With fiddle in hand and song in her heart, Amanda Shires isn’t afraid of the tough stuff
Amanda Shires began playing the violin at 15 with a Texas swing band, but her sound now is often more reminiscent of rock violin from the ’70s. Shires comes to the Miami Beach Bandshell with The Head and the Heart on Friday, Oct. 20. (Photo by Michael Schmelling)
Amanda Shires isn’t afraid to talk about hard things in her music. In her honeyed, high voice that feels like it was touched by whatever magic wand gave Dolly Parton her pipes, Shires sings with a rare vulnerability about women’s lives: from red-blooded and raunchy female desire to the quiet anguish of a teenage couple deciding to end a pregnancy, to rough times in her own marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Jason Isbell.
Shires is the opener for Seattle band The Head and the Heart at the Miami Beach Bandshell on Friday, Oct. 20.
About Miami, she says:
“Man, I want to be in Miami and go to a beach . . . I think I’m going to force my bus to go there before schedule.” She pauses before finishing her thought. “I’m going to, yeah, be baptized in some cleansing spirits.”
Shires is often pigeonholed as an Americana musician—a label the industry likes to pin on anyone with a twang in their voice and a vaguely progressive political slant in their lyrics— but when she takes the stage in a full-body black lace leotard and six-inch platform heels, she looks more like a pop star with a debt to Eartha Kitt than anyone’s idea of a cowgirl. And when she lays into her violin with rough and raw licks that are reminiscent of bands like Jethro Tull or Jefferson Starship, she brings to mind less Grand Ole Opry Nashville and more psychedelic 1970s San Francisco.
The 41-year-old singer has come a long way from her native Texas, where she got her start as a musician when her father bought her a violin that she admired in a pawn shop. Her childhood talent quickly led to a performing career.
“I started playing fiddle when I was ten and got hired as a professional when I was fifteen with The Texas Playboys.” Shires, who was generous and humble in a telephone interview, doesn’t mention her prodigious talent as a violinist when explaining her early success. Touring with a group of men who were decades her senior, she says, simply required personal skills and discipline.
“I was just good at getting along with people and good in a group dynamic and I always showed up on time and made sure my stuff worked,” she says.
In her 20s, she sold her record collection to finance her move to Nashville and began dueling careers, one as a solo artist and another accompanying country music greats like Isbell, the late John Prine and Justin Townes Earle.
“I was never in it for fame,” says Shires. “My goal was to play songs and explain things that I was having trouble explaining to myself and try to be a healer in the world.”
Shires pulled from her own experience with abortion for “The Problem,” which she wrote and recorded with Isbell in 2020, and which follows an 18-year-old couple through the emotional roller coaster of an unwanted pregnancy. Isbell’s refrain, “I’m on your side,” sums up in four syllables what any young woman would want to hear from a partner when faced with one of the most painful decisions she will face.
Four years ago, frustrated with the scarcity of female singers on Top 40 country radio, where fewer than one percent of back-to-back songs played are by women, Shires hit on the idea of forming an all-female country music group that would be impossible to ignore. She banded together with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris, and thus the supergroup The Highwomen was born. Covering everything from motherhood to mortality, lesbian barhopping to heterosexual shoe-shopping, their Grammy-winning album of the same name shows how, through struggles and our triumphs, women show up for one another. And although Shires knows that the band’s acclaim may not have changed the reality of who gets radio airplay and who doesn’t, it has shifted the narrative.
“I feel like the message is continuing more because more people have heard that group,” she says, “and more artists are feeling like they can spread the word…if I had a bigger platform like Garth Brooks or somebody I could affect probably more change, but I’m not him and I’m never gonna be…I have to define what success is to me to carry on. Success to me is what I have right now and that’s a home to live in, and food to eat and medical insurance. And I don’t have to be a waitress anymore ‘cause I sucked at that,” she says with a laugh.
With the release of her 2022 album “Take It Like a Man,” Shires’ focus shifted to a more edgy vibe. Punk rocker and producer Lawrence Rothman, who had fallen in love with Shires’ lyrics after hearing them on “The Highwomen,” helped her to shape a new, edgier sound and to reimagine her own value as a songwriter.
Bird imagery is ubiquitous in Shires’ work; it appears on the song’s title track, where the singer is “falling further and falcon-swift” and later on in “Hawk for the Dove,” where she swoops in on her lover like a raptor snatching its prey from the sky. The speaker goes on to describe what she wants from her partner:
“Come on, put pressure on me, I won’t break
I want you in all the worst ways . . .”
Shire’s raucous violin solo in the middle of the song sounds like it could be the soundtrack to the couple’s passionate encounter.
Later, Shires pokes at the taboo of casual sex with strangers in “Bad Behavior”:
“Call it bad behavior
Maybe it’s my nature
Maybe I like strangers
So what if I do?”
Women, she seems to be saying throughout the album, have as much right as men to speak the hidden truths of their bodies and their hearts. She says she hopes others will hear in her lyrics the words that they themselves don’t have the courage to say, and to “tether us to feeling like we belong in the world.”
Although their tour together will have just begun, Shires hopes, too, to be able to play a few songs with headlining band “The Head and the Heart.”
“What is music but the spirit of connection and collaboration?” she asks. Indeed.
WHAT: Amanda Shires and The Head and the Heart
WHERE: Miami Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, FL 33141
WHEN: 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 20 (doors open at 7 pm)
COST: $50.50, general admission, $87.50, club level
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