who’s 40 and has been married to the musician Jason Isbell for nine years, wore a white tank that showed off her many tattoos (including a red “Mercy” on her biceps, the name of the couple’s 6-year-old daughter), black jean shorts, and — despite her dark-auburn hair still being a bit of wet from the shower — a full smoky eye. She was discussing her electrifying recent album “Take It Like a Man,” which, if there’s any justice on the earth or possibly just in Nashville, should make this wildly underrated country-music Zelig right into a household name.
A violinist since childhood, Shires began her profession as a sidewoman. But after taking Shaver’s advice and moving from Texas to Nashville in 2004, she found her footing as a solo artist, releasing six increasingly sophisticated solo albums and one with the Highwomen, which features Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby. (She can be a member of Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit.)
Shires hasn’t all the time felt like herself within the recording studio, though. After they first met, Isbell said in a phone interview, “She was an excellent songwriter and singer, but she was terrified” after some bad experiences. “Not everybody treated her with respect,” he added, “and quite a lot of people made her feel small.”
Even after the discharge of her excellent 2018 record “To the Sunset,” the considered recording one other solo album triggered such anxiety that Shires was sure she’d never make one again. She’d come to experience the studio as like being “under 2,000 magnifying glasses where you’re hearing the whole lot you’ve ever done flawed really loud.”
Rekindling her faith in recording required constructing trust and dealing with the proper people. She found considered one of them in an unlikely collaborator, the gender-fluid, Los Angeles-based musician Lawrence Rothman, known 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 recent song and was shocked when Shires said yes.
“I cold reached out, not expecting it to go down,” Rothman said in a phone interview. “Then we got on the phone and had such an excellent conversation, almost like we were long-lost relatives.” That chemistry carried over into the recording process, and eventually Shires decided she could make one other record, so long as Rothman was producing.
“There’s quite a lot of dancing now within the studio,” Shires said. “Loads of joy, occasional tears. It’s develop into a ravishing thing again.”
Isbell said the difference is palpable: “You’re really hearing her true self on this record.”
Rothman recalled the incredible scene that unfolded when Shires wrote the brand new album’s title track in a type of creative trance in early January 2021. A friend had come over to the Nashville barn that Shires and Isbell converted into an all-purpose studio — strewn with instruments and the abstract canvases Shires had began painting in acrylics through the lockdown — to offer Shires her first haircut in 10 months.
“I used to be just messing around on the piano,” Rothman said, “and she or he’s like, ‘Wait, what’s that?’” Shires leaped out of her chair — one side of her hair chopped shorter than the opposite — and told Rothman, “Don’t stop playing!” For the following hour, she sat on the ground in deep concentration, scribbling lines and flipping through notebooks and the index cards onto which she transcribes her best ideas. Suddenly she popped up and told Rothman to begin recording a voice memo, sang the whole thing of what would develop into “Take It Like a Man,” and sat back all the way down to finish getting her hair cut.
“After which she’s like, ‘All right, what do you think that?’” Rothman recalled with an awed chuckle. “And I’m like, ‘Uh, I’ve got to digest. That is like the most effective songs I’ve ever heard.”
“Take It Like a Man” is a haunting torch song that showcases each Shires’s voice — a bit of bit Parton, a bit of bit punk — and considered one of her strengths as a author, the best way her lines might be abstract and concrete directly. “The poetic and literal, attempting to marry the 2 together — I believe that’s what makes an excellent songwriter,” Rothman said. “And he or she’s doing that.”
In Nashville, Shires is an agitator and an issue solver. “If something is flawed, it is just not allowed to remain flawed,” Isbell said of his wife’s outlook. “She refuses to disregard things that she thinks are flawed, and that may be a hard solution to go about your day.”
Shires’s idea to form the Highwomen was a direct results of realizing, while listening to countless hours of country radio on tour, how few female artists got airplay. (There’s a beautiful video online of her calling a station manager to ask why he’s not playing more women.)
When Rothman, who uses they/them pronouns, got here to Nashville to provide the record, they observed Shires switch into an analogous mode, correcting individuals who misgendered them and drawing attention to gender-segregated facilities. “Over two or three months, rapidly the bathrooms in restaurants and the recording studios were changing to gender-neutral,” Rothman said. “She really went around town and schooled everybody, which was kind of fantastic. She really made it feel welcoming and like not a giant deal.”
AS A SONGWRITER Shires’s musical influences are remarkably varied. On Twitter she identifies as a “Disciple of Leonard Cohen” (she also does a hell of an “I’m Your Man” cover) and posts about her admiration of Kendrick Lamar. Mixed metaphors make her skin crawl; mainly anyone who appreciates the infinite power of a well-chosen word, she said, is all right 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 within the toolbox,” Shires said. But she believes that the degree, which she finished in 2017 after taking some break day to have Mercy, helped her develop into a more precise author, higher capable of capture what’s “vague about emotions and the human experience with as much accuracy as possible,” as she put it.
That actually includes the tough stuff. While there are a couple of upbeat numbers on “Take It Like a Man,” which is out July 29, a misty melancholy hangs over nearly all of the record.
“Empty Cups,” which features tight harmonies from Morris, is an aching chronicle of a longtime couple drifting apart. “Can you only stop with these little wars?/Can you only hold on and hope a bit of longer?,” Shires asks on the gorgeous, soulful ballad “Lonely at Night,” written along with her friend Peter Levin. Perhaps essentially the most devastating song, though, is “Fault Lines,” considered one of the primary she wrote for the album, during a period when she and Isbell were navigating what she called “a disconnect.”
When Isbell heard a demo of “Fault Lines,” he said, “the very first thing I noticed was that it’s a excellent song. Rule No. 1 with us is, if the song’s good, it goes on the record. Every little thing else, we’ll work out.” (He told his version of this difficult period of their marriage on his own 2020 album, “Reunions.”)
Being a part of a Nashville power couple didn’t make Shires need to paint an excessively rosy portrait of her relationship — just the alternative, actually. “Because we’re a married couple in love, I didn’t want folks to think that in the event that they’re in a wedding and it doesn’t appear like that, that something’s flawed with theirs,” she said. “Not like I’m trying to show my very own marriage or anything. All I’m attempting to do is tell the reality that it’s hard, and that folks undergo disconnects and that sometimes the thought of finding your way back looks as if, Why? However it’s possible.”
Isbell plays guitar on nearly every song on the album (which was recorded live to tape in Nashville’s storied RCA Studio B) — essentially the most brutal ones about marital difficulties, and the heartfelt “Silly Love,” which begins with considered one of Shires’s sweetest lyrics: “You were smiling a lot you kissed me together with your teeth.”
In September 2020, Shires and Isbell released a duet called “The Problem,” a stirring story song a few young couple considering an abortion; all proceeds from the song went to Alabama’s Yellowhammer Fund.
Last August, while on tour in Texas with the 400 Unit, Shires began experiencing abdominal pain that she at first selected to disregard, since the pandemic had derailed live music for therefore long, “I used to be like, ‘I’m going to play music now! I don’t feel anything! I feel great!’” she recalled with a weary laugh.
Then one morning she fell to the bottom in pain and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors told her she had suffered an ectopic pregnancy that progressed far enough that considered one of her fallopian tubes had burst. (“I even have a high pain tolerance,” she said, once more in deadpan.) The experience prompted her to write down a piece for Rolling Stone decrying the Texas abortion ban that might have affected her treatment had it been passed just a couple of weeks earlier.
She urged — by name — more country artists to take a stand in regards to the then imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade. “Where are our Nashville folks?” Shires wrote. “Are they only going to take a seat around and drink beer? I need Garth Brooks on the market telling folks that women’s health is a priority. That’s what I need. Why not? What does he must lose?”
In 2022, when success in country music continues to be tied to institutions like radio that don’t reward rocking the boat, being as outspoken as Shires is a giant risk. But she wouldn’t have it another way. “She’s a searcher, and that’s probably the thing that she values most in herself and other people,” Isbell said.
That individualistic streak makes Shires seem to be a modern-day country outlaw, applying the rugged and righteously combative spirit of elders like Shaver and Prine to the version of Nashville she finds herself inhabiting — and difficult to alter. That’s the animating spirit, too, she said, behind the provocative album title “Take It Like a Man.”
“To achieve success as a girl working in an industry, we’re taught you’re not presupposed to get emotional,” Shires said. “Don’t cry, don’t have your feelings. Be strong, show your strength, be stoic.” The song had sprung from her realization that true strength actually comes from “being vulnerable, saying your feelings, and in addition having the courage to only be” — which Shires actually has in spades.
“So,” she added with a fiery laugh, pointing a finger at an imaginary enemy, “how ’bout you are taking that like a person?”