Amanda Shires slides her chair back, its legs audibly groaning against the wooden floor, and leaps up from the table. She circles the rustic space, swinging one arm in an exaggerated fashion to mimic an elephant, while thrusting her hips as she hops forward.
“Oh, the trunk. And some Martha Graham-style interpretations,” says Jason Isbell, amused. “For ‘If We Were Vampires’, you’ll do the big teeth, like Rawr!'”
“I’ll wear a cloak,” insists Shires, drawing her arm across her face with an air of mystery, leaving only her eyes visible like Batman.
“Oh, a cloak, yes, yes!” agrees Isbell. “And release a couple of bats.”
It’s a bright, hot August day in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, a small preservationist community about 30 miles southwest of Nashville, and this production unfolding in front of me at Green’s Grocery — more funky neighborhood hangout than place to stock the pantry — is not a preview of some offbeat musical inspired by the songs of Jason Isbell (though that would be pretty amazing). Rather, Shires has chosen this moment to poke fun at her husband’s self-aware assertion that people can’t actually dance to any of his songs, which — like the cancer narrative “Elephant” and the ode to mortality “If We Were Vampires” — tend to be of the impossibly sad and heavy variety.
That sad, serious reputation of Isbell’s music belies the jokey, amiable chemistry he and Shires share as partners. Married in 2013, they’re funny and charming, with Isbell tending toward the acerbic while Shires comes off quieter and more deliberate. Shires in particular is on a high this day, having just played a headlining show at the Ryman Auditorium — where she danced with abandon — in support of her extraordinary new album To the Sunset.
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It’s the latest triumph in a series for the singer-songwriters, who presently find themselves as leading figures in the amorphous, ever-evolving Americana genre. Shires, a Texas native who grew up playing fiddle with the Texas Playboys and Billy Joe Shaver, put out a series of acclaimed solo albums that mixed poetic flair with an experimental streak and roots music traditions before detonating it all with To the Sunset, which sounds like Radiohead and Kate Bush jamming with the Band inside a space shuttle. When she’s not leading her own tours, Shires, 36, logs time as a member of Isbell’s band the 400 Unit.
Alabama native Isbell, 39, established himself as a supporting player in Southern-rock group Drive-By Truckers before going solo, weathering a debilitating alcohol addiction that he fearlessly chronicled on 2013’s Southeastern. Since then he’s collected Grammys and racked up sales for the albums Something More Than Free in 2015 and last year’s The Nashville Sound, most recently cleaning up at the 2018 Americana Honors & Awards — though he felt conflicted about winning in a field that had so many strong albums by women. “I’m extremely grateful for the awards last night @AmericanaFest, but I also wish the list of winners was at least as diverse as the list of nominees,” he tweeted.
On October 19th, Isbell will release Live From the Ryman, a collection of performances culled from six sold-out shows he hosted at the famed Nashville venue in 2017. Comprising songs from his three most recent albums, Live From the Ryman captures the 400 Unit in fine form and Isbell as a bandleader who can switch between gifted storyteller and slashing guitar player with ease. Shortly after the release, the group will return to the Ryman for another six shows beginning October 22nd — an annual tradition he always anticipates.
“There’s a communion to it in that place that’s like you’re sharing something with other people,” says Isbell. “You feel like you’re getting to the heart of the reason why you write songs in the first place or play an instrument in the first place.”
Together, they’ve demonstrated what supportive romantic and creative partnership can look like, with the two of them branching into outspoken activism and voter awareness in the Trump era. But between all their individual commitments and raising their 3-year-old daughter Mercy, they just haven’t had a lot of time lately to sit down and catch up. This early afternoon joint interview gives them a rare chance to look back at each other’s work and even discover a few new things about the other.
“She’s been so busy and I’ve been so busy, this is the longest we’ve had a conversation with each other in like a month,” says Isbell. “Usually if we’re doing this, Shark Tank is on in the background, it’s 2 ‘o clock in the morning and we’re eating Cheez-Its.”
Let’s go back to the beginning, or more accurately the middle. You both had visible positions playing supporting roles in larger groups before you went solo. What motivated you to make that leap?
