Up until Amanda Shires released her new album, her most visible presence this year was in a supporting role. A pattern emerged: Journalists related the redemption narrative of her acclaimed husband, Jason Isbell, cited her contributions to his triumphs, and almost as an afterthought, mentioned that she's also a talented songwriter in her own right.
When I told Shires on the phone that I felt badly about having done the same thing myself — twice interviewing her about her romantic partner before I'd ever interviewed her about her own music — she warmly brushed it off.
"Oh, hell. I don't mind."
That isn't to say that she hasn't noticed — she's just put it all in perspective.
"I don't feel like an afterthought or anything," Shires says. "[Jason's] had a lot more success already, so I felt like all this stuff was just natural and true. I haven't really made a big mark or anything — yet. ... If people want to say, 'Oh, and she's a songwriter too,' I think that's great, because maybe somebody might go check [my music] out just based on a side note.
"That's not really my time to be the subject under the microscope, or the star of the show," she adds. "I learned that being a sideperson. None of that really gets under my skin. Sometimes you're part of the band, and sometimes you're band leader."
The Texas-born fiddler is an old pro at being a hired hand, so she knows what she's talking about. At age 15, Shires was already traveling with Western swing royalty The Texas Playboys, each of whom could've been her grandfather. In college, she was invited to join the avant-country band Thrift Store Cowboys. Then she did some gigging with hardcore troubadour Billy Joe Shaver, and after moving to Nashville, played with Rod Picott, Justin Townes Earle, Todd Snider and, of course, Isbell.
But songwriting has been Shires' primary focus for the past half-decade, during which she's released a trio of prickly-pretty solo albums — West Cross Timbers, Carrying Lightning and her latest, Down Fell the Doves — that drag into the light emotions a less daring songwriter would leave hidden.
There are, however, more layers to how Shires' work is interpreted than the average Americana singer-songwriter is likely to contend with. Since she put in her time as a virtuosic female accompanist to better-known performers in male-dominated fields, there's a tendency to associate her with the musical company she's kept — or, for that matter, the company she keeps at home. (For his part, Isbell says he's ready to take his turn playing the role of Mr. Amanda Shires.) And because she's physically attractive and projects a sensuality that seems simultaneously feminine, untamed and worldly, writers occasionally get hung up on her appearance. Not long ago, there was even a Wall Street Journal blog post pairing a coy photo from her press kit with this headline: "Is Amanda Shires the Sexiest Violinist Since Thomas Jefferson?" Shires' reaction is surprisingly sanguine.
"Man, that's a great title!" Shires says. "I mean, who doesn't want to read that? They went and changed it because everybody was [making] such a fuss about it. But to me, it's like, 'It's the Wall Street Journal. Spice it up some,' you know? ... I do think there's probably [been] sexy fiddlers since [Jefferson], you know, like Stephane Grappelli. That was my only thing: Could that really be true?"
Shires, you can tell, is comfortable in her skin. And for her, there's no separation between her sex appeal and the fact that she has a brain and a rich interior life. So she wouldn't for a minute want to be viewed as a "manic pixie dream girl," a term originally used to describe youngish female movie characters who are all cute, quirky style and no substance.
Says Shires, "It would suck for me to think [anyone would say], 'Oh, there's a girl that's cute, and plays music. We like her 'cause she's cute.' That would suck. But hopefully people aren't that surface.
"Yeah, to put the looks thing first is a little weird," she goes on, "because that's not what I do. I haven't been practicing that like I've been practicing writing or playing music."
Through years of classical violin instruction and front-porch fiddle study — plus sonic experimentation in varied musical settings — Shires has developed a boundless and biting vocabulary on her instrument. Having completed more than half of a literature master's program at Sewanee, she's also deploying evocative imagery with pointed precision in her lyrics.
All of that's evident on Down Fell the Doves, along with Shires' idiosyncratic tunefulness and nervy vocal phrasing. In "Look Like a Bird," she imagines being an unfettered, unfeeling winged creature, in "Bulletproof" invincibility and in "Box Cutters" wrist-slashing bathtub suicide. But by letting her imagination run to such extremes, she's making space for the ambiguity, paradox and complexity that lie between, the neither entirely sweet nor entirely sour quality of life. Or as she puts it over the phone, the idea that "you can't build anything new without destroying something else."
If Shires doesn't seem to sweat how she draws listeners' attention in the first place, it's probably because she knows her music offers plenty to chew on — and that itself is a sort of freedom.
"When I go onstage or write a song," Shires says in a subsequent email, "I don't really care what anyone imagines, or fantasizes or makes up for themselves about me. Occasionally, I see comments about it and start going down that wormhole, but then I get distracted by books and birds and the GPS, and forget about it."