Amanda Shires with special guest Honey Harper
Grammy and Americana-award-winning singer-songwriter and virtuoso violinist Amanda Shires has pushed the reset button, releasing an album that is so unlike anything she has ever recorded before that you would be tempted to think it’s her debut album instead of her seventh. Take It Like a Man is a fearless confessional, showing the world what turning 40 looks like in 10 emotionally raw tracks, and as the title track intimates, not only can she “take it like a man,” but more importantly she can “Take it like Amanda,” as the last line proclaims-- the clue to the entire album, and perhaps Shires herself.
“I wrote that last line, ‘take it like a man,’” says Shires from her barn/studio located about 30 minutes outside of Nashville. “Then I changed it. I realized you can try and do what they say and take it like a man and show that you can withstand anything. But truly you can only take it like yourself.”
There are few musicians of Amanda Shires’ stature who would be willing to sacrifice so much of their privacy and personal life for the sake of a record. But for her, art isn’t meant to be constrained, ever since her earliest days.
The native Texan got her start playing fiddle with the legendary Texas Playboys at 15. She toured and collaborated with John Prine, Todd Snider, Justin Townes Earle and others, and has long been a member of husband Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit band. Winner of the Americana Music Association’s 2017 Emerging Artist of the Year award, she has released a series of rapturously received solo albums.
In Shires’ world, music is how the tribe communicates. It’s that sort of communal thinking that inspired her to form The Highwomen – a concept that was born in 2016 which Amanda envisioned as an all-women supergroup intended to share the same swashbuckling spirit as ‘80s outlaw country outfit The Highwaymen. That band, consisting of country music legends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, was a successful reaction to a prevalent ageism in Nashville circles. The Highwomen – Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby -- aspired to redress the scarcity of women artists on country radio, and released a critically acclaimed self-titled album in 2019.
“I realize I have a responsibility to tell the truth and if it empowers someone, all the better,” Shires says, who is often seen donning one of her trademark hats from her vast collection. “My goal is to accurately explain my feelings to myself and hopefully find folks out there that feel or have felt the ways that I do. I share so much personal information so that others don’t have to feel alone.”
That’s something she has achieved superbly on her new album, thanks in large part to a creative rebirth inspired by a chance encounter. Shires had no plans to record an album during the pandemic ... if at all. A couple of events left her disenchanted with some of her choices, musical and otherwise, and had her wondering if she should continue.
“I just wasn’t thinking about recording or performing, because I was protecting myself from what I thought could be the loss of music and touring altogether,” Shires admits. “Even when it was clear this wasn’t the bubonic plague, I wasn’t letting myself think of what the future looked like.”
Meanwhile, Lawrence Rothman, an extravagantly talented gender-fluid singer-songwriter and producer, was in the process of recording their sophomore album, Good Morning, America. Rothman, who has also worked with the likes of Angel Olsen, Girl in Red, Courtney Love and Kim Gordon, wanted Shires to sing harmonies on one of the tracks.
“When I discovered Amanda’s music it was the first time I heard a voice where I said to myself if I ever had to get in the studio with anybody other than myself to produce my own music, it would definitely be this fairy over here, this little bird of a woman. I was just mesmerized. I thought she was the new Dolly Parton; Dolly for a new generation,” remembers Rothman on the phone from Los Angeles.
While Shires hadn’t heard of Rothman, she responded to their request because of something her late mentor and friend John Prine taught her. “John listened to everything that crossed his desk, and that’s why he took a chance on me. Lawrence Rothman’s manager sent my manager a song, and because of John I listened to it. ‘Wow, OK,’ I thought after I heard it. Plus, I loved that they wanted me to sing. Usually people just want me to play violin.”
In November 2020, Shires got in touch with Rothman. The two began a conversation by text that continued for hours. By day’s end they had cowritten a song on their phones. The two worked for three “trial” days right before Christmas, and ended up with three songs.
“Those just clicked, but other than that, I had nothing else written,” explains Shires. “We decided to meet up after Christmas and continue working.” That collaboration also resulted in 2021’s critically acclaimed For Christmas album, the rare holiday record that explores the full range of emotions people cycle through during a season that’s not all comfort and joy.
“I wasn’t going to take any of that ‘I’m giving up on music’ from her,” says Rothman. “I do know that she was on the brink of like throwing the towel in. The whole time I stood by her, right by her mike while we did everything. I was never in the control room. I said to her, ‘I’m like your hype girl. I’m like your cheerleader. I’m your f------coach.”
“Lawrence talked about feelings in music and about sounds for hours all day, and it rekindled in me the warmth I have for music and the love I have for words -- and reminded me that the music business isn’t all just a grimy slimeball,” explains Shires. “Everything just seemed to fall into place.
“The problem was,” she laughs, “When we came back after our trial days, I had to write more songs.
“I had plenty of things written down between my journals and my index cards,” says Shires. “My writing process is I take the journals that I’ve kept and I go through with a highlighter and pick out words, partial lines, ideas or themes. Sometimes just a metaphor or something my daughter has said or an observation. Then I copy all highlighted words onto an index card with a black Sharpie and I put the index cards in a box. Then I put the journals in the shredder and I put the shredder in the compost, which goes to my tomatoes in the summer.”
By the time Rothman came back a month later, the compost box was overflowing and the walls of Shires’ barn were covered in index cards that she’d attached with painter’s tape (doesn’t ruin the paint!). In less than a month Shires had written 26 songs deciphering what had been going through her mind, from 2018, where her To the Sunset album left off, to the present.