Amanda Shires: I had no idea I was gonna be a songwriter, because I was too young to know my own evolution. I started playing the violin as a way to express myself because I didn’t have a lot of vocabulary when I was 14. Then when I started singing with the Texas Playboys, I really enjoyed singing, and [then] I started working with Billy Joe. He heard a couple of my terrible songs and said I should move to Nashville and be a songwriter.
Jason Isbell: Shaver, not Armstrong.
AS: Right. At first, I thought he was firing me. I was like, “No, I love this job. This is the best job I’ve ever had, Billy Joe.” About a year later, I moved all my shit up here and became a waitress. I wasn’t getting any work as a songwriter in Texas because I was only known as a fiddle player.
You say the songs were awful, but he obviously heard something there.
AS: He did. It was before I was an artist. I just had this fiddle record [Being Brave] to sell to supplement my income and I did a daring and bold thing by just setting it next to his stuff without asking. He found out and he was like, “Let’s listen to that.” Like, during a drive.
JI: That’s the perfect punishment: “I’m gonna force you to watch me listen to this now.” It’s a good record though. It’s a pleasant listen and there’s good fiddling on it.
Jason, many people were aware of you from the Drive-By Truckers. Was that always the plan, to move forward with a solo career?
JI: For me, the plan was always to take any good offers I received in those days. I got really lucky with the Truckers thing, because they needed another guitar player for that tour — they were doing Southern Rock Opera and the album was about Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they needed a third guitar player. I’d always been writing songs, but I started feeling inspired by playing live shows with that band to write songs that might work for them. I just sort of thought, “Man, I’ve got some family stories I could write songs about that these guys might actually like and want to play at the shows.” “Decoration Day” and “Outfit” were the first things I wrote [for the band].
AS: I’ve got a question. I’ve always wondered this. You know how sometimes people are like, “I’ve got a song I want to play.” Were you always in the bus trying to get them to hear one of your songs?
JI: No, I’ll tell you exactly how it happened.
AS: OK, because you know how people do that…
JI: Yes, totally, and it’s awful usually. So I was terrified of that. But we were at Joe Swank’s house in Carbondale, Illinois. Joe, who’s worked for a bunch of record labels — big, humongous mountain man-looking guy with overalls. I woke up before everybody else did because I was 21 years old. I went outside and wrote “Decoration Day” on the porch at Joe’s house.
AS: What were you setting out to write?
JI: A murder ballad. I remembered the story of my mom’s uncle that I had heard when I was growing up. And I thought, “Maybe I’ll write this from the other family’s perspective.” Which was imagined, in my part. So there’s definitely some details that aren’t right in there. But there’s a lot of details that are. I didn’t expect a lot of people to hear it. But I wrote it before the band woke up and I played it for Earl [Hicks], the bass player, who woke up first, which was bad luck on my part. He didn’t like it. He said, “I don’t think that would work with this band. I don’t really care for that.” Earl was a brilliant, really intelligent person; total cut to the chase. But he did not like the song. And I was not to be deterred.
AS: Did you go wake everybody else up, serenade them?
JI: I waited. There was no waking them up. I had to wake them up to go onstage a couple times. Just [guitarist Mike] Cooley. But when [singer-guitarist] Patterson [Hood] and Cooley woke up I played it for them, and they loved it. Patterson freaked out, like, “This is incredible.” And then when the relationship with that band dissolved, I’d already been working on my solo album. I already had it recorded and I was gonna put it out just as a side project. But I was drinking a whole lot and we weren’t getting along. I was in worse shape than anybody else in the band, which was saying a lot in those days. I wouldn’t put up with me now, for sure, if that guy was in my band. So I understand how all that went down. After that, I was just like, “What do I do?” I’m not going to go enter the work force. And I’ve got this album that conveniently is in the can and I’m just gonna go out and tour behind it.
That would be 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch, which your old label New West recently reissued.
JI: Yeah, they didn’t ask my permission. I know legally they didn’t have to. I would have done things differently. So, whatever.
How do you feel about it as an album, aside from the relationship with the label?
JI: I haven’t listened to it in a long time.
AS: I really like that one.
