Amanda Shires wasn’t trying to name-drop, honest. It’s just that she’s been working alongside country music legends since she was 15, so most of the characters who populate her anecdotes happen to need no introduction.
My onyx ring reminded her of one John Prine once gave her — which she promptly dropped down a sewer grate. A few years back, when Shires got a long-tipped manicure shortly before she had to play fiddle at a show, Dolly Parton gave her sage advice she’s never forgotten: “You can’t just show up, you’ve got to practice with the nails.” The first person to believe in her as a songwriter, when she was still just a teenager, was the outlaw country icon Billy Joe Shaver, with whom she played in the long-running Western Swing group the Texas Playboys. Shires met Maren Morris, her friend and bandmate in the supergroup the Highwomen, when Morris was a precocious kid of just “10 or 12” singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” around a campfire when the two of them happened to be playing the same local festival.
Shires added, in her characteristic bone-dry deadpan, “She hasn’t gotten any taller.”
On a humid Friday earlier this month, the singer-songwriter nursed a Diet Coke in a cozy corner of the Bowery Hotel lobby in Manhattan. Shires, who is 40 and has been married to the musician Jason Isbell for nine years, wore a white tank that showed off her many tattoos (including a red “Mercy” on her biceps, the name of the couple’s 6-year-old daughter), black jean shorts, and — despite her dark-auburn hair still being a little wet from the shower — a full smoky eye. She was discussing her electrifying new album “Take It Like a Man,” which, if there’s any justice in the world or maybe just in Nashville, ought to make this wildly underrated country-music Zelig into a household name.
A violinist since childhood, Shires began her career as a sidewoman. But after taking Shaver’s advice and moving from Texas to Nashville in 2004, she found her footing as a solo artist, releasing six increasingly sophisticated solo albums and one with the Highwomen, which features Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby. (She is also a member of Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit.)
Shires hasn’t always felt like herself in the recording studio, though. When they first met, Isbell said in a phone interview, “She was a great songwriter and singer, but she was terrified” after some bad experiences. “Not everybody treated her with respect,” he added, “and a lot of people made her feel small.”
Even after the release of her excellent 2018 record “To the Sunset,” the thought of recording another solo album triggered such anxiety that Shires was sure she’d never make one again. She’d come to experience the studio as like being “under 2,000 magnifying glasses where you’re hearing everything you’ve ever done wrong really loud.”
Rekindling her faith in recording required building trust and working with the right people. She found one of them in an unlikely collaborator, the gender-fluid, Los Angeles-based musician Lawrence Rothman, known for making bold, haunted indie-folk. Rothman, a huge fan of the Highwomen’s album, had contacted Shires out of the blue, asking her to sing backup on a new song and was shocked when Shires said yes.
“I cold reached out, not expecting it to go down,” Rothman said in a phone interview. “Then we got on the phone and had such a great conversation, almost like we were long-lost relatives.” That chemistry carried over into the recording process, and eventually Shires decided she could make another record, as long as Rothman was producing.
“There’s a lot of dancing now in the studio,” Shires said. “A lot of joy, occasional tears. It’s become a beautiful thing again.”
Isbell said the difference is palpable: “You’re really hearing her true self on this record.”
Rothman recalled the incredible scene that unfolded when Shires wrote the new album’s title track in a kind of creative trance in early January 2021. A friend had come over to the Nashville barn that Shires and Isbell converted into an all-purpose studio — strewn with instruments and the abstract canvases Shires had started painting in acrylics during the lockdown — to give Shires her first haircut in 10 months.
“I was just messing around on the piano,” Rothman said, “and she’s like, ‘Wait, what is that?’” Shires leaped out of her chair — one side of her hair chopped shorter than the other — and told Rothman, “Don’t stop playing!” For the next hour, she sat on the floor in deep concentration, scribbling lines and flipping through notebooks and the index cards onto which she transcribes her best ideas. Suddenly she popped up and told Rothman to start recording a voice memo, sang the entirety of what would become “Take It Like a Man,” and sat back down to finish getting her hair cut.
“And then she’s like, ‘All right, what do you think?’” Rothman recalled with an awed chuckle. “And I’m like, ‘Uh, I’ve got to digest. This is like one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.”
“Take It Like a Man” is a haunting torch song that showcases both Shires’s voice — a little bit Parton, a little bit punk — and one of her strengths as a writer, the way her lines can be abstract and concrete at once. “The poetic and literal, trying to marry the two together — I think that’s what makes a great songwriter,” Rothman said. “And she’s doing that.”
In Nashville, Shires is an agitator and a problem solver. “If something is wrong, it is not allowed to stay wrong,” Isbell said of his wife’s outlook. “She refuses to ignore things that she thinks are wrong, and that is a hard way to go about your day.”
Shires’s idea to form the Highwomen was a direct result of realizing, while listening to countless hours of country radio on tour, how few female artists got airplay. (There’s a wonderful video online of her calling a station manager to ask why he’s not playing more women.)
When Rothman, who uses they/them pronouns, came to Nashville to produce the record, they observed Shires switch into a similar mode, correcting people who misgendered them and drawing attention to gender-segregated facilities. “Over two or three months, all of a sudden the bathrooms in restaurants and the recording studios were changing to gender-neutral,” Rothman said. “She really went around town and schooled everybody, which was kind of amazing. She really made it feel welcoming and like not a big deal.”
AS A SONGWRITER Shires’s musical influences are remarkably varied. On Twitter she identifies as a “Disciple of Leonard Cohen” (she also does a hell of an “I’m Your Man” cover) and posts about her admiration of Kendrick Lamar. Mixed metaphors make her skin crawl; basically anyone who appreciates the infinite power of a well-chosen word, she said, is all right by her.
In 2011, she enrolled in a graduate program at Sewanee: The University of the South to get an M.F.A. in poetry. “I just needed more tools in the toolbox,” Shires said. But she believes that the degree, which she finished in 2017 after taking some time off to have Mercy, helped her become a more precise writer, better able to capture what is “vague about emotions and the human experience with as much accuracy as possible,” as she put it.
That certainly includes the tough stuff. While there are a few upbeat numbers on “Take It Like a Man,” which is out July 29, a misty melancholy hangs over the majority of the record.
“Empty Cups,” which features tight harmonies from Morris, is an aching chronicle of a longtime couple drifting apart. “Can you just stop with these little wars?/Can you just hold on and hope a little longer?,” Shires asks on the gorgeous, soulful ballad “Lonely at Night,” written with her friend Peter Levin. Perhaps the most devastating song, though, is “Fault Lines,” one of the first she wrote for the album, during a period when she and Isbell were navigating what she called “a disconnect.”
When Isbell heard a demo of “Fault Lines,” he said, “the first thing I noticed was that it’s a very good song. Rule No. 1 with us is, if the song’s good, it goes on the record. Everything else, we’ll figure out.” (He told his version of this challenging period in their marriage on his own 2020 album, “Reunions.”)
Being part of a Nashville power couple didn’t make Shires want to paint an overly rosy portrait of her relationship — just the opposite, actually. “Because we’re a married couple in love, I didn’t want folks to think that if they’re in a marriage and it doesn’t look like that, that something’s wrong with theirs,” she said. “Not like I’m trying to expose my own marriage or anything. All I’m trying to do is tell the truth that it’s hard, and that people go through disconnects and that sometimes the idea of finding your way back seems like, Why? But it’s possible.”
Isbell plays guitar on nearly every song on the album (which was recorded live to tape in Nashville’s storied RCA Studio B) — the most brutal ones about marital difficulties, and the heartfelt “Stupid Love,” which begins with one of Shires’s sweetest lyrics: “You were smiling so much you kissed me with your teeth.”
In September 2020, Shires and Isbell released a duet called “The Problem,” a stirring story song about a young couple considering an abortion; all proceeds from the song went to Alabama’s Yellowhammer Fund.
Last August, while on tour in Texas with the 400 Unit, Shires began experiencing abdominal pain that she at first chose to ignore, because the pandemic had derailed live music for so long, “I was like, ‘I’m going to play music now! I don’t feel anything! I feel great!’” she recalled with a weary laugh.
Then one morning she fell to the ground in pain and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors told her she had suffered an ectopic pregnancy that progressed far enough that one of her fallopian tubes had burst. (“I have a high pain tolerance,” she said, once again in deadpan.) The experience prompted her to write a piece for Rolling Stone decrying the Texas abortion ban that could have affected her treatment had it been passed just a few weeks earlier.
She urged — by name — more country artists to take a stand about the then imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade. “Where are our Nashville folks?” Shires wrote. “Are they just going to sit around and drink beer? I want Garth Brooks out there telling people that women’s health is a priority. That’s what I want. Why not? What does he have to lose?”
In 2022, when success in country music is still tied to institutions like radio that don’t reward rocking the boat, being as outspoken as Shires is a big risk. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. “She’s a searcher, and that’s probably the thing that she values most in herself and other people,” Isbell said.
That individualistic streak makes Shires seem like a modern-day country outlaw, applying the rugged and righteously combative spirit of elders like Shaver and Prine to the version of Nashville she finds herself inhabiting — and challenging to change. That’s the animating spirit, too, she said, behind the provocative album title “Take It Like a Man.”
“To be successful as a woman working in an industry, we’re taught you’re not supposed to get emotional,” Shires said. “Don’t cry, don’t have your feelings. Be strong, show your strength, be stoic.” The song had sprung from her realization that true strength actually comes from “being vulnerable, saying your feelings, and also having the courage to just be” — which Shires certainly has in spades.
“So,” she added with a fiery laugh, pointing a finger at an imaginary enemy, “how ’bout you take that like a man?”