Amanda Shires has a lot going on right now. When we reach the fiddler-singer-songwriter, she’s juggling a 30-page paper for her literature masters program with promoting a new album, Down Fell the Doves, on the road with her new singer-songwriter spouse, Jason Isbell. Oh, and she appears on his new album, too.
The degree of nuance on Shires’ latest is grad-school appropriate. The songs’ knotty, sensual imagery traces the outlines of a complex, sometimes conflicted, inner life. And by the fourth track, her fiddle playing has already ranged from old-timey soloing, to electric guitar-style licks, stately string arrangements and dew-drop plucking.
Like some of the novelists and poets she’s studying, Shires likes to leave her work open to listener interpretation. But asking her about where she came from is a great way to gain insight into her artistry.
CMT Edge: There was nothing especially traditional about the way you got your first fiddle — on a whim at a pawnshop with your dad — but you soon got immersed in Western swing fiddle traditions. How’d you relate to that music as a kid?
Shires: I had a private teacher who was a classical violinist and violist. … He asked me what bored me [about certain passages of music]. And it turned out to be a little bit about rhythm. … We got to the end of the lesson, and he pulled out this song. He’d been transcribing some stuff from Frankie McWhorter, this old Texas fiddle player. … It was “Spanish Two Step,” a Bob Wills song. And I was like, “Man, I love that. That’s what I want to do.”
From him, I met Frankie McWhorter and started going to his porch and studying the music. He started telling me I should get this CD and that CD. … But at the same time, I was also watching MTV Jams and stuff because I really liked that music, and that’s what kids were listening to when I was growing up. I didn’t want to completely just put myself all alone in the [school] cafeteria.
Then I met the rest of the Texas Playboys, and [fiddler] Tommy Allsup was living in Texas. He was the bandleader for that band. I think because I lived so close to him, and a lot of the other Playboys lived far away, I got called for more work than I probably would have. And also, I’m good at following directions. He said, “Show up here, and play this third part.” I was happy to play that third part. “I get to travel around with these old dudes and learn some more fiddle.”
You credit joining the alt-country band Thrift Store Cowboys with modernizing your musical sensibilities. How’d you experience that shift?
The songs we did were kind of desert music. Their deal was, “You just do whatever you want, whatever you think it needs.” For a while, I was just trying to figure out how to make more of a sonic landscape rather than just play notes. I turned my fiddle up. I’d try it with more distortion and less clean.
I think if I hadn’t of been in that band, I wouldn’t have learned that there is such a thing as rock ‘n’ roll fiddle or that you can play in a band with two electric guitars and a bass and still cut through and be part of the ensemble.
Was it really a conversation you had in the car with Billy Joe Shaver that inspired you to get serious about songwriting?
I was riding with Billy Joe once to a show. It was a long drive, and he’d exhausted everything he was listening to. He said, “Let’s listen to that fiddle record [of yours].” … Then one of my singin’ songs came on, and he was like, “You know, you could be a songwriter. You could really do that.” … And I was like, “Oh, great. I’m getting fired. That’s what this is.” But that wasn’t it at all.
You moved to Nashville to reinvent yourself as a singer-songwriter, as opposed to strictly a sidewoman, and wound up doing some of both. Have you found a balance that feels right?
The difference is, now I don’t feel like I have to take every job that comes along. It’s not my main thing, so it’s fine if I turn work down because it’s something I don’t like. … It’s a choice that I get to make — where before, I didn’t really get to make the choice. We all have our idea of what’s great art. The people I work with, to me, they make great art.
You also added grad school at Sewanee [University of the South] to the mix. Even if you’re only taking classes during the summer, that’s quite a commitment.
It is. A big chunk of it is during music festival season. I’ve already completed three years, so I kind of have to finish it now. Not that I went into it thinking it was a joke or anything. … I had this idea in my mind that it was gonna be more like a writing retreat.
Did your studies shape the writing process for Down Fell the Doves?
Before I went into Sewanee, I didn’t have any formal training in writing any kind of fiction, except for songwriting. So I was just kinda operating on instinct, and that made it a longer process. Now when I’ve been sitting down with a song, if I have two directions I want to go, I can [reason through] why one image would fit better over another. It makes the editing process a lot easier.
How much freedom do you have with your three modes of expression — singing, songwriting and fiddling?
I don’t think it’s bad when people become experts in one field, and that’s all they do. That’s not the thing I wanna be. I wanna be able to, when I hear something in my head, just recreate it. I think sometimes that takes a lot of listening and paying attention and asking questions.