Both as a solo artist and with her new supergroup, the Highwomen, Shires gives voice to the often unheard
When Amanda Shires debuted as a solo artist a decade ago, she was driven by the desire to make more voices like her own heard.
“I didn’t hear a lot of women’s voices, or see many women doing music. At that time, it was super male-dominated — even more so than now,” said Shires, reached by phone on the road in Canada. “You can see it getting better. There are more women playing instruments, engineering records, writing songs and going out to perform them. … But initially, I was just not hearing anything that I felt represented me.”
Ten years on, the motivation hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s expanded. In addition to a flourishing solo career, the Nashville-based Shires recently formed the Highwomen alongside fellow musicians Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby, starting the group as a response to the lack of female representation Shires saw within popular country music.
“I was thinking, ‘If Mercy (Shires’ daughter with husband and fellow musician Jason Isbell) grew up to do music, which is likely since both of her parents play, and she decided to go into country, it would be difficult,” said Shires. “On the Billboard Top 50 [Hot Country Songs], currently there are two women singing songs on it, which sounds like a joke, like, ‘Really? Are you making that up?’ It’s true, though. … It’s so ridiculous that you have to laugh about it, but it’s also really, really crushing.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
As an antidote, the Highwomen, which is scheduled to release its debut album in September, has teased songs like “My Only Child,” which the musicians described as an ode to “suburban moms” during a July performance at the Newport Folk Festival, in addition to more stampeding turns like lead single “Redesigning Women,” which finds the foursome detailing just a few of the myriad hats modern women can be forced to (stylishly) wear throughout the course of a day — a pressure Shires was certainly feeling the afternoon of our early August interview, as she gracefully navigated caring for a sick child while maintaining scheduled press obligations.
“They’re songs from a woman’s perspective, about our daily lives, our domestic lives, and the problems and joys that we have within them,” said Shires, who visits the Basement for a solo show on Thursday, Aug. 15. “In the past, in country music, it’s been encouraged for [women] to sing songs that are love songs, or that are, like, ‘I need a man,’ or, ‘I’m lonely.’ Well, a lot of times those are ballads, which is cool, but then you can’t really get work doing festivals because they want to hear uptempo songs … and it winds up being a weird catch-22.”
On Shires’ most recent solo album, To the Sunset, from 2018, the musician drifts far afield from the typical love-struck ballads, spinning her way through loosely psychedelic waltzes (“Parking Lot Pirouette”), thoughtful meditations on parenthood (“Charms”) and propulsive rockers like “Leave It Alone.”
Even in those moments when Shires does slow it down, as she does on gutting album closer “Wasn’t I Paying Attention,” it’s to linger on a brutal suicide attempt, the singer’s final words falling as swiftly and sharply as a guillotine. “He took off his coat, doused himself in gas/Slit his own throat, climbed back into the cab,” Shires sings atop ominously buzzing guitar. “And lit the match.”
The song details the true story of her father’s friend, John, and Shires said she wrote it, in part, to ease her father’s guilt over not noticing the signs that something was amiss.
“I’m not really a person who’s good at just making anything up,” said Shires, who completed the song while the friend was in the hospital’s intensive care unit. “My dad had known John for a long time and they were great friends. But, as life is, you might know somebody and not be aware of how much they might have needed help, or you might not have seen the signs. I think with that song, I was just trying to, in a way, make the conversation easier for folks to have within their own circles.”
While the tune ends on a foreboding note, the story itself has a happier ending: Following weeks in the ICU, the friend survived.
The unexpected turn reflects the path numerous characters traverse on To the Sunset, with Shires embodying a range of narrators who have been run through the physical and emotional ringer only to emerge stronger on the other side. Witness “Eve’s Daughter,” the tale of a gas station clerk who cuts bait on her relationship to a military man after things take a violent turn — “And then came the fights,” Shires sings ominously — eyes locked on the future, still determined as before to find her “happy ever after.”
“Folks like my mom or my friends, or even in my own life, we all have versions of these stories,” Shires said. “Townes Van Zandt said you could either sing the blues or ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,’ and I guess I’m just [drawn] to the blues. … But, with me, there’s still always that light at the end of the tunnel.”