JI: There are some really good songs on there. “Dress Blues” was the thing that first got my name around as a songwriter. If I were to make those songs now, I’d probably keep four of them and write five or six more, and the production would be different. But for what it is, yeah, I don’t have any problems with it. I’m glad that it’s out there. It was the beginning of the trip, so I really didn’t know what I was doing yet, but I stumbled up and hit it at least twice on that record.
Amanda, you’ve said that you think of 2009’s West Cross Timbers as your official first solo release.
AS: It is, because the other one [is] just the Texas Playboys band. All the musicians in that band would make little versions of the traditional songs we did. And we’d just have them for sale.
JI: It was a merch item rather than a piece of art. Something to sell.
What was it like taking the full plunge into songwriting and singing with the first album?
AS: After the Texas Playboys and during that time, I had this band in college that I was in called Thrift Store Cowboys. It was me and a couple other dudes would write the songs. All the songs I sang, I wrote. But singing took a while for me to get used to.
JI: It’s so good though. And that song “Understudy,” I probably listened to it a thousand times before you and I even really knew each other. I still love that song. I still think that would sound like it would fit with the record you made now. I know though what it feels like looking back on that stuff and thinking, “That’s not the person that I am or the writer that I am.”
AS: I assumed my range was like three or four notes.
JI: But you did a lot with that. It doesn’t take many to make a melody.
When did you first become aware of each other’s work?
JI: I saw her playing with Billy Joe Shaver at Austin City Limits festival when R.E.M. was the headliner [in 2003]. We didn’t meet. But then I saw her again at a show with Thrift Store Cowboys about a year later in Athens, when [Drive-By Truckers] were recording The Dirty South with David Barbe at Chase Park.
AS: I’d never heard of the Drive-By Truckers and I had two friends at that show and one of my friends said, “That’s Jason Isbell of the Drive-By Truckers band. He’s famous.” I was like, “Cool.”
JI: So I introduced myself and she said, “Aren’t you supposed to be famous?” [Shires laughs] I didn’t know she’d just talked to a person who said, “He’s famous,” which I was not that famous. But at the Caledonia Lounge in , I guess I was.
AS: I was making fun of his fame a little bit and made him sign a Polaroid picture.
JI: But I walked in and you guys were playing and there was very few people there and I just took a folding chair and set it down in the middle of the stage, right in front of you, and sat down and watched. Now in hindsight, that seems really creepy, I would never do that. [Shires laughs] I was like, “That’s that girl that played with Billy Joe Shaver, it’s gotta be.” Because she had the same boots on. We met and just talked briefly after that.
AS: But I still have that picture.
JI: Yeah, It’s in the bathroom in our house, that Polaroid that I signed to her. We just sort of kept in touch for years after that.
AS: And sometimes I’d go play music with him.
JI: We made the  album Here We Rest, you came and played on a couple tracks from that album. That was the first studio stuff you’d done with us. That was Chad [Gamble], our drummer’s first sessions too.
Those couple of records, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Here We Rest, really seem to position you as more of a rock artist than an Americana singer-songwriter.
AS: But that’s sort of how you thought of yourself then, right?
JI: I still think of myself as a rock guy — I’m just old now so I make singer-songwriter music.
AS: No, no, I think you make rock & roll.
JI: I think so too. And I think that’s obvious when people go to the shows. But the records that happened after that, especially Southeastern, the production of the record had to reflect the songs and for that to happen, it wound up being a singer-songwriter type of album because that’s where my brain was then. But Thom Yorke’s a singer-songwriter — he just happens to be in a rock band.
Amanda, in 2011, you put out Carrying Lightning. That album has the original version of “Swimmer,” which shows up again on To the Sunset. And West Cross Timbers had “Mineral Wells,” which you cut again on My Piece of Land. Why did you feel it was important to revisit those songs?
AS: For “Mineral Wells” and My Piece of Land, it had a lot to do with the fact that I was pregnant and the idea of home in my mind was changing. Also the idea of what my daughter’s idea of home would be for her. The meaning of the song sort of changed. And also John Prine let me play at his shows because he liked that song. And also I miss Texas and I want to keep playing that song. It’s selfish, you know.
It should be somewhat selfish, right? With songwriting, there’s a level of self-indulgence.
JI: Totally. All art is a vanity project.
