All eyes are on Amanda Shires. Even more so since the Nashville-via-Texas singer/songwriter/fiddler sharpened a collection of pens to deliver her most alluring work yet, an album rife with reflections of her past, but also chock-full of new horizons. This year’s widely-acclaimed To The Sunset is a graceful, fearless next step in the songwriter’s continually evolving career, one begat over 20 years ago with the legendary Western Swing group Texas Playboys when the young prodigy was just 15.
Shires has been especially busy of late. In just the two years following her fourth solo album, 2016’s My Piece of Land, the 36-year-old has been presented with the Americana Association’s Emerging Artist award and earned an MFA in poetry. She also welcomed motherhood with the birth of daughter Mercy, a collaboration with husband Jason Isbell, himself an accomplished singer/songwriter.
That’s a whole lot of life experience and perspective to pack into just 10 songs, but Shires does so comfortably. Her storyteller’s dialogue seems effortless and welcoming, whether determining to celebrate life’s unexpectedly sour moments in “Break Out The Champagne,” confidently turning a “Parking Lot Pirouette” for just a few moments more or recounting the grisly tale of a tormented soul unable to find relief of their demons in “Wasn’t I Paying Attention.”
Songwriting is “cheaper than a therapist,” Shires has said.
Vocally, Shires is deliberate and soulful, at times conjuring both Neko Case’s smoky aura and Dolly Parton’s bold direction. Sonically, To The Sunset is filled with colorful accents, stretching and bursting beyond the boundaries and expectations of traditional Americana and Roots music. Her buoyant narratives and tragic tales are complemented by masterful playing and a production style that enables surprises, like sparse electronic percussion and the oversaturated, raw-nerve immediacy of some of the guitar work. Tone-twisting effects pedals were utilized on her primary instrument, the same fiddle she played way-back-when with the Texas Playboys.
Shires’ backup band while tracking To The Sunset at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A consisted of Isbell, drummer Jerry Pentecost and keyboardist Peter Levin. Working with Grammy Award-winning producer Dave Cobb, she knew what she wanted Sunset to sound like… at least in spirit. As she explains in the press materials for the new album, she had an abstract concept of the sonic approach going into the project that made it seem more like an artistic mission.
“I explained (to Cobb) that I wanted the songs to have atmosphere, that the album was going to be sort of poppy and that I was doing that to bring some sunshine into the world, ’cause it’s pretty dark right now,” she says.
Looking back on the creative process behind To The Sunset, in a recent phone interview Shires notes some of the other factors behind the album’s shape and sound. For example, she wrote much of it hiding away in a closet as Isbell watched the couple’s daughter in an adjacent room.
“There (was) nowhere to hide,” she says. “I just started writing and tearing apart my journals and taping the parts I liked to the wall, and shredding the rest. Being in that small of a confined place, I could hear everything (in my head) as I was making it up.”
She also says her Texas roots likely influenced the album’s aura.
“Some of it, like the atmospheric things, are a result of where I’m from,” she says, “like the way the sky looks or the wind sounds. I did have an idea of what I wanted to do sonically.”
Lyrically, of course, Shires says her MFA studies at the Sewanee college in Tennessee were crucial to the new album’s impact. Mostly, it made her a more focused and efficient writer.
“I think it’s really made a difference,” she says. “I’d only been writing for about two years (when I moved to Nashville), and felt like I was operating solely on instinct… which is great, but also (makes it) hard to choose the direction for a song. I’d spend four hours fussing over a preposition. The degree has helped me a lot in editing, seeing clichés and being able to remove them, and to make the puzzle work for me. I feel like I can make choices and defend them.”
“I still use my instinct,” she clarifies, “but feel like I’m able to say what I want to a lot easier.”
Things like lyrics and poetry weren’t on 10-year-old Amanda Shires’ mind when she began playing violin after spotting the instrument hanging on the wall of a pawnshop and asking her dad to buy it for her. She was, to say the least, a quick study — just five years later, she was in the band that once backed Bob Wills, the iconic “King of Western Swing.”
“I fell in with the Playboys because I loved that type of music,” Shires says. “I knew I wanted to play music, (but) didn’t know I was going to be a songwriter. I didn’t ever think about writing songs.”
That step came along soon enough, though. In fact, it was none other than legendary Outlaw Country singer Billy Joe Shaver who encouraged Shires to go the singer/songwriter route. She had accompanied him on some shows and was initially taken aback by his encouragement.
“I thought he was firing me,” Shires says of the moment Shaver suggested a change in direction. “I was like, ‘No! I love playing the fiddle!’ ”
Shaver’s advice was based on a couple of songs he’d heard that Shires recorded as a kind of demo reel to get jobs — to show that singing was also in her toolkit.
“He said, ‘These are good songs. You should go be a songwriter in Nashville,’ ” she remembers. “About a year later, I realized he was right.”
And now, the rest of the world knows, too.
Bidding adieu by phone, Shires offers some sweet words of enticement for local fans planning (or thinking about coming) to see her in concert in Newport, Ky.
“My dance moves are best described as inhumane,” she warns, “but I’m gonna do them anyway. Y’all are welcome to join me!”
Amanda Shires plays Dec. 1 at Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.