Amanda Shires still remembers the first time she recorded in a Nashville studio, but it’s not one of her better memories. She was tracking vocals when the man behind the recording console offered some non-constructive criticism.
“Less goat,” he told her, referring to the natural trill in her voice. “More note.”
“OK, that’s nice,” Shires remembers sarcastically thinking to herself. She ended up going to see a vocal coach, who bluntly told her, “That can’t be helped.”
That was a lifetime ago, of course. Today, it’s hard to imagine anyone telling Shires she’s doing it wrong.
The 40-year-old, who grew up in Mineral Wells and was Texas Music’s 2011 Artist of the Year, is widely renowned as a talented singer-songwriter, fiddler and co-founder of the country supergroup the Highwomen. She’s also a fixture of the 400 Unit, the band fronted by her husband, Jason Isbell.
But even after a decade marked by milestones, those negative, critical voices were still finding their way into her head. As the pandemic loomed, Shires says she “really believed in my heart I was finished with music” — and she blamed herself.
“I’d originally thought, ‘This isn’t working because of me or my musicianship.’ When really, in hindsight, I was working around some people I shouldn’t have been around so much, because it made me feel small.”
Fortunately for the rest of us, Shires came to this realization as she tentatively put together a new album, one that may be her best work yet.
The just-released Take It Like A Man is a breakthrough on several fronts: the keenly focused production by a new friend and musical champion, Lawrence Rothman; the lyrics that vividly lay bare an uncertain period of her life; and bold performances that lean on her uniquely emotive voice. The sound that couldn’t “be helped” is now earning Shires comparisons to Dolly Parton.
“In the octaves of consequence,” she sings on the title track, as cinematic violins lift its minor-key drama sky-high, “I know the cost of flight is landing / And I know I can take it like a man.”
On top of self-doubt, Shires was dealing with “a disconnect happening in my marriage” when Rothman first reached out to her, asking her to sing harmony on one of his songs. She remembered how the late John Prine discovered her music by “listening to everything that came across his desk. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot.’”
Shires was taken by the song’s arrangement, production and lyrics. Soon, she was sending several songs of her own to Rothman, who flew to Nashville in December 2020 after Shires agreed to a single “trial day” in the recording studio.
One of the first songs she shared with Rothman would become the album’s gut-punch of a centerpiece: “Fault Lines.” Over plodding, dark piano chords, she calmly lays out a plan for separation from her partner: “You can keep the car and the house / We both know that none of that was keeping, keeping me anyhow / You could say it’s all my fault / We just couldn’t get along / And if anyone asks me, I’ll say what’s true: I don’t know.”
“Me and Jason probably had some stupid argument about our life’s purpose, or COVID or whatever,” Shires says. “Some nonsense.”
“And I did the thing I do when I’m trying to explain my feelings to myself. I go sit down somewhere with my little ukulele, and I write a song. And I thought, ‘Man, maybe this is the way I can get to Jason,’ because I was having trouble getting in there. I sent Jason the song, and he didn’t listen to it. [Laughs] And I was like, ‘This asshole.’”
Isbell eventually came around and ended up playing guitar on several tracks of the album. On release day, he sang the praises of his “brilliant wife” — “I’m proud to have helped out,” he wrote on social media, “and grateful to be part of her creative life.”
Her friends also lend a hand: Maren Morris adds classic harmonies to the torch song “Empty Cups,” while Brittney Spencer’s ad-lib performance on “Bad Behavior” is “the purest expression of joy I’ve ever seen somebody have in my life,” Shires says.
She had a similar moment of her own in the studio. Album opener “Hawk For The Dove” concludes with a ferocious fiddle solo — one Shires didn’t know she’d play until she impulsively reached for it while her full band was recording. The room wasn’t formally set up to capture the sound, but her collaborators urged her to seize the moment. (“You should play the fuck out of it,” Shires recalls drummer Fred Eltringham saying.)
Inspiration surrounded her throughout the songwriting process, too. Shires writes in a journal every morning before getting out of bed. When a journal fills up, she copies the parts she likes onto index cards and shreds the rest. The cards are taped all over the barn at her home, where she paints and plays music.
“You start seeing themes,” she explains. “When you see them all together, they kind of present themselves as sort of like a big bowl of spaghetti you’ve got to untangle.”
On Aug. 11, Shires took the stage at the Blue Room in Nashville. The gig came less than a week after the Highwomen — the group she formed with Brandi Carlile, Morris and Natalie Hemby — performed at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, opening for Chris Stapleton.
“It was a thing I never could have imagined in my whole life,” she says. “Not as a kid, not if I was reincarnated as a damn rat.”
Starting in September, she’ll be on the road for nearly three months, including a return to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, opening one of Isbell and the 400 Unit’s annual shows at the venue. Less than two years after she thought she’d hang it up, she can’t wait to hit the road.
“To have that back is a big deal,” she says. “I’m not gonna take it for granted, and I’m gonna take care of it.”
This story originally appeared in the Tennessean.