AS: Is it, though?
JI: For it to be art, I think you have to be self-serving in a certain way.
AS: I don’t know. Sometimes I’m like, we put up with all this shit because we’re selfless [laughs].
JI: No, no, all the other parts of it that aren’t the art — the business, the commerce, the work, the riding down the damn road — those aren’t in service of the self, but when you are actually making a song, when you believe that you are the person who needs to bring a new song or painting or a picture into a world that’s already so heavily populated with great art, then I think you have to be selfish about it.
Jason, when “Alabama Pines” came out, it was another of those times when a lot of people started talking about your songwriting. That ended up winning an Americana Award for you. What was it about that song that resonated?
JI: There was no fat on it. When I’m singing that live, I still think that’s just as good as anything I’ve written in the last few years. The reason that song started spreading around is, people love to hear location songs, but also it was the best song I had written to that point. And even though it doesn’t really have a chorus or anything, it was the best linear narrative and I spent the most time on it of any song I had written up until then. I broke out some maps and looked up all those directions to make sure I was mentioning every town in the right order. I edited that song until I felt like, “This one’s tight, this one’s ready.” Later on, when I started writing Southeastern and the records that followed that, I started doing that with every song. I thought to myself, “Why didn’t you do this sooner?” And of course that was because I was half drunk all the time — or all drunk half the time or whatever.
Were you still living in Alabama at that point?
JI: Yeah, I was.
AS: Where did the idea start?
JI: There’s an unrealized allegory in that song, because it wasn’t necessarily Alabama that I wanted to go home to. It was the time before my life had gotten fucked up. And the time before I was a raging alcoholic, and in the middle of a divorce. [Isbell married musician Shonna Tucker in 2002.]
AS: That makes me want to cry. Don’t make me cry.
JI: Don’t do that. Have some of these nuts [slides package across table]. The way it came out, because I wasn’t very good at talking about my mental state in those days, it came out as I would like to go home to the place where my family lives. But what I really meant was I want to go back to a time before things got so confusing.
AS: I never knew that.
JI: I don’t know that I ever thought of it that way, but it’s true.
AS: You never know — married for a long time and you learn new things every day.
Amanda, a couple of the key moments from your headlining Ryman show were songs from Down Fell the Doves. “Look Like a Bird” was super intense, and people shouted requests for “Bulletproof” the whole show. Why do you think those songs still have a prominent place in your sets now?
JI: I’ll give you a hint: they fuckin’ rock. Sometimes you just gotta fuckin’ rock.
AS: Some of it’s anger-driven though.
How do you mean, anger-driven?
AS: Angry at the times, I guess. You just feel it more.
JI: You get your rage out onstage.
AS: Get your rage out onstage. And that “Bulletproof” thing, it cracks me up. It’s dance-y.
JI: There’s a good story with that song. And there’s humor in that song, which is really hard for a singer-songwriter to pull off. Prine does it, Todd Snider does it. But it’s hard sometimes to make a song funny and poignant at the same time. And that one’s funny.
“I’ll never lose sleep over not selling more records, but I’ll definitely lose sleep over keeping my mouth shut” – Jason Isbell
AS: And angry [with “Look Like a Bird”], because I feel like we’re still in the middle of this fight for equality. I think it’s the line, “like I know my place in the world.”
On that topic, both of you have stepped up the way you talk about current events and politics in the last couple years. Not that you were ever quiet, but it seems more urgent.
JI: I think the circumstances have reached a new level of dire for all of us.
AS: And to quote myself, “It’s easy to be quiet.”
JI: That is the easiest thing to do. But for me, we’re at a point where if I’m alive in 40 years, I’m gonna need to be able to sleep at night and no matter what happens, no matter if any change happens or not, if I don’t do what I consider to be the right thing — which is speak my mind — I’m not gonna be able to sleep when I’m an old man, and I’m not gonna be able to speak to my kids about it. I’d like to be able to say, “I did what I could, I did part of what I could,” or you know, something that’s not just, “Well, I had records to sell, so I kept my mouth shut.” I’ll never lose sleep over not selling more records, but I’ll definitely lose sleep over keeping my mouth shut and letting things happen to people who are minorities for whatever reason, be it gender or their race or their sexual preference or the fact that they “like science.”
