Amanda Shires isn't afraid to be vulnerable — and she doesn't give up
Amanda Shires is performing at the 2023 Grand Rapids Riverfest, Saturday, September 9. Her latest album is a collaboration with the late Bobbie Nelson, sister of Willie, called "Loving You."
Music Director Kari Hedlund recently spoke with Amanda Shires, about music, relationships, small towns, women's roles in life and music, and being brave enough to be vulnerable.
KAXE New Music conversation with Kari and Amanda
This was edited for length and clarity.
Kari: Let's begin by talking about this new album, “Loving You” with Bobbie Nelson, Willie's older sister and professional musician. First, can you just tell us a little bit about your relationship with Bobbie over the years?
Amanda: I saw her perform when I was a youngster performing as a fiddle player in the (Texas) Playboys and other bands around Texas as a side person. I'd seen Bobbie playing with her brother, and I was taken by the fact that I saw somebody, a woman, doing a job that I hoped to have one day as a as a career, and and I never forgot it.
The second one I saw was Cindy Cashdollar and later on, we were opening for Willie Nelson, and Mickey Raphael, the harmonica player, introduced me to everyone and I got to sit in. After the show was over, me and Bobbie got to talking about, you know, clothes, and solos, and how we liked to be on stage and all that kind of thing. And we just had a fast friendship.
"I try to remind myself that vulnerability is a thing that is way stronger and unites more hearts...if folks aren't turned on by vulnerability, then you just don't need that in your life, you know. (You) need real people."Amanda Shires
Kari: You've known her for years, but how did this recording come to be?
Amanda: Take It Like A Man hasn't even been out a year yet, but I was recording that. And that record has a lot to do with the the politics of sex, also my marriage, also what it is to be a person and...Mostly a woman and have to fall into various roles because you're a mother, wife or whatever.
But I was trying to say that we're all bigger, multidimensional creatures, more than what our appearance suggests. But anyway, the marriage part; there's a song, "Always On My Mind,” that I've always loved and always loved hearing Willie do it. And I was just thinking about that song — I tried to record it and while that recording was good, I thought, "The thing that's wrong with it is I need Bobbie on it."
And then I go down to Austin, take her some orchids and she plays it with me. And then right after, we start going into other songs we knew, like “Red Wing” and some other fiddle tunes.
She said, “I believe we're making a record now.” And I said “Yes, ma'am." And she said, "The next song we're gonna cut is 'Summertime.'" And I said, “Yes, ma'am."
We had this plan that we'd make a record and we'd go play a weekend a month or something, and then go shopping and have nice dinners. Doesn't get to continue 'cause she passed away.
I do believe that her story still is more than worth celebrating and paying tribute to. And I think that maybe in heaven we'll get to do shopping, because if heaven is anything, it's got to have some shopping.
Kari: From an outsider's perspective, the friendship you guys had was visibly obvious. And the videos that have been coming out with your studio time together, it looked like a real a beautiful friendship.
Amanda: I mean, she was an amazing person. If you don't know her story, there's a book called Bobbie and Me, where she and Willie alternate chapters.
It's the story of them growing up and surviving what it's like to be abandoned in in the time they lived in, and then she had her kids taken away for playing in a bar and reputation sullied. She worked real hard and got it all back, and just the amount of forgiveness she had in her heart and faith and all that was incredible and I admire it so much.
And I do know for a fact that if it wasn't for folks like her, we wouldn't have what little lane we have right now.
Kari: On this album, there are some serious classics like you mentioned, "Always On My Mind," "Summertime," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." When you're recording songs that people know so well versus ones that maybe people aren't as familiar with, is there a different approach that you take?
Amanda: I thought there was, and then I got a little in my head and Bobbie said, "We don't think about everybody else that's recorded it. We think about how it feels to us."
She was really good about centering, and reminding, without even saying it, what music is and supposed to be, which is the place where your feelings go and your heart is moved.
Marriage and documentaries
Kari: We're talking with Amanda Shires on KAXE, out with a new album, Loving You, with Bobbie Nelson. Amanda will be at the Grand Rapids Riverfest, Saturday, Sept. 9, with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Shemekia Copeland and Dessa.
Speaking of Jason Isbell, you and Jason are married and recently released the HBO documentary, Running With Our Eyes Closed, which revealed a lot between you guys, your marriage and life. And it wasn't filmed during easy breezy times, which any of us who have been married more than 10 minutes understand that life is not all easy breezy!
