- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
Mention the word “panhandle” to Lubbock-raised singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, who now lives in Nashville, and it’s enough to make her swoon over the memory of her home state.
Sitting backstage in Zilker Park on the final day of this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, Shires is happy just to be talking to someone who knows the region’s proper term. “When you’re naming parts of Texas,” she says, “most people are like, ‘Oh, so you’re from like West Texas?’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s called West Texas, but it’s in the Panhandle.’ But trying to explain that to someone who’s not a Texan is difficult.”
But as much as Shires appreciates coming back to Texas, she’s equally certain that leaving was the right thing to do. A first-rate fiddler who got an early start with the legendary Texas Playboys in her teen years and played for years with popular Lubbock band the Thrift Store Cowboys, Shires ultimately wanted to be more than just an accompanist.
“Making records on my own was why I moved to Nashville,” she says. “Trying to be a songwriter in Texas was difficult for me, because I was widely known as just a side player.
“I felt like the only way for me to do that was to go somewhere new, where I’d be forced to start over. I’ve been passionate about words and studied songwriting forever, and it’s really nice to make my own records, to say things that I need to say.”
The move to Nashville ended up changing her life in ways she could never have foreseen. In 2013, she married Jason Isbell, a former member of the Drive-By Truckers who has become one of this decade’s biggest success stories in Americana music. Shires made an exception to her side-musician resistance for Isbell, joining his ace backing crew the 400 Unit.
But she’s still making her own music. “My Piece of Land,” released in September, is her sixth album since 2005. Her current tour to support the album brings her to the Texas Union Theater in the University of Texas Student Union Building on Friday.
Hitting the road has been more of a challenge for Shires and Isbell since the birth of their first child last year. (When Isbell and the 400 Unit played Willie Nelson’s Picnic in July 2015, Shires was almost eight months pregnant; it was her last touring show before giving birth.)
“It’s kind of not a natural situation, when you compare it to other people,” she says. “Like my sister, she has three kids, and they all go to school and she goes to work. So I was struggling with the idea of how that was going to work, and how our marriage was going to work.”
In addition to the logistics of traveling with a young child, Shires found that it affected her world view in ways that found their way into the songs on her new record.
“More than anything I struggled with the idea of home, and the the kind of home that my child would be growing up in,” she says. “And I discovered that home is just being with your friends and family. It’s not resigned to being in this physical address — it’s not just this place over there that’s your home and that’s all it is. I came to find out it was much bigger.”
It’s been a welcome revelation for an artist who always believed that starting a family shouldn’t have to mean putting music on the back burner. “I’ve actually gotten that question a lot, and I didn’t ever think about it before,” she says. “I’ve never thought about my life having to change because of a child. I knew it would, but I didn’t think I would suddenly not be following my pursuits and passions. I always knew I would continue to make music.
“People can have children and still follow their dreams. I still play with Jason whenever I’m not touring on my own, and he also joins me when he’s not touring. We’re just lucky that we get to do the things that we love to do. You know, I’m a really lousy waitress.”