Singer, songwriter and fiddle player Amanda Shires still remembers the moment she fell in love with the fiddle. She’d been learning to play classical music on the violin at school when her music teacher introduced her to some of Frankie McWhorter’s fiddle tunes.
“It was love at first listen,” Shires says of the fiddle songs. “I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ because you play this song and then you get to improvise … you just play what you feel within the chord. And I was really into that.”
McWhorter, who had played fiddle in Bob Wills’ band, became her teacher, and when Shires was just 15, he asked her to join The Texas Playboys.
“It took me a minute to really learn how to improvise,” Shires says of those early years. “The players in the band, they took me seriously as a player, but they also understood that I was a kid.”
Shires would go on to make a name for herself, both as a solo artist and as the co-founder of the country supergroup The Highwomen, which includes Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. In 2020, The Highwomen won Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors and Awards ceremony.
Shires’ new album, Take it Like a Man, includes several songs she wrote during a rough period in her marriage to musician Jason Isbell.
“This part of my life and our marriage was difficult and it took me back to the reason I came to writing and doing music in the first place, which is expression,” she says. “When I would write the songs, I don’t know what’s going to come out, but sometimes I was just so down that the only way I could get better was to take it out on writing a song.”
Shires sings and plays fiddle throughout this interview. Click the audio link above to get the full experience
On channeling her feelings about her marriage into writing “Fault Lines” and showing it to Isbell
I went and I sat down in my barn of internal wandering, and this is after some kind of nebulous argument, and I wrote “Fault Lines” and then I texted it to him, just like you’d imagine, I said, “I just wrote this song.” And then in my mind I thought, Well, if he couldn’t hear the frequency of my voice before, maybe he could hear it through music, you know? And one day we wound up in the studio and we cut the song. And after we recorded it, he said, “That’s a really good song.” And I said, “That’s all you have to say. No more?” But through the process of making the record and all the things that go with that, the hours and the tedium, it got easier for us to have conversations, not because we were doing the work of addressing the problems, but because we found common ground on something again, which has always been music and words.”
On being a “disciple” of Leonard Cohen
I’ve listened to all of his records. I’ve found and scrounged and continue to for every interview that he’s done in any form, in any language. And I save them all and I return to them often … I own one of his guitars … My whole left arm is tattoos of Leonard Cohen… I really do feel like he did a lot of work for me that I don’t have to do. Like, I know that in all of the searching that he did still believe that there was something bigger out there, so I don’t have to go trying to learn all these other things. I could just trust based on how Leonard Cohen did all that work for us.
On forming the all-female country super-group The Highwomen
In 2016 I was going on the road. My daughter was about a year old, and I was getting into my touring van because I hadn’t worked my way into a bus yet. And as it happened, eventually the auxiliary cable quit working in the van so I was left to the radio choices of sports ball and Top 40 country music.
Also, during this time when I was leaving, I was thinking about how [my daughter] Mercy picked up a kazoo and she could play a kazoo. And she would dance a little bit to The Beatles and stuff and started seeing the possibility that she might go into music one day. So I started just taking notes on the radio because in 22 songs, [I heard] one woman’s voice … and it was a Carrie Underwood song from six years before that or something. In 2016 there was 13% representation of women to men on country radio, and now it still sits pleasantly at 16% on a good week. But I thought, what am I going to do about that, in the event that she does go into country music? And then I thought about Waylon [Jennings] and Kris [Kristofferson] and them of The Highwaymen, and I was like, “They were kind of speaking about ageism.” I said, “It’d be cool if I … had a band, The Highwomen.” Then I told my friend Dave Cobb about my idea and he really liked it and he said, “I’m going to have you meet Brandi Carlile.” And we met. While the idea was mine, it wasn’t only me that made this Highwomen be a thing. It took Dave Cobb and it took Brandi and then it took Natalie [Hemby] and Maren Morris.
Amy Salit and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Kitty Eisele adapted it for the web.