You and Jason are both so consistently authentic and honest about your life, your songwriting, in interviews and in this documentary. Are there ever moments before these things are out into the world where anxiety is just hitting you?
Amanda: With that documentary, more so than ever. Just because when we set out and agreed to do it, it was before COVID and we weren't expecting that to go down. And we sure didn't plan that the things between us would get worse. But we always do what we say we're going to do. So we did it and we finished it. But yeah, that wasn't easy.
And it's not that it wasn't easy because people got to know the hard things. For me, it's that that stuff lives on its own, in its own record and document. Sometimes I get afraid of...well, we're all afraid of being judged.
Marriage is hard, but there are beautiful things, too. I get afraid that there might not have been enough balance with that, but then I'm like, well, it's OK. Maybe people are smart enough to know that it's not that dark, but I get afraid that folks would fall into that and think that's where we're currently at, when we've climbed that mountain, you know.
I would hate for people to walk around thinking we're just struggling every day, hour by hour. But I can't control what others think.
This is all just me rattling off what goes through my brain. Anytime I'm talking to a person on the radio or for print or something, I'm in control of that. (With the documentary) there's a director, Sam Jones. He's in control of that "other" when it comes to the documentary.
Anytime you open yourself up to something or say something that people don't normally say, you're inviting criticism. One thing that I try to remind myself of in public — whether it's minuscule or large, who knows, it's all the same feeling — but I try to remind myself that vulnerability is a thing that is way stronger and unites more hearts.
So I try to think about that, and then if folks aren't turned on by vulnerability, then you just don't need that in your life, you know. Need real people.
"Sometimes I get afraid of...well, we're all afraid of being judged. Marriage is hard, but there are beautiful things too."Amanda on the HBO Documentary, Running With Our Eyes Closed
Kari: That said, would you do a documentary again if you were asked?
Amanda: I mean...people ask me that and I think, well, I don't think I'm interesting enough! It would probably be the most boring documentary nobody watched.
Come garden with me for hours on end! Hear me practice the fiddle for six hours a day! You're gonna love this documentary.
Kari: This one's for you, yeah!
KAXE has always loved covering your music but Take It Like A Man was a serious fan and DJ favorite around here, just a record chock full of great songs.
As you mentioned, Take It Like A Man talks about relationships, societal expectations, which I obviously picked up on immediately. But then I heard an interview where you said it was also about sexuality, which I missed until I re-listened and watched "Hawk for the Dove." And now I don't know how I ever missed it. Can you talk about how that piece played into the album?
Amanda: That piece combined with a song called "My Own Galaxy." It's about how we all are our own identities first, even though as soon as you become a wife or a mother, people tend to forget that.
They expect you to fall into these roles where you're a person that is usually taking care of things or putting other people first, like your husband, or your sister, or your damn cousins, or your kids. When we think of mothers and wives and those kinds of things, we tend to suppress the ‘I’ identity.
And that is to say that first, we are women or whatever we are. We're people. And then we are whatever it takes to make ourselves feel whole and satisfied. And when we are whole feeling and satisfied, then we're able to accommodate those roles closer to 100%.
Like I told my nieces, you can enjoy sex and you can still have a sex life well into your 40s. I didn't know that! Nobody told me. They didn't talk about it back then, but it's not just that.
It's also about what we're told we have to look like or what we have to dress like or where our skirt line falls by which age. It's like, well, if I'm hot, I wanna wear a mini skirt! I don't wanna wear one all the way to my ankles if I don't want to. Who's business is that to put these things on us that really have nothing to do with anyone else? Just like bodily autonomy.
The thing about accepting others is fine, but we need to learn how to accept ourselves too. That way other people can get used to it. Here I am, just on a soapbox rant now.
"The truth is, it's all about money, and if we could convince those gatekeepers that there's more money in diversity and inclusivity, then they might change some things. But as it is, it's just a bunch of white dinosaurs, and the more there are stations like you and the more that there are other outlets for music, the better it is for artists and fans."Amanda Shires on diversity and inclusion in music
Kari: I wanted you up on that soapbox for a minute, so that's good. Or was hoping you’d go there anyway.
Amanda: It's great we can all accept others. I accept everyone, all things. But you say that and then what you do when you're not around people...you know, there's this idea in the South that if you hear somebody gossiping about somebody, they're also doing it about you, so be careful. Ohh. I don't know. There's just a little bit of hypocrisy a lot of the time.
