Amanda Shires remembers riding shotgun in Billy Joe Shaver’s car, heading toward another show in 2007.
She’d been touring the Texas circuit for years, landing her first major gig at 15 years old – as a fiddler for Western swing big-wigs the Texas Playboys, no less – and joining Shaver’s band in her early twenties. For an aspiring solo artist who wanted to front her own group, those jobs felt like the ultimate internship: a chance to play big rooms and learn lessons from the real legends of the Lone Star State. Shires worried that she’d painted herself into a corner, though. If fans were used to seeing her as a fiddler-for-hire, would they accept her a songwriter?
“Billy Joe and I were driving to some show one day,” she says, “and he had two radar detectors in the car, one stacked right on top of the other, because he’s a crazy, wild man. I’d just done this fiddle record – it was all instrumentals, except for two songs where I sang – and he said, ‘Let’s hear that fiddle CD of yours.’ So I played it, and after hearing one of the songs I wrote, he said, ‘You should keep writing songs. You’re a great songwriter, and if you keep doing it, you’ll be a really great songwriter.’ At first, I thought he might be trying to fire me.”
Shaver wasn’t trying to fire her. Even so, Shires backed out of the gig not long after that car ride, pulling up stakes in Texas and relocating to Nashville by the decade’s end. There, she launched the solo career that had proved so difficult to kickstart back home. Paying the bills as a part-time waitress and taking occasional sideman gigs with artists like Justin Townes Earle, she doubled down on songwriting, earning new fans – including fellow songwriter Jason Isbell, whom she married in 2013 – with the solo albums Carrying Lightning and Down Fell the Doves.
Her latest, My Own Piece of Land, finds Shires taking stock of the lives, loves and landscapes around her. She wrote most of the music last year, during the final weeks of a pregnancy that kept her at home while Isbell wrapped up his own tour.
“When I got home,” she remembers, “I was 33 weeks pregnant. I had done everything from organizing my garage to organizing the closets. All that nesting stuff. I was sitting here with nothing to do, so I started writing songs. It kept my anxiety level way down. It gave me something to do – something to express – so I could do something other than sit down and stare at my belly some more, or sleep on my side all night long.”
On “When You’re Gone,” Shires puts a name to the empty feeling left behind by an absent lover. “I wouldn’t call it silence; it’s a different kind of quiet,” she clarifies, while Isbell chimes in on electric guitar. “Nursery Rhyme” finds her prepping for the arrival of daughter Mercy Isbell, who was born two weeks after the recoding sessions wrapped. And “Mineral Wells” – an older song about Shires’ own childhood, written years ago – features an in utero cameo from the youngest Isbell, who can be faintly heard kicking her mom’s stomach during the song’s ukulele track.
With Isbell co-writing two songs and playing guitar throughout the record, My Own Piece of Land is a family affair. That’s not exactly a new thing – Shires has been touring with Isbell’s 400 Unit since 2013, appearing on albums like Southeastern and Something More Than Free along the way – but this time, the matriarch is in charge. Isbell’s recent success may cast a long shadow, but if anyone views Shires as the First Lady of Americana, songs like “When You’re Gone” and “My Love (The Storm)” proves she’s worthy of holding her own office.
“We don’t co-write often,” Shires admits. “We generally go into separate rooms and write, then show each other our work and share our thoughts. But it’s nice to have somebody that you can trust to look at your work. We treat co-writing like a thing we don’t need to pressure each other to do. We let it happen if it’s going to.”
Produced by family friend Dave Cobb, My Own Piece of Land doesn’t focus on Shires’ fiddle playing as much as her vocals, which occupy the brightest patch of spotlight here. She sings her new songs with a twittering lilt that she describes as “goat-like,” adding, “I went to a vocal coach to try and smooth out that quiver, but it can’t be cured.” She now embraces that peculiarity. It’s part of her story. It’s part of her land. And these days, Shires is happy with what she’s got.