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.
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