Whether she’s helping husband Jason Isbell reshape The Nashville Sound, singing along with artists ranging from Rod Picott to John Prine, rocking with Blackberry Smoke or riding solo, Amanda Shires performs on a high level as both a vocalist and fiddle player.
The Lubbock, Texas native joined a modern version of the Texas Playboys as a teen, but she didn’t typecast herself as a Western swing performer. Instead, she moved on to the indie-inspired Thriftstore Cowboys. From there, she became the musical and marital partner of Isbell. Alongside her husband and the couple’s go-to producer Dave Cobb, she had a huge hand in consecutive Best Americana Album Grammy-winning albums.
Shires shows that a great fiddler doesn’t have to stick with old styles of performing. She’s not simply reliving string band music (or at least she hasn’t beyond 2005’s Being Brave album) or revisiting her Texas roots, creating niche music for die-hard Austin City Limits viewers or people who make it out to festivals during daylight. She has a knowledge and appreciation for the past, covering Nick Lowe (“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”) and Don Williams (she and Isbell sing “If I Needed You” on that amazing Gentle Giant tribute album). Combined, skill with a traditional folk instrument and appreciation for roots sounds become tools to push popular music forward with each new song or solo release.
For those new to Shires’ solo output, here’s a good starting point.
10. “Cattle in the Cane”
Even if Shires relied solely on her fiddle player roots, she’d still make great music based on this early career cut.
9. “Deep Dark Below”
Add dark and otherworldly to the range of feelings Shires’ voice and multi-instrumental talent emotes on some of her best songs.
8. “Angels and Acrobats”‘
This heartfelt confessional teases the vocal skills and fiddle solos that’ve helped make rootsy country music mainstream again.
7. “Mineral Wells”
This sparsely arranged song creeps along, driven mostly by Shires’ vocals, until the lone instrumental break ties together the story’s last two acts.
6. “Upon Hearing Violins”
Shires opens her West Cross Timbers album with a modern rocking equivalent of a fiery, and vengeful, fiddle tune.
5. “A Song For Leonard Cohen”
Shires knew just what she would’ve said to the late Leonard Cohen per this quaint and detailed daydream of a song.
4. “When You Need a Train It Never Comes”
Train analogies and country lyrics go hand-in-hand still, as heard on this very different interpretation of the disappearing railroad blues off her Carrying Lightning album.
3. “The Garden Song”
Shires’ voice cuts through white noise, be it the rain on the album version or the audience ambiance on live recordings, in this shining example of how her talents apply to more than typical country or folk song structures.
2. “Nursery Rhyme”
This whimsical, upbeat song sounds more like a classic cut of baroque pop than traditional country music, but it still suits Shires’ skill set as well as anything in her or Isbell’s repertoire.
A co-write with Isbell, this standout cut off her most recent solo album might be the best entry point for listeners only acquainted with Shires’ contributions to other folks’ records.
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