When Amanda Shires first got home from the road in March, she wandered into her barn, lost and confused. “I went from playing in three bands to playing in none,” she says. Shires’ tour had been cut short due to the coronavirus outbreak, and she had driven back to Nashville from the West Coast with her bandmates Seth Plemmons and Kelly Garcia Plemmons. When the singer-songwriter began fidgeting around with cameras and microphones in the barn where she and husband Jason Isbell store their gear, she had a realization: she could just keep playing live music every night and pretend like she was still touring.
“I was thinking about how much of what we do as singers is community based,” Shires says of the origins behind “I So Lounging,” her daily livestream with Plemmons (and frequently Isbell) that ran consecutively during the first 30 days of the nationwide shutdown. “I felt like I needed that, and I felt like maybe others felt the same way I did, which was kind of a little bit lost.”
Shires’ “I So Lounging” sets have become something of a nightly ritual for thousands of quarantined fans across the country. There is music, but unlike most livestreamed concerts that have sprung up in the past month and a half, Shires and Isbell’s virtual shows also have a casual fireside-chat intimacy. The shows often begin with a cold open as the trio of Shires, Isbell, and Plemmons improvise humorous songs (recent subjects: France, podcasts). Shires and Isbell banter for five minutes in between songs, telling stories about their daughter’s blooming love of Star Wars, fielding questions about guitar gear, providing updates on their loved ones (Isbell’s father has been brushing up on his WWII history), and processing their own raw feelings on camera. Shires’ mother provides daily cocktail recipes. In one episode, Isbell, who is sober, and Shires answered a fan’s question about what it’s like for Isbell when his wife drinks around him.
“It’s a place to share and learn from one another,” Shires says. “I wanted it to be unrehearsed. There are a few people that would prefer we just play song, song, song, in a row, but we love talking with our friends and fans, and so many folks in the world have struggles with their relationships, or with their sobriety or with their mental health. So many people are isolated and sheltering in place at home alone right now. We wanted it to feel more like hanging out around a bar, or a dinner table…I struggle with my own set of dark, complicated feelings and I felt like, maybe if there were folks out there feeling things, we could talk about them.”
Shires’ shows have raised tens of thousands of dollars for her out-of-work touring bandmates and for MusiCares’ COVID-19 Relief Fund. Since starting “I So Lounging,” Shires’ YouTube following has grown 300 percent. The most-watched episode was from April 8th, filmed the day after John Prine died. It was a cathartic exercise in public grieving, with Isbell and Shires swapping Prine stories and songs through tears.
“I struggled with whether I could even sing on camera, but then I started thinking about John, and it became a ‘What Would John Do’ kind of thing,” she says.
For Shires, “I So Lounging” has also provided the singer with a newly unfiltered line of communication with her fans, who’ve been requesting some of her more obscure songs off earlier albums.
“I didn’t know I had so many fans who were little girls that wanted to play fiddle, so I’ve been sending out strings to fans,” she says. “There’s also a 72-year-old woman named Martha who’s been a fan forever, and she’s been writing in about what she’d like to hear and I’m like, ‘Well, hell yeah, Martha. I’ll play whatever you want.’ There’s a real joy of interacting with folks, even though it’s on email. I didn’t have that before. There are things that I was missing before this that I didn’t even know I was missing.”
After a month straight of daily shows, “I So Lounging” has gone on temporary hiatus as Shires processes the long-term reality of her situation as a touring musician and also tries to upgrade the show’s audio/visual gear. If she’s able to get the sound quality improved, there’s a chance that future performances could be compiled for an official release.
“In some ways,” Shires says of the initial shows, “I was sort of running away from the fact that this is happening, I thought, ‘I’m just going to play music every day and then, in a little while, we’ll be back to normal.’ So I’ve been trying to not run away and really internalize what this all means. But I do know that I need music every day, all kinds of music, whether I’m touring or not.”