Fiddler, songwriter Amanda Shires brings starkly beautiful music to The Well
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was an ugly old thing, that fiddle hanging on the wall in a pawnshop in Mineral Wells, Texas, but it called out to 10-year-old Amanda Shires.
She was a girl at the time, at the shop with her father, who had gone to purchase a hunting knife. She knew what a fiddle did, but something about that particular instrument mesmerized her.
“I don’t know; there was just something curious about it,” she told The Daily Times this week. “It looked terrible — it was yellow and green — but it was more than that. It looked haunted, and as young as I was, I think what I saw was something I felt looked like something you could speak with, as far as instruments go.”
No one in her family played music, but when the store owner lifted it from its perch and handed it to Shires, it seemed to weave a spell over the girl and her father.
“It was a real surprise when I talked my dad into buying it,” she said with a giggle. “I don’t know what possessed him, because he’d never bought me anything like that. Maybe it had the power of persuasion. I don’t know; I can’t laugh it off, but I can’t explain it, either.”
And so began her love affair with the instrument, one that’s given her just as many moments of frustration as the years have gone by. That same day, she took it outside and sat down to play it, and within an hour had broken all of the strings.
“That was probably foreshadowing that people who play the violin or fiddle are tortured forever,” she said with a laugh. “I think it’s definitely a treacherous instrument. I had a mentor who used to say, ‘If you ever have an enemy, buy them a fiddle and five lessons.’ But playing it was good for me. It taught me patience and stuff.
“It was frustrating, but I never got to where I wanted to quit. I always wanted to make friends with it, and I was always trying to get better. I accepted that anything you want to do takes a lot of work.”
That work paid off: By the time Shires was 15, she was a member of the Texas Playboys, the Western swing outfit that had backed up Bob Wills; she went on to perform with the Thrift Store Cowboys and release a solo album, “Being Brave,” in 2005 before relocating to Nashville.
In Music City, she focused as much on songwriting as she did on playing her instrument of choice; in 2009, she released two albums — “Sew Your Heart With Wires,” a collaboration with fellow singer-songwriter Rod Picott, and “West Cross Timbers,” a solo album. “Carrying Lightning” was released in 2011, and over the past several years, she’s grown into a respectable name on the Americana and folk circuits. Her voice has been compared to both Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, her lyrics to those by Tom Waits; in 2011, American Songwriter magazine ranked “When You Need a Train It Never Comes,” one of “Carrying Lightning”’s tracks, as the fifth best song of the year. (A new album, “Down Fell the Doves,” will be released in the spring.)
She’s also notorious for not divulging anything about the lyrics to her songs. For “Carrying Lightning,” she decided not to include a track-by-track description of each song; she prefers, she said, leaving them open-ended.
“I think most people, especially the audience I have, are pretty smart. They know what a song’s about, and I don’t have to tell them, because I don’t want to mess with the images they have on their own,” she said. “Besides, I hate it when I hear a song I think is about a girl or a relationship, and it turns out it’s about drugs. I would have been just fine thinking it was a bad-ass love song.”
These days, she even considers herself as a songwriter more than a fiddle player. She still plays, and she’s grateful for the ability, but a devastating accident shortly after the release of “Carrying Lightning” changed everything. It was hot, the middle of summer, and she went to a local swimming hole with friends. Her hand got caught up in the rope swing over the water, and her left ring finger was severely broken. She has three pins in it now, and she’s had to re-adapt to playing the instrument with which she became enamored so long ago.
“When that happened, it was humbling because I had to kind of start over, and I found a place in myself where it was OK,” she said. “I used to think I’d always be a fiddle player, but now, I think I’m a songwriter first. I’m never going to be Stephane Grappelli or have the dexterity and agility that Sara Watkins does, but I’m OK with that. It’s kind of worked out well, and it’s made me more grateful, I guess.”