“I wanna look like a bird, like I was meant to sing,” Look Like a Bird – Amanda Shires
My seventh Porch Light Profile is about singer, songwriter and fiddle player, Amanda Shires. She splits her time between touring as a solo artist and holding down the fiddle strings for her husband, Jason Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit. Although she’s been supporting herself as an artist since 2011, she won Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2017 American Music Association Honors and Awards.
Even before I spoke to Amanda, I knew I was going to like her when I got 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. When Amanda called back a few minutes later she apologized, “A baby nuthatch was caught in a string hanging by it’s feet from a glass bird feeder. It was so cute and so sad, but it’s all fixed now.”
After 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 saw a group of them hanging on the wall of a pawn shop. She’s not sure what pulled her to them but she knew she had to have one. She talked her dad into buying her one and 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. 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.” A year and a half later she relocated to Nashville to launch a solo career.
Once there 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 Timbersand then I toured behind that. After I made Carrying Lightening, I didn’t have to wait tables anymore.”
When trying to establish herself as an artist, Amanda was working with a producer who didn’t like the vibrato in her singing voice. “He thought I sounded like a goat. He told me, ‘Less goat, more note.’” In an effort to smooth the tremble, she got lessons and learned that it’s not correctable. Amanda has come to terms with what her fans never questioned, that “flaw” is a unique part of who she is. It’s a gift.
Amanda never masterminded her career path. People who live from their inner light generally don’t. They just do what they love and keep walking through the doors that opportunity presents to them.
“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 started 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.”
Along the way Amanda began dating fellow musician, Jason Isbell. It didn’t take her long 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 just couldn’t 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, and they married in 2013. As a couple, 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 newest 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. Everyday it adds to the well of inspiration and experiences she draws from in her songwriting. “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.”
The making of art is no different than prayer. – Rainn Wilson
Amanda creates from her instincts and 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.”
How does one’s antenna get broken? “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.”
Growing up Amanda was exposed to church 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.
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.
“You feel most fulfilled when you are ‘doing you.’ I think a lot of people worry too much about what they need. They need to have 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. 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.
*Coming up next: Profile of Sheri Salata. She stepped down as co-president of Oprah Winfrey Network to cofound female lead media and branding company, STORY.
Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com