It’s lunchtime, and Amanda Shires is at Puckett’s, a local barbeque joint in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, spooning heaps of sugar into her large cup of iced tea. Somehow Shires – a Nashville-residing Texan – got stuck with the unsweetened variety, and that simply will not suffice. So Shires, in a huge straw gardening hat and denim shorts, does what comes naturally: She gets that drink to taste exactly how she wants it, all by her damn self.
It’s an approach the songwriter carried through to her upcoming album, To the Sunset – her first since winning last year’s Emerging Artist Award at the Americana Honors for the excellent My Piece of Land. As a member of husband Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit and on her own, Shires has become known in recent years as one of the genre’s new visionaries, building on a career that began at 15 playing fiddle for the Texas Playboys and Billy Joe Shaver. Which is why it’s surprising to find that To the Sunset isn’t particularly Americana at all.
“If you are making an Americana record, and you’re a woman,” Shires says, now sitting outside with some pulled pork, sweet potato fries and her tea as wafts of cottonwood fall around her, “you have to play acoustic instruments and be fucking sad all the time. I did not want to do that.”
To the Sunset is neither acoustic nor exclusively sad. Instead, it’s a musically progressive, lyrically daring collection of pop and rock tracks about life’s cycles and transitions. And why wouldn’t Shires want to venture outside of the country realm, anyway? It’s near impossible for a woman to garner significant airplay in the genre, and, as Isbell sang on “White Man’s World,” “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound, but they’re never gonna let her.”
If Nashville isn’t going to change, Shires sure is. She spent 12 hours a day writing the songs for To the Sunset, often hiding in her closet, away from daughter Mercy, so she could focus. Working in the studio with producer Dave Cobb (Isbell, Chris Stapleton), Shires did her best to unlock new capacities within the instrument she’d played all her life. “I’d say things like, ‘My violin needs to sound like it’s in an aquarium, but more bright,'” Shires explains. The solution? Plugging into some guitar pedals. “Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”
With Isbell, her fiddle playing often follows a pulse of passion – it’s conversational in a way that’s looser than strict call-and-response. On To the Sunset, she trails that muse in search of unexpected ways to deal with the mortal curse. There’s “Break Out the Champagne,” where she’s toasting her demise; “Charms,” about what it means to parent and be parented in return; and “Leave It Alone,” where she’s lusting to a locomotive beat. There’s also some pondering about our Instagram-obsessed culture, and people who would rather take a picture of a sunset than head straight for it, eyes and arms open wide.
“It’s funny, the curated version of people,” Shires says. “It’s like, ‘Wow! You are a true southwestern-themed person. You love Navajo rugs. Get out of here with that macramé!’ Everyone is doing a trendy, bloggy thing. There is not a lot of quiet reflection. And not a lot of time being alone.”
To the Sunset‘s intimate quality feels tied to those hours Shires put in writing on the floor of her bedroom closet, where she’d tear up ideas from her journals and paste them on the wall with painter tape, trying to form songs. Anything rejected would end up in her compost pile to feed the arugula, snap peas, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables she’s growing in her garden. She was out there this morning, in fact, hence the giant hat.
“It’s actually great,” Shires says. “At the end of the season you have ready-to-go fertilizer for your garden. I have not yet proven how it will impact the taste, these shitty words, but we will find out.”
Even when she’s not working on songs, Shires is a poet – she holds a masters degree in poetry and loves Billy Collins, Mark Strand and Mary Oliver. But despite being married to another songwriter, the house isn’t a constant exchange of ideas: She and Isbell write independently, sharing only occasionally. “We show each other what we are working on at various stages,” Shires says, “if we feel like it.”
“Her songs are always fresh and different,” says John Prine, the legendary songwriter who happens to be Mercy’s godfather. “She approaches her subject in a completely unique manner.”
You can hear that in the way she re-envisions one of her own songs on the new album: Shires updates “Swimmer,” from her 2011 LP Carrying Lightning, with a speedier, more urgent tempo. But To the Sunset‘s true centerpiece is “Break Out the Champagne,” a verse of which was inspired by a real-life incident when Shires’ plane lost an engine mid-air and is propelled by a uniquely memorable melody – like that aircraft, it flirts with danger but kisses the ground.
Shires still hates planes. “I often like to come on a second flight so, if one goes down, at least Mercy has one of her parents,” she says of the occasions when she and Isbell fly together. “And it doesn’t feel dark to me. It feels like the truth.”