Singer, songwriter and violin player Amanda Shire still remembers when she fell in love with the violin. She was learning to play classical music on the violin at school when her music teacher introduced her to some of Frankie McWhorter’s violin tunes.
“It was love on first listen,” Shires says of the fiddle songs. “I was like, ‘This is what I want to do,’ because you play this song and then you improvise…you just play what you feel in the chord. And I was really into it.”
McWhorter, who had played violin in Bob Wills’ band, became his teacher and, when Shires was only 15, he asked him to join the Texas Playboys.
“It took me a minute to really learn to improvise,” Shires says of those early years. “The players in the group, they took me seriously as a player, but they also understood that I was a kid.”
Shires would go on to make a name for herself, both as a solo artist and as co-founder of country supergroup The Highwomen, which includes Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. In 2020, The Highwomen won Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors and Awards.
Shires new album, Take it like a man includes several songs she wrote during a difficult time in her marriage to musician Jason Isbell.
“That part of my life and our marriage was tough and it brought me back to why I started writing and making music, which was expression,” she says. “When I was writing the songs, I don’t know what was going to come out, but sometimes I was so depressed that the only way to get better was to get by writing a song.”
Shires sings and plays the violin throughout this interview. Click on the audio link above to fully enjoy the experience
On channeling her feelings about her marriage into writing”fault linesand showing it to Isbell
I went there and sat in my indoor wandering barn, and that’s after some kind of nebulous argument, and I wrote “Fault Lines” and then I texted him, like you l imagine, I said, “I just wrote this song.” And then in my mind, I thought: Well, if he couldn’t hear the frequency of my voice before, maybe he could hear it through the music, you know? And one day we found ourselves in the studio and we cut the song. And after we recorded it, he said, “It’s a really good song. And I said, “That’s all you have to say. No more?” But through the process of creating the record and all that goes with it, the hours and the boredom, it became easier for us to have conversations, not because we were doing the troubleshooting work, but because we found common ground on something again, which has always been music and words.”
As a “disciple” of Leonard Cohen
I listened to all his records. I found and scrounged and continue to do so for every interview he did in any form, in any language. And I save them all and come back to them often… I own one of his guitars… My whole left arm is Leonard Cohen tattoos…I really feel like he did a lot of work for me that I don’t have to. Like, I know in all the research he did, he always believed there was something bigger out there, so I don’t have to try to learn all this other stuff. I could just trust the way Leonard Cohen did all that work for us.
On forming the all-female country supergroup tall women
In 2016, I was going on the road. My daughter was about a year old and I was riding in my tour van because I hadn’t gotten on a bus yet. And as it happened, eventually the aux cable stopped working in the van, so I was left to the radio choices of sports ball and Top 40 country music.
Also, during this time when I was leaving, I was thinking about how [my daughter] Mercy picked up a kazoo and she could play a kazoo. And she was dancing a little bit to the Beatles and stuff and starting to see the possibility that she might get into music one day. So I started taking notes on the radio because in 22 songs, [I heard] a woman’s voice…and it was a Carrie Underwood song from six years before that or something. In 2016, there were 13% representation of women compared to men on country radio, and now it still sits pleasantly at 16% on a good week. But I thought, what am I going to do about it, in case she gets into country music? And then I thought of Waylon [Jennings] and Chris [Kristofferson] and them from The Highwaymen, and I was like, “They were kind of talking about ageism.” I said, “It would be cool if I had a band, The Highwomen.” Then I told my friend Dave Cobb about my idea and he really liked it and he said, “I’m going to introduce you to Brandi Carlile.” And we met. While the idea was mine, it wasn’t just me who made this Highwomen a thing. It took Dave Cobb and it took Brandi and then it took Natalie [Hemby] and Maren Morris.
Amy Salit and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Kitty Eisele adapted it for the web.