“It reminds of me of the West Coast, wide open spaces, Everly Brothers [and] Buddy Holly,” Chris Shiflett says of My Own Piece of Land, Amanda Shires’ newest collection of pared-down Americana and sprightly folk. Finished three days before the birth of her baby daughter, the album takes a close look at the realities of marriage and motherhood, with Jason Isbell pulling double-duty as Shires’ lead guitarist and occasional co-writer.
Speaking with Chris Shiflett for his weekly Walking the Floor podcast, Shires dives deep into the three decades that elapsed before My Own Piece of Land’s creation, talking about her childhood in Texas, her teen years onstage with the Texas Playboys and the drunken decision to storm the stage at a Billy Joe Shaver show in her early twenties. Shiflett – a fellow supporting musician and solo artist who, like Shires, recently wrapped up his own album with producer Dave Cobb – tosses some parenting stories of his own into the mix. Together, the two wind their way through the latest Walking the Floor podcast, recorded earlier this August and premiering below on Rolling Stone Country.
From career-changing conversations with Texas legends to the Isbell family’s babysitting arrangement, here are five takeaways from Shires and Shiflett’s conversation.
1. This autumn, while Amanda Isbell tours America with her own band, Jason Isbell is playing Mr. Mom.
“Jason. . .has a family bus, so it’s easy to travel like that,” says Shires, who performs as a member of Isbell’s band whenever her own touring schedule allows. “But when I do my own solo shows, I’m still in a van. Adults shouldn’t even travel for 8 to 10 hours a day in a van, I think, so I couldn’t imagine taking [daughter Mercy] in a van.”
Instead, baby Mercy has been spending much of the fall with Isbell, whose cushier vehicle is far more baby-friendly.
“We just put the car seat in the bay, and we have a car seat everywhere we go,” Shires explains. “This fall, when I do these 50 shows and he’s already touring on the road separately, she’s going with him. He loves it. He’s done it a couple times. But it’ll be my first super-long stretch of life not being around her.”
2. Spending her teens as a sidewoman for the Texas Playboys was a pretty sweet gig.
“I got lots of desserts,” remembers Shires, who joined the Texas Playboys’ three-member fiddle squad when she was 15. Pressed for details about the seedier side of life on the road, Shires insists that the Playboys – initially formed as the backup band of Western Swing king Bob Willis, and active for decades after his death – kept their late-night shenanigans quiet. They acted as surrogate grandfathers to the young Shires, teaching her the finer points of old-school showmanship and, in their more indulgent moments, spoiling their youngest member. “I could get whatever I wanted for food,” Shires adds. “I tried whiskey. It was awesome.”
3. Shires landed one of her biggest gigs – playing fiddle for Texas legend Billy Joe Shaver – as a result of a drunkenly jumping onstage during one of his performances.
“When I was like 22, I saw him playing at a festival, and his side person on guitar had a fiddle in their fiddle stand,” she tells Shiflett. “And I had had a few drinks, and I got up there and grabbed the fiddle and played it with his band.” Impressed with both her chops and her ballsy confidence, Shaver made Shires a member of his band, even sitting her down several years later for a career-changing pep talk that convinced her to pursue songwriting. Shires, who recently played several songs with Shaver during a St. Louis gig in August, still shakes her head at that initial collaboration.
“Thinking back on it, ” she says, “I would never do that to somebody. I would never do that. What was I thinking? I was just so young. . .and drunk. ‘Cause where else would you get that kind of balls?”
4. Before kickstarting her singer-songwriter career, Shires recorded some out-of-print solo albums that highlighted her skills as a fiddle player.
“I was doing what the other side people in the Texas Playboys did, where they made recordings of themselves playing traditional music,” she says of the decision to record her earliest solo records. “Instrumental stuff. They were recordings of me playing traditional fiddle music. . .I hope they’re not [available], because it’s really boring to people who don’t just love the fiddle.” One fan who didn’t consider her solo work boring was Billy Joe Shaver, who asked Shires to play one of her albums while the two were driving to a show. The record, which Shires calls “sort of a business card, in a sense,” also included an original song, intended to show listeners that Shires’ skills went beyond being an instrumentalist. Shaver loved the tune, which prompted him to advise Shires to pursue her own career as a solo artist. “I was like, ‘Oh god, this is just a nice way of him saying I’m fired,'” Shires remembers, “and he was like, ‘I really mean it. You have something. You should be a songwriter.'” Two years later, she moved to Nashville.
5. During her early years in Nashville, Shires worked as a sidewoman for songwriters like Justin Townes Earle and Todd Snider. . .although things didn’t always go as planned.
“[Snider] was the first person ever to let me open,” remembers Shires, who began cherry picking the best musician gigs once she relocated to Tennessee. Her rule of thumb was simple – only take a job if you can really learn something from the person you’re supporting – and the Snider job seemed to fit the bill. The fact that he was going to let her kickstart the evening with her own set only sweetened the deal.
“It was in Texas,” she continues. “I have the poster still. It was 2008. But he didn’t show up. So we had to reschedule.”