JI: We’re gonna learn how to fight in zero gravity now, with my fuckin’ tax dollars. I don’t think we need to be sending more tax dollars to defense contractors when people don’t have clean water and a decent education. But I’m a snowflake, that’s my opinion… We have a lot of problems and I don’t think increasing the size of the military is going to solve any of them. But training people to intercept Chinese satellites might not be necessary if we knew how to trade with other countries. I’m for diplomacy rather than, “Let’s fuck everything up and then get as strong as we can for when they hit.”
That seems totally sensible to me.
JI: It used to be the way, and yet…
And yet it almost sounds radical now.
JI: And yet it does, doesn’t it? “Good people on both sides,” I guess — of the space wall we’re about to get somebody else to build.
In 2015, Jason released Something More Than Free, which won your first Grammy. That same year, you two became parents. How did that change your perspective on what you do for a living?
AS: I’d already been through a bunch of stuff and you can’t be humiliated more than you are bringing a child into the world. That’s all just to say I think my process changed and I got quicker at getting things done, or not needing to write before you write. I used to do that a lot.
JI: Yeah, not as much pre-production time.
AS: Of course, life experience changes and adds to writing. And observations change too, where you put yourself in relation to other people.
JI: I know what you’re talking about. At that point, you started saying to me, “Every time I see somebody, I can’t stop seeing them as somebody’s child.”
AS: That’s what I immediately noticed. [But] everybody notices that.
JI: Not everybody. You’d think everybody would, but we’d all be in a much better place if everybody thought of it like that.
AS: I was too self-centered and too precious before with everything. I was too scared.
JI: Everything takes on this urgency and this actual end game. I thought, “OK, now there’s a purpose to this that’s not just me getting more things or getting more famous or proving to people that I can do something.” All those things seemed really shallow once we had a child because it was like, “Now there’s somebody that all this is going to be either her inheritance or her burden.” How I behave and the work I do and the things I do in my life are going to be things that she takes with her that either help her along her travels or that hold her back.
Amanda, with With My Piece of Land you said you were thinking about big changes, motherhood. You won the Americana Award for Emerging Artist as a result, even though you’d been working for a long time before that. What did that recognition mean to you?
AS: I guess what it meant was that I needed some kind of thing at that point, because I was full of a lot of doubt. It helped me to know that what I was doing was OK.
Jason, you’ve gotten commercially bigger with each album, even as sales are dwindling elsewhere. Why do you think that is?
JI: We have an audience that covers a broad range, age-wise. There’s something honest and sincere about the music that causes people to like it whether they’re 15 or 75 years old. I’m lucky enough to have an audience who roots for me. I feel like they want to help me be able to continue to write songs and perform and tour and make records the way I want to. I think a lot of those folks feel guilty about listening to an album for free or for a tiny subscription fee. And they think, “I want to contribute to this somehow.” A lot of music is made as entertainment, whether you’re grilling out in your backyard or getting ready for a ballgame or having a party, but that’s not really what I’m doing. Most of the time [my music] is made to be consumed as the object of your action: “The thing I’m doing is listening to this album.” Because it’s pretty heavy. You can’t really listen to “Elephant” and pregame for a football game.
Amanda, how do you feel about To the Sunset compared to the older ones?
AS: It’s the best one I’ve ever made. I’ve never liked any of my records until this one. [Isbell laughs] I’ve never said that before about any of the other records.
JI: I like that.
AS: Yeah, I mean, hopefully I can learn to love the other ones in some kind of way.
JI: Records are always like that. Records are always like your kids. You always love the newest one the most. [laughs]
AS: Records are like kids. They need to go out and get to work.
JI: Start making some money! I think it’s better than anything else you’ve done in the past. Why else make the damn thing?
Jason, do you feel the same about your progression and The Nashville Sound?
JI: I do, yeah. The craft on Nashville Sound is better than it’s been in the past. I was at a particular place personally with Southeastern that I’m not willing to go to again unless I absolutely have to, and there was a sort of alignment of the craft and my own personal life that worked to make that album something really special. But as far as consistency, all the way through, I think Nashville Sound is the strongest work I’ve done. I spent more time on each individual lyric. I was more open and more willing to talk about things I haven’t necessarily talked about in the past.