Women in the music industry
Kari: Let's get into it a little bit about women in music.
Amanda: Then we start going in the soap box — we're not just on it, we're in it now!
Kari: We are in it fully!
There's been a real intense focus on country radio, but honestly most radio and industry in general does no better.
KAXE has worked towards a 50/50 split of male to female and female-identifying voices for over 15 years, and I'm not telling you this to say, "Oh, look how good we are!"
But more to say that when I go to conferences or places where I'm with other people in radio, this is a real anomaly. I get approached (with questions) like "What?" "How?" "Why?"
It's sort of an incredulous response. It is one of our goals and major priorities at the station, and it has been for over a decade.
Same with our festival lineups — (Grand Rapids Riverfest) has you, Shemekia (Copeland) and Dessa along with Jason, and that is not a common thing to encounter. My argument for equitable radio, and I'm sure you would agree, is that it's just always better having more voices on the radio.
Amanda: Most definitely. What y'all have going for you is that you can make your own way and make your own rules.
And then there's other radio stations that are owned by one company that doesn’t allow that. The truth is, it's all about money, and if we could convince those gatekeepers that there's more money in diversity and inclusivity, then they might change some things.
But as it is, it's just a bunch of white dinosaurs, and the more there are stations like you and the more that there are other outlets for music, the better it is for artists and fans.
And kids, even! Kids being able to see folks they feel they can identify with. I think that's how, even though it seems small, it's the biggest way to change things.
"If it wasn't for folks like her, we wouldn't have what little lane we have right now."Amanda Shires about Bobbi Nelson
When I started my idea for the Highwomen (in 2016), we released it (the self-titled album) in 2018 where we’re 13% representation on the radio.
Here in 2020, sometimes it's 15% and then sometimes it regresses all the way back to 11%, and then that's enough to make you want to give up!
But I'm not going to give up. You're not going to give up. We owe it to each other to do our best and to our kids and the other people in the world, you know.
Kari: Can you talk a little bit more about the the concept for The Highwomen in relation to your daughter?
Amanda: Yeah. So I was touring around in my van at the time, and she was nine months old. That week before I left, she was showing signs of being interested in the kazoo and strumming, and as I was driving down the road thinking about that, I was like, well, what's the worst that could happen?
Music's not stable, but I've met a lot of wonderful people and I've seen the world, and I've made some great friendships and...it's a beautiful thing.
And I was like, what's the worst that could happen? And I was like, "Uh oh, Top 40 radio!" 'Cause at that point on my van, all you could get was sports ball or Top 40 country radio and that got me really thinking.
And because I am not really often able to put all my thoughts out linearly — I think that's why I go to music — I was just thinking and taking notes. When I was able to express the idea of what I wanted The Highwomen to be and to do, I brought that idea to the great producer Dave Cobb who thought that was a great idea. That idea could have been quickly squished had he not seen the idea like I saw it. And I think it's because he has a daughter.
After that, he said you should meet Brandi (Carlile), and then I met Brandi. And then, you know, we found Natalie (Hemby) and Maren (Morris), who I had known when she was young but hadn't known her when she moved to Nashville. We like to say we got married before we got to know each other.
What's powerful about that is that there's power in numbers and there's also a freedom when you get a bunch of folks that think the same way in a group together. You know it feels good.
It doesn't feel like you against the world, I guess. And it's meant to be a platform where we support others and have whoever wants to be a Highwoman participate. And it's supposed to hopefully even make folks in other fields and realms of work feel supported.
Kari: Were you were surprised by the insane response to the group?
Amanda: Yes, very. I was like, nobody's gonna give a sh*t [laughing]. And sometimes you don't realize that so many people feel the same way right now. And that's a good thing when you feel like, okay, I'm not the only one in the world that feels like this, and then you feel even more supported.
We’re all supporting each other. A kind of a kind of sisterhood, you know. A great sisterhood that the world likes to try and say that we don't have. Like we're in a fierce competition with one another. No, we are not.
I mean, sometimes we are when there's only one spot on radio you can attain. But that's not my goal.
Kari: Right. When the quota has been filled.
Amanda: Yeah, I've been one to fit in the boxes. So I guess that's alright.
Kari: You grew up playing with the Texas Playboys, a classically male tradition. How do you think growing up playing next to those players shaped you and your expectations of male musicians?
Amanda: Oh man, I compare everything to that experience. Some things about the (The Playboys) that you might not have known was that's where a lot of Cindy Walkers cuts came from; the great writer and and other women writers. And then they had the McKinney sisters in the band. I'd never seen that that was an issue really.
It was after that group that I saw that there was a gender (divide.) It wasn't them that did it, though. And then I saw also that a lot of people don't respect music as much as some people do, but that's OK.
Kari: So you seem comfortable.
Amanda: Yeah, I'm comfortable. I compare everything that I've ever done to working with them because they were a class act, yeah.
Kari: And you seem comfortable speaking up in a genre or world that doesn't always support that. I'm sure there are some that you're surrounded by that don't feel so at ease pushing that envelope.
Does that ever frustrate you when people won't speak up?
Amanda: I wasn't comfortable talking about it until I started working with Lawrence Rothman. I'd gotten to a point where I was just so fed up with the business and then the the world of it.
How it was almost impossible feeling. I had resigned myself to quit music right when COVID happened. I thought that was a perfect time for COVID for me, because I was burned out and tired of it.
I was tired of the fight, I was tired of all of it. I was tired of keeping my mouth shut, trying not to let things slip out.
And then I started working with Lawrence Rothman and they modeled self-acceptance and helped me see agency. So I don't know that I'm good at talking about it now. But I'm definitely more comfortable talking about it.
Kari: Your Christmas album with Lawrence is one of my all-time favorite Christmas albums. It's dark, moody, fun, clever — it's not the typical holiday album. I also see that you're on Lawrence's latest album.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes you meet a friend and it's like, we're three months apart in age and they grew up working in the music business in the 90s when I did too. There's a lot that we don't even have to talk about because we've experienced the same things culturally and musically, and when we have references to things we both know what each other means. It’s a wonderful thing.
They're a great listener. They also notice if we're ever in the studio, when I say something and somebody doesn't hear it, their voice is so low if they say it, everybody's like ‘what? OK!’ And Lawrence is like ‘You didn't just pick up on the fact that she just said that?’ It's awesome.
Kari: I'm Kari Hedlund and this is New Music on KAXE. We are talking with Amanda Shires, who will be at Grand Rapids Riverfest this year, Saturday, Sept. 9, with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Shemekia Copeland and Dessa.
Amanda, have you been to northern Minnesota before?
Amanda: Yes, I love Minnesota. My grandmother used to have a place in Wisconsin, and then I've been to Minnesota with Willie too. And Jason. I feel like that's the place to move these days. It's so pretty, although I don't own any cuddle duds. I need to.
Kari: You would need to invest in some cuddle duds. You might even need to in September. Who knows.
"Because we're from small towns! We feel like small town people are people. Where I was born, the population was 14,348, Mineral Wells, TX. I grew up there and in Lubbock. And where's he from, there's even less of a population. It’s a good thing - small towns, big energy."Amanda Shires on performing at Grand Rapids Riverfest
Amanda: Maybe even a snow chain? I don't know. Do we need those up there?
Kari: Yeah, you would, yeah.
Amanda: OK, awesome.
Kari: So this is a small festival in a smaller town. Why would you and Jason agree to be a part of something like this?
Amanda: Because we're from small towns! We feel like small town people are people. Where I was born, the population was 14,348, Mineral Wells, TX. I grew up there and in Lubbock. And where's he from, there's even less of a population.
It’s a good thing — small towns, big energy.
Kari: It's going to be right on the banks of the Mississippi River and we're 75 miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi.
Amanda: See? Speaking our language, yeah.
Kari: Do you play on the same bill very often?
Amanda: Not very often. We did the Ryman show together, and we're doing this one. I like to! We both love to. I don't know that anybody's ever asked me that. So that's interesting. Maybe that's something we should consider!
Early on, when he was first touring in the bus after he was first sober, when Southeastern was coming out, I would tour with them a lot more.
Not that he ever needed me to keep his handle on it, I was there to support anyway. I don't feel like he needs that kind of support anymore.
And if he did, I'd jump on a plane and go over there.
Kari: Amanda, thank you for being generous with your time and for talking with me today and just sharing your words and your music.
Amanda: Thank you. I hope any of what I said made some kind of sense. But, you know, women haven't had the microphone very long, so I blame that on my rambling rant. It's an easy excuse.
Kari: You can have the microphone anytime.
Amanda: Ahh, thank you.