The result is a song cycle of ruthlessly candid tunes written as a document about her life as a woman, a wife (to husband Jason Isbell) and a mother during a tumultuous time. Produced by Rothman, and featuring Isbell on guitar on several tracks, it’s an album filled with revealing autobiography, sexual tempestuousness, resentments and recrimination, spun out with a logic and sequencing as obliquely plotted as an Agatha Christie mystery. Each song reveals either a hidden passage to another song or an insight into the marriage, the crimes that were committed, the accusations sparked but never uttered, and the love that exists between them still.
But it’s not a break-up album. Its arc feels more like the anatomy of a marriage, depicting how over time affection and closeness rise and fall.
“I’m uncomfortable with the idea of everything in the public seeming so perfect, and needing to be presented right. Just because people listen to Jason’s records and go to his shows and whatnot doesn’t mean they don’t need to know that our marriages look exactly the same as theirs. You take all that celebrity stuff away, and our marriage is just like everybody else's,” Shires says.
“We were having problems before Covid, and then during Covid there was a lot of pressure, like with everybody,” she amplifies. “We were sitting here in our wonderful house and talking about the people that didn’t make it through that. What we decided is that we’re happiest if we work on ourselves. Then we have more to offer each other.”
And all the time alone came with some big realizations for Shires. While both she and her husband are artists, she had more domestic jobs and responsibilities than he did, and it was making her resentful.
“Jason’s Covid talent was getting better at the guitar, playing it eight hours a day. What was my Covid talent? It was setting boundaries. I allowed myself to take up more space in my own life.
That’s what Covid did for me. It gave me the courage and freedom to say, ‘I’m working on something that's important to me, and I’m going to keep working on it till I have it right.’
“Because of that decision, I think these are better songs than I’d written ever before, because I held that line. There is a confidence that comes from not bending. This album is a document of what the past few years have been like for me. I figured out what it takes for me to feel satisfied at the end of the day. I drew my boundaries. I held on tight. I allowed myself to serve my work uncompromisingly. It’s true what they say on airplanes before you take off: You have to put your own mask on before you can help anybody else.”
Just as important was Shires’ realization that she needed an identity outside of her relationship and motherhood. No longer the well-behaved musician of her earlier albums, she has gotten rid of most of the good-girl trappings, the plaid shirts and pigtails. On Take It Like a Man, she’s written songs that crackle with pain, resentment, longing, anger, and ennui. The album documents a woman giving birth to herself: a musical version of the famous 1932 Frida Kahlo painting My Birth, only a little less graphic. Over this suite of songs, she fearlessly excavated what the couple had gone through.
“Hawk for the Dove” is a dark, haunting Southern gothic full of minor-chord bravado and overt seduction, shot through with an evocative gypsy fiddle and Isbell’s echoing guitar. Her voice on the title track -- originally titled “Common Loon” -- is a revelation: It’s a song about being brave enough to choose to go ahead and fall in love knowing that love/relationships don’t always go as planned. Tremulous and anxious, it’s an elegant waltz full of peril and sadness, a song that wouldn’t be amiss as an accompaniment to Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”
Elsewhere, standout “Empty Cups” turns back time; with its gauzy imagery and wrecked poetry, it recalls Van Morrison during his early years. Featuring background vocals from Highwomen cohort Maren Morris, it shows the true depth of Shires’ songwriting abilities. “Don’t Be Alarmed” offers a small shred of hope and humor thanks to the crack team of Shires, Ruston Kelly, Liz Rose and Isbell, and contains some of the album’s best lines.
Another key track is “Fault Lines,” the first song Shires wrote for the album. “That was a big clue to what was going on. For some people marriage is easy. For my mom it is -- she’s done it five times!” laughs Shires.
“I second-guessed myself a lot by keeping ‘Fault Lines’ on the record, saying to myself, ‘Do you really want people to know this or hear this?’” says Shires softly. “I guess I could’ve been more vague with words, but my intentions were to tell the truth the best that I could from the place that I was in.”
As a stately drum mimics a beating heart and the second stage of grief, “Fault Lines” assigns responsibility for relationship strains equally. “Here He Comes,” the last song written for the record, is upbeat, jazzy and hopeful, while “Bad Behavior,” with Brittney Spencer and Maren Morris’ background vocals, is suggestively light and loungy. The title track, buttressed by mournful horns, seethes with Shires’ raging, unruly electric violin.
“Stupid Love” promises a smoky blue light at the end of a claustrophobic tunnel, while “Lonely at Night” contends that love endures no matter what has transpired. Enhanced by singer-songwriter Brittney Spencer’s harmonies, it sounds like something Dusty Springfield could have sung in the ‘60s or Cat Power in the ‘90s. “Everything Has Its Time,” co-written with Highwomen band member Natalie Hemby, is a cautionary tale, cinematic and prophetic and full of homespun truths, like the kinds Dolly Parton used to dispense around the time of “Jolene.”
“Everything on the record is autobiographical. I didn’t hold anything back. Then, if the details were boring I infused other stories,” she laughs. “Like my granddad said, if your story’s not good enough just make it better.”
“I think what I’ve learned is any time you get your heart broke, from love, music, your business, your life, you always think that’s it!” Shires reflects. “But it hardly ever is. You look back and say ‘I’m glad that wasn’t it at all.’ It’s a cycle that keeps repeating over and over, like Gabriel García Márquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude. The end is rarely the end; it’s just another loop of the wheel. Matters of the heart get confusing. But when you’re in need of something, somehow the universe gives it to you if you can just hold on a little bit longer.”