Amanda Shires Is Atmosphereless

Her country supergroup, The Highwomen, skyrocketed to the top of the charts last year. The fiddle-playing singer-songwriter has no plans to come back down.

The barn-turned-studio space at Amanda Shires’ home outside Nashville, Tennessee, feels like creativity come to life.

Gig posters dot the walls, colorful rugs line the floor, and the candle count clears double digits. The room is filled with instruments, including a guitar once owned by Leonard Cohen (bought by Shires, a self-described “disciple”) and an antique piano she admits could use tuning. There’s the stage, of course, backdropped by faux stained glass windows that were tour props for her husband, the musician Jason Isbell. The disco balls on the ceiling come with a dozen different light settings—“We’re halfway there, don’t worry,” she says, flipping through them all—and tiny black boxes are stuffed with notecards covered in lines and lyrics. 

There’s a makeshift painting studio, with easels set up next to windows that overlook the porch and the house Shires, 37, shares with Isbell and their 4-year-old daughter, Mercy. Somewhere, there’s an almost completed book of poetry that she’s been working on for the past two or so years. (She’s not putting pressure on herself to finish it, though. “I’m not like that person saying, ‘I’ve got a book that I’m releasing.’”)

The space is moody and atmospheric, the sort of place you picture inspiration striking. And throughout Shires’ decades-long career, inspiration hasn’t typically been in short supply. 

Since getting her start in the music industry as a 15-year-old playing fiddle with the Texas Playboys and then with Billy Joe Shaver, she’s released five solo albums and recorded and toured with the Grammy Award–winning Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit. She’s also played alongside the legendary John Prine, who’s become a friend and mentor. “He is one of those people who is the same person onstage as he is offstage, and I identify with that a lot,” Shires says. “Because, you know, a lot of people put on a mask for the work that they do. If he has one, I’ve never seen it.”

In 2018, the native Texan released To the Sunset, which earned a nod for Best Album at the Americana Music Honors & Awards (she lost to Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness) and marked a departure in sound from her earlier work.

Shires had written her previous album, My Piece of Land, while pregnant with her daughter. A reflection on home, the collection of songs has a quieter feeling, with a more stripped-down sound. 

To the Sunset is moodier and more ethereal. “Sonically, I wanted the atmosphere to be variations on sunset sounds—there’s a lot of wind sounds and effects done to the violins and guitars that make it more rock ’n’ roll,” she says, West Texas still ringing in her voice as she sits in the studio’s tiny kitchen on a stool borrowed from the painting area. Rolling Stone compared the result to “Radiohead and Kate Bush jamming with the Band inside a space shuttle.”

In 2019, Shires launched a new project alongside Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris that turned Nashville and the music industry on its head. An all-female riff on The Highwaymen—the supergroup of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson—The Highwomen blasted country stereotypes and punched back at what’s long been a male-dominated industry.

The band released their self-titled album last September, watching as it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and No. 10 on the Billboard 200. The 12-song record, which includes a gender-flipped version of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” centered women and their stories. As Carlile later put it, The Highwomen aren’t an album or a band. They’re a movement.

“Sonically, I wanted the atmosphere to be variations on sunset sounds.”

Shires still remembers the moment that set the movement into motion. Back in 2016, while touring in a van for My Piece of Land, a broken aux cord led her to listen to top 40 country. She wrote down the name and artist of each song she heard—a list she still has—and of the 22 she jotted down, only two were women. 

It was both a sobering and aggravating exercise. Shires thought of her daughter, Mercy, not quite a year old at that point, and wondered what would happen if she grew up and gravitated toward what was played on the radio.

It stuck with Shires. “Days more go by, and I was thinking of what I could do to make it different in case she does go that route,” she says. “I thought to myself, Self, I’m going to make a band and we’re going to be called The Highwomen.”

Shires called her producer, Dave Cobb, whose client list reads like a who’s who in country music—Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Zac Brown Band—and explained her plan. She wanted to start an all-female group that would sing about more than what women were “allowed to sing about.” No unrequited love songs, no needy songs, no sassy songs. “I was thinking more about Maybelle Carter and singing songs that tell a story, that you could learn something from,” she says.

Cobb suggested she reach out to Carlile, whose Grammy Award–winning album By the Way, I Forgive You he’d produced. Shires was reluctant at first—“I wasn’t going to cold-call Brandi Carlile”—but after Cobb orchestrated a meeting before Carlile’s set at Nashville’s The Basement East, the pieces began to fall into place. Grammy Award–winner Morris and veteran songwriter Hemby, who’s penned hits for artists from Blake Shelton to Kacey Musgraves, rounded out the roster. And on April 1, 2019, The Highwomen made their live debut at a fitting place: Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

It’s not that Shires was or wasn’t expecting The Highwomen to be successful. She’s the first to admit that you can never know the trajectory of any project. But she thinks the group couldn’t have happened at any other time, that maybe the reason recording together felt so natural is because the band was meant to be. “It takes a lot of frustration and strength to stand up for yourself and stand up for others,” she says, her hands waving as she describes the circumstances that sparked the band. For Shires, The Highwomen’s warm reception was a sign, validation of her desire to change the industry and shatter stereotypes. “What it does say to me is that we’re not the only ones that feel like we have voices that need to be heard.”

“It’s about exploring yourself and facing your fears and not being afraid to fall down.”

That conviction will stay with her on her latest solo tour, Atmosphereless, which kicked off in early February. As she tries, carefully, to encompass what the tour name means, she pulls out her phone, where she’s typed out impressions—“I have a lot of feelings scrambling around”—as they’ve come to her. “It’s a lot to do with the opposite of fear, and the opposite of fear is curiosity, really,” she says. “It’s about exploring yourself and facing your fears and not being afraid to