Have you had instances where you immediately impressed one another with something you’ve written?
AS: Yeah, “Cover Me Up.” I just said, “OK. Bye. I’m leaving.” And “Vampires.” And there’s also lines of his that you’re just like, “How did you put all those words together in a row?” [Isbell chuckles]
You are the master of the devastating couplet, though.
JI: That’s what I’m drawn to, I think.
AS: But it’s not to be show-offy or whatever. To me, it’s real. It follows the feeling.
JI: Her process is mystifying to me because it’s like there are all these pieces of a song floating around in space and then they all sort of align at the very end, like at the last second they all lock together. A song like “Can’t Leave It Alone,” you’d spent so much time working on the individual parts of that song [and] I was focused on, “OK, this little section – how is this gonna fit into the overall arrangement?” When I finally heard it all put together as one piece, I felt like that song was a really good example of how her brain works when she’s writing. “Parking Lot Pirouette” was another one. I know my wife a little bit better now because I’ve seen all those pieces go from a cloud to the point of an arrow. … We’ve written together and that works too — but only really with each other, because there’s just too much translating to do with anybody else.
Specifically because you know each other so well?
JI: Yes. For me, co-writing with somebody who’s not in my house and in my face all day long would be like going on The Newlywed Game with somebody else’s wife. Because I don’t have the time or the patience to tell you why my heart was broken on that day. [Shires laughs] We just need to go ahead and accept my heart was broken, now let’s tell everybody who’s listening to this song how it happened.
AS: Also, as you can see in this interview, he already knows what I’m trying to say, because it takes me awhile to put my words all together. Or it doesn’t take me awhile, it just takes a certain kind of… whatever that is…
JI: Je ne sais quoi? [laughs]
You’ve pretty much been interviewing one another this whole time, which makes my job pretty easy.
JI: We do good work as a team. I don’t think either one of us would be able to feel comfortable in our own skin on our own. I know I wouldn’t. None of the records I’ve done over the past six years would have happened if I hadn’t had not just help from her, but an entire support system.
AS: It’s awesome, because I have an editor. He gets to ask me questions about my songs.
JI: We do that for each other.
AS: If you’re struggling with the direction, or have no direction, you just come to a stop. He might say, “I can see three paths here” and it might turn into other branches of other paths. That’s pretty cool. And then to have somebody say, “The word you’re looking for here is this.”
JI: It’s also just a fresh set of ears sometimes. Because I’ve been in another room for three hours and she’s been sitting there staring at one line for three hours trying to get the next line. And she’s got this exhaustion in her brain and I come in and go, “Well, just say this.” I’m not doing anything genius. I was just watching TV in the other room.
AS: Or, one of my favorite things to [ask] is, “Is this too much?”
JI: That’s a question we ask each other a lot. Trust me, you don’t want to hear the lines of mine that were too much. Because the ones that wound up on the record are pretty damn much already. She and I go into the editing process when we’re helping each other with a song with this unspoken [agreement], or maybe it was spoken at one time years ago but we don’t have to say it again every time — if I tell you this is not your best, you’re not gonna get pissed. Or if you do, you’re gonna think about it and you’re gonna get over the offense and then you’re gonna look at it…
AS: Because that’s not easy. It doesn’t matter how many years we’ve been doing it. It’s hard when you say something like, “The middle part’s good, but the rest is a bunch of trash.”
JI: There are terms to the partnership, whether it be the working partnership or the romantic partnership. There are certain boundaries you learn about each other. You learn that if she asks me for my phone, I hand it to her, but she’s not gonna pick it up while I’m asleep. And it’s like if I bring her a song and say, “Will you help me with this?” she’s gonna give me her honest opinion. She’s not gonna pick the song up off my nightstand and start taking it apart.
But that requires a lot of trust in each other.
JI: It requires a lot, just like handing your phone to somebody requires a lot. But you have to be real careful to not be an asshole. And over time, if you’re real careful and actually care about somebody and show them that you care about them, they will trust you. It might take awhile, but they will trust you if you don’t give them a reason not to.