photo courtesy Joshua Black Wilkins
Amanda Shires Interview
Back in 2011 an album arrived showing a sassy looking young woman on the cover with the adage ‘Carrying Lightning’ written along her forearms; and I was instantly intrigued; hoping that the music lived up to the artwork. It most certainly did; and ‘Carrying Lightning’ went on to be one of my Top 10 albums of the year and in the middle of 2013 the follow up ‘Down Fell Doves’ arrived, and it too appeared in my Top 10 albums of that year too.
I began our interview by asking how the tour was going.
“Wonderful, thanks. The set up here (The Maze, Nottingham) is great and I’ve discovered another two amazing venues – The Forge in Basingstoke and; you’ve got to tell everybody about the Henry Tudor House in Shrewsbury. You really must! It’s a real historic building but with a great sound system and air conditioning.
The venues have been pretty full every night and the audiences all seem to like the new songs; so I’m loving my time in the UK.”
As I only have a scant knowledge of her background I asked Amanda about her childhood and the music she’d listened to growing up.
“My parents divorced when I was quite young so I spent a lot of time travelling between Lubbock, Texas where my Mother lived and Mineral Wells to stay with my Dad. There wasn’t any music scene, to speak of in Mineral Wells, just the radio that my Grandpa or Dad carried on their tractors, but in Lubbock my Grandpa would take me to the Country Fayre’s in the Summer where I’d see bands and Country Stars like Tanya Tucker.
Then one day when I was 9 or 10 Dad was shopping for some hunting gear, or something and we stopped by a pawn shop. I don’t know why; but my eyes set on a violin and I just had to have it. You have to remember that money was hard to come by for my family, so buying something like that was a really big deal; but my Dad promised to buy it for me, but on the proviso that I was really going to play it. I crossed my heart and he bought it for me.
When I took it home to Lubbock, the strings were bust and, obviously I couldn’t get anything near a tune out of it but my Mom paid for some lessons, and by working very hard on my part of the deal, I eventually learned to play it quite well.
My violin teacher was actually in the Texas Playboys and while my heart was drawn to Country music; he taught me to play various styles and by the time I was 15 I was playing in bars around town with a variety of bands, but gradually became a member of the Texas Playboys. I was just thrilled to be part of that band, even if it meant playing ‘third fiddle’ and ‘take direction,’ I was more than happy just to be part of the band. When I was with my school friends I’d listen to R&B or Rap; but when I came home I’d devour stuff by Bob Wills! (Chuckle)
I was never what you’d call a prodigy but I was very competent in most styles of playing the violin, I got to love some Classical and Jazz pieces, so my solos with the Playboys gradually became more adventurous, with lots of layers to them. When we toured it was expected that the fiddle players would have their own stuff to sell; which is why I recorded BEING BRAVE, which isn’t really a ‘debut’ album, but more of a showcase for my playing and occasional singing.
Eventually Billy Joe Shaver got to hear it and got in touch; saying he’d like to work with me and maybe record some songs together; which led to me meeting a bunch of other East Nashville songwriters; like Todd Snider, Slaid Cleaves and Rod Picott who I became …..involved with, touring and recording together; and even though we split up 5 years ago we are still friends and write together.
When I toured with those guys it really opened my eyes to a whole new world! One night in Ireland someone introduced me to potcheen….well….I only had a tiny drink but it made me so drunk I fell asleep in a bathroom; and don’t ever talk to me about black pudding!
Being around those guys really helped my fiddle playing and also my songwriting; which I’d not really taken seriously before; and it made me appreciate how lucky I am to earn a living doing what I do. It’s a genuine privilege to meet people who come to my concerts or buy my albums; it’s not something I’d ever take for granted because I’ve got nothing to fall back on; I make a really shitty waitress!”
After a couple of minutes chat about jobs we’d both done, I asked about her songwriting, describing it as Romantic, dark and poetic.
“I agree; I try hard to avoid using clichés in my lyrics and because I’ve never written a straight-up ‘happy song’ I use light and shade to describe my feelings in the story; because that’s how people’s lives are – light and shade. I also love the structure of the Southern Murder Ballads and because of my early days in Western Swing bands I was hugely influenced by Roy Acuff; and that stuff just seeps out of everything I do.
When I get back home I have to finish my thesis as I’m in the last year of my Masters in Poetry at Sewanee (University of the South) so yes; all of those things are true. I’ve always loved words and poetry from Elizabeth Bishop to Emanuel Xavier and will read anything anyone puts in front of me. The way poets construct their work has been as big an influence on my writing as any of the songwriters that I hang out with; and I’m so pleased that you noticed.
I really need a deadline to focus my mind; and it was the same when it came to writing the songs for Down Fell Doves. What with organizing my wedding; (Amanda married Jason Isbell last year (family friend Todd Snider officiated after getting a certificate online!) writing songs was the last thing on my mind; and for the next couple of months we did all the cool newly wed stuff; but we both knew that we had records to make.
So every day we would make a conscious effort to go into separate rooms and not come out until we’d written a song. Because we trust each other to be honest, we are each other’s ‘first listener.’ We know our strengths and weaknesses and can offer criticism without offending the other person; and that’s how Down Fell Doves and Southeastern came about.
So, that’s what I do; I write songs and sing them for people and love it; it’s never been about making my fortune, if it was I’d have to be a lot more mainstream; but at the moment I get to make a living and meet a lot of lovely people.”