by Steve O’Brien
Amanda Shires sparkles, and it ain’t just her ruby coat and rhinestone boots.
I’m watching her at the Greek Theater, playing fiddle in the Grammy award-winning band her husband, Jason Isbell, fronts: the 400 Unit. It’s one of the many projects the top tier fiddler is part of, and in each case, she tempers her shine to fit the marquee.
The band shifts into an instrumental break, and lead guitarist Sadler Vaden dives down a long, winding solo. Shires paces toward him, fiddle laid gently into her neck, baiting him on. He flicks his fingers and pulls out of the flurry on a low, ringing note. She picks it up, bow rocking in and out, faster and louder, and for a moment she bursts into flame. Gently now, she guides the band back toward the chorus, her fiddle howling like a banshee moan.
“Don’t have too much fun before I come see y’all,” she tells me from her Nashville home. “I love the beach…but the fun has to wait ‘till I get there!”
Photo by Michael Schmelling
Amanda is somewhat of an expert in fun. A road musician since her teens, Shires has led a life of touring and playing music for nearly three decades now.
She was born out in the West Texas town of Lubbock, and while that’s enough country cred to give a Los Angelean reason to don a bolo tie, here’s some deeper cuts that might could give David Allen Coe pause: Her grandfather learned to cook in Alcatraz. She grew up sleeping on the floor of a Bail Bond business her mother worked nights at. She was a barrel racer.
At around 10 years old, Shires picked up the fiddle. On a whim at a pawn shop where her dad was selling some guns, she saw one on the wall and swore to him that if he got it for her, she’d learn to play it. Amanda made good on that promise. So good, that by 15 she was fiddling alongside the legendary Texas Playboys, playing standards, originals, and learning to swing and improvise.
By her 20s she had shot across Texas as a side player of sorts, hopping in with anyone who would (or wouldn’t) let her (there’s the famous story of her at 22 years old crashing the stage with Billy Joe Shaver’s band, grabbing a fiddle, and jamming along).
“Todd Snider was the first tour bus I was ever on,” she says, reminiscing. “Oh, and I hope I get to see my good friend, Shooter (Jennings, who will be at Beach Life)!”
This isn’t name dropping; Amanda has friends in all places, and has worked professionally with the likes of John Prine, Justin Townes Earle, Brandi Carlile, Chris Isaak, and renowned producer, Dave Cobb.
“There’s a ton of people I (still) want to work with, but I’m not just a good cold calling person…I let it happen naturally,” she says.
Her latest release, Loving You, was made with the late Bobbie Nelson, older sister to Willie, on piano. The natural happenstance for that project went like something like this: “We decided that we wanted to play music together and then spend some time shopping. And the only way to do that was if we made a record. So, we made a record.”
It’s a beautiful record. Where Shires was once criticized for the vibrato in her voice (“less goat, more note” a producer shot at a young Amanda), here she shines comfortably with beautiful renditions of “Summertime” and “Always on My Mind;” music fit for a country road or the Redondo Esplanade.
Be it alone or alongside a legend, Amanda Shires is a star in command of her own luster. She promised to “share in the great music meditation” with us this BeachLife Ranch Fest, and I promised we’d save the fun until she’s here, sparkle and all.
Amanda Shires plays BeachLife Ranch September 24.