“I wanna look like a bird, like I was meant to sing,” Amanda Shires, Look Like a Bird
Even before I spoke to Amanda Shires, I knew I was going to like her when I received this text, “So sorry Sue. I’ll call back in a few minutes. In the middle of saving a bird.” I should have known a bird would be one of the few reasons she wouldn’t pick up the phone for our scheduled chat. Being a bird lover myself, I’d noticed the bird imagery in more than a few of her songs.
Amanda called back a few minutes later. She apologized, “A baby nuthatch was caught in a string hanging by its feet from a glass bird feeder. It was so cute and so sad, but it’s all fixed now.”
Then our interview officially began. I was surprised to learn Amanda didn’t come from a musical family. As a girl, she never remembers seeing a fiddle until she came across a group of them hanging on a pawn shop wall. She’s not sure what pulled her to them but she knew she had to have one. She picked out a fiddle and talked her dad into buying it. Her mom paid for lessons. Amanda stuck with her training and learned to use her fiddle to express herself. “When my parents divorced, I dealt with it by spending time with my instrument. Playing it gave me joy, and I felt like I was communicating somehow. Since I didn’t have much of a vocabulary, my music spoke for me. It was the one constant in my life.”
By the time she was fifteen, Amanda was a member of the western swing band, the Texas Playboys. In her early she twenties, she had graduated to side-player for Billy Joe Shaver. To supplement her income, she made a fiddle record that included two songs she wrote and sang. One day Billy Joe told her he’d heard she was a songwriter and asked to hear something of hers. Reluctantly, Amanda complied and was stunned when he told her that she was a great songwriter and should keep writing. “After I let the idea set awhile I thought, "Billy Joe Shaver might be right.” She relocated to Nashville to launch a solo career a year and a half later.
She began waitressing to support herself. “I was awful at it, but it helped me begin my career. I saved up all my tips and made my first record, Cross Timbers and then I toured behind that. After I made Carrying Lightening, I didn’t have to wait tables anymore.”
Around that time Amanda began working with a producer who didn’t like the vibrato in her singing voice. “I got a small complex once when he said I sounded like a goat. He told me, 'less goat more note.' I was like, oh man, this is going to make it harder.”
Even so that never did make her feel like throwing in the towel. ‘It made me want to get lessons. And I did and the vibrato not correctable. There have been so many times when I wanted to quit but I just can’t. It’s the only thing I am halfway decent at.”
Her fans are happy that Amanda has come to terms with what they never saw as a flaw. That quiver in her singing voice is a gift.
Today Amanda is secure in her abilities. “It took practice to get comfortable in being who I am and trusting my decisions. I wanted to play the fiddle, and I did that. Then I started being a side person. I began writing songs before I even knew I wanted to be a songwriter. You get comfortable as you go. I’ve learned I’m really unsuccessful when I’m not being myself.”
In 2011 Amanda began dating fellow musician, Jason Isbell. It didn’t take long for her to realize his addiction to alcohol had spiraled out of control. She was instrumental in getting him into rehab. She didn’t know if their relationship would last, but she couldn’t just watch him self-destruct. “During that time, I didn’t give a crap about any dream of marrying him. I told him, ‘You’re going to quit drinking or it’s not going to work out between us.’”
It did work out. They got married in 2013. They’ve always been transparent about their trials with addiction even though it can leave them open to criticism. Amanda says, “The goal is really to help and connect with people. That’s the only reason we share such personal information. A little hope goes a long way. It’s hard to live in this world.”
“After having a child, wrangling a career, and keeping my husband in line I feel like my voice has gotten a lot stronger. Not in a way that’s bitchy or anything but in being able to express what I need.”- Amanda Shires
To date Amanda hasn’t written a song about her part in Jason’s sobriety, but in her album My piece of Land she does write about another milestone. In her song “Nursery Rhyme,” she sings about nesting in an effort to distract herself from the approaching birth of their daughter. She admits to being terrified that she would no longer have the freedom to express herself musically. She had no idea if she could be a mom and continue her calling.
After the birth of their daughter, Mercy (named because, “The world could use a little more of it”) Amanda found that she still had the drive and the support she needed to share her gifts.
“I’m blessed to have family and friends to help, so I can still make music and tour. It definitely takes a village. Sometimes it’s tough to juggle everything, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Being a mom has brought so many unexpected gifts to Amanda. “To see something through a child’s eyes is really wild. When you see a little person figuring out what a shadow is for the first time, you look at the world differently.”
“I’ve been reading the classics, scanning the news It all goes in the mouth of the muse.” – Amanda Shires, Nursery Rhyme
Amanda weaves much of her personal life into her songs. She doesn’t give much credence to writer’s block. She has learned how to nip that nuisance in the bud.
“You have to fill up your well by reading or by spending time observing. When the well is full it starts coming out and expressing itself artfully. Most of the time it’s fear that’s stopping you from creating something. So you have to keep on writing and writing through it.”
Relying on her intuition to point the way, Amanda believes, “We all have an inner guidance system that directs our paths but a lot of people aren’t trained to listen to it. You can’t be guided if your antenna isn’t up or it’s busted. I think that can happen from a lack of empathy or too much ego. Sometimes I think you can’t hear your inner voice because you’re just living obliviously.”
Amanda went to church when she was younger, but these days she has no formal practice, “I think for me my church is being outside, being a birdwatcher and a gardener and being with my family. As far as guidance, sometimes I think the voice inside me is either my mom’s or Leonard Cohen’s.” Both are probably worth listening to.
Currently Amanda’s time is split between her career as a solo artist, and making music with the all-female supergroup, The HighWomen, composed of Amanda and her friends, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. She still finds time to hold down the fiddle strings for her husband Jason and his band, The 400 Unit, and to be a mom to Mercy.
When they’re not on the road, Amanda and her family live in a home on the outskirts of Nashville. It’s a quiet spot with enough land to grow their own vegetables. “Peace” is the word Amanda uses to describe what she feels when she retreats there after touring. It’s the perfect place for replenishing the well. Life is good. Amanda Shires has come into her own.
“You feel most fulfilled when you are ‘doing you’, as they say. I think a lot of people worry too much about what they need. They need to have fancy cars. They need to have this or that, but that’s not what we all really need. Happiness comes from doing what you where put on Earth to do. And what I say is, whoever dies happiest wins.”
Now there’s an adage a little bird needs to tell Amanda to write a song about.
Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan