Amanda Shires is a pretty unassuming figure to be considered one-half of arguably the biggest power couple in Nashville today.
Alongside husband Jason Isbell, the pair have become the faces of the Americana movement inside Music City, which — while still dwarfed commercially by mainstream country music — has become a cultural force for both music critics and fans who frown upon the direction that country music has taken on radio station playlists around the country.
Shires has become such a force within the genre that the pre-release buzz for her upcoming album, “To the Sunset,” has many wondering how the keepers of the gate to Americana will react once it is finally available to the masses. While certainly not the first under this particular category of music to feature more rock leanings that steel guitar, Shires’ latest project goes in a completely different direction than anything that she has heretofore produced as an artist. While another musician may have openly embraced the garage rock influences found here without a second glance, it’s a little shocking to hear from someone whose first gig was as a fifteen-year-old fiddle player for the legendary Texas swing band, the Texas Playboys.
Fans showing up for Shires’ set Tuesday night at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro should be prepared to witness a show unlike any other that the musician has performed in the Triangle thus far. The News & Observer had a chance to speak to Shires, who was calling from her home outside Nashville, about this new direction — as well as the difficulties of writing music with a toddler in the house — and life lessons learned on the road.
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Q: What kind of reception have you received so far to the new album? Many are hitting on the fact that it feels like such a departure from what many would consider what your music is supposed to sound like?
A: I have no choice in what direction my music goes, honestly, as all I get is what I’m given. I start writing the songs, and they start presenting themselves the way they want to be heard. I’m not saying, ‘I hear my songs talking to me,’ or anything like that; it’s just with working in isolation in my closet, taping my words to the walls because there’s nowhere else to stick a pile of papers, and the hyperfocus on so many inanimate objects allowed the music to fill the space.
Q: Let’s touch on that closet for just a moment. In the promotional material for the new album, it mentioned that you had found a closet in your house to use as a workspace, where your daughter couldn’t disturb you. I know she’s a toddler, so I’m just wondering if she’s figured out where you’ve been working, and if so how badly she’s destroyed it since then?
A: She knows it’s there now, but when the door to it is closed, she forgets that her mom is in there; it’s like it just becomes a closet again if no one brings attention to it. To be clear, I’m not talking about working in some kind of California Closet type space, it’s just a regular ol’ closet. It’s an Americana closet!
Q: Speaking of Americana, we’ve spoken to some female artists in recent years that have stated that, once that “Americana” tag is placed upon them, they just feel that it immediately restricts what they feel they can do with their music. Considering you were just awarded Emerging Artist of the Year from the Americana Music Association this past year, was there ever a moment during the recording process of this album where you felt there might be some pushback?
A: The cool thing about Americana is that the genre is accepting of all types of music. I did have those questions, about whether the album would still fit within that framework, but then decided it didn’t matter because I had no control over this. I just write what I write, produce the music I produce and try to give myself a chance to stay true to the art form. If you try to rein in an art form, it can be hurtful to what you are making.
When I did think about it, I finally had to say, ‘[Expletive] it. If Nathaniel Rateliff is Americana, and Jason Isbell is Americana, then I’m Americana too.’ I do wonder if there is this thought that all Americana women artists are expected to sound a certain way, but I really don’t know, because it’s such a welcoming community. I try not to go down any rabbit holes like that because the only job I know how to do is to write down the words to the music I hear in my brain.
Q: Congratulations on recently receiving your MFA in creative writing from Sewanee University, but the laptop holding your thesis was stolen during a tour stop just a few weeks before that. How sick did it make you feel when you discovered it missing?
A: I cried in front of everybody; I cried, and I cried, and I couldn’t stop crying. [The robbers] busted into our van, and then on top of all the crying and sadness, we had to drive the busted-up van all the way back to Nashville that night from Chicago. We couldn’t just park the van again at our next stop; we’d be announcing, ‘Hey, come steal some more of our stuff!’ The night just kept adding insult to injury. They busted a window out while we were onstage, and only my personal items were taken. Which is much better, because only Amanda Shires’ thoughts and feelings were out there somewhere; all unedited crap.
Q: Was anything that you were working on for the new album also on that laptop?
A: Yes, but I don’t remember what it was. I had no idea what the album stuff on it was, because I was so worried about my thesis, so once I started working on the album it was all new ideas and experiences.
Q: Early in your career you played fiddle for Billy Joe Shaver’s touring band. What major life lesson did Shaver [”Georgia on a Fast Train”] teach you during that time?
A: Always have two radar detectors. One to see if there are any cops around, and the second one to make sure there aren’t any cops around.
Who: Amanda Shires with Cory Branan
When: Tuesday, August 7, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 East Main St., Carrboro
Tickets: $22 in advance; $25 day of show
Info: CatsCradle.com or 919-967-9053