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 multi-instrumentalist.
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 fiddle player. 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 multiple Grammy-winning Americana 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. Though she does rely at times on her 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, her skill with a traditional folk instrument and her appreciation for roots sounds become tools to push popular music forward with each new song or solo release.
For those new to Shires' singer-songwriter output, here's a good starting point. This list was first published in 2018, so it predates Shires' work with The Highwomen (a supergroup also featuring Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carlile), her fiddle accompaniment on Luke Combs' "Without You," her solo album To The Sunset and recent single "The Problem."
Whistle along to this 2011 example of Shires' storytelling gift.
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 showcases the vocal skills and fiddle solos that, in a perfect world, would 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 (as heard on Down Fell the Doves) 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 repertoire.
This standout cut from 2016's My Piece of Land might be the best entry point for listeners only acquainted with Shires' songwriting or fiddling contributions to other folks' records.
Honorable Mention: "Parking Lot Pirouette," "Leave It Alone" and, if Highwomen songs count, "Redesigning Women"
This story previously ran on April 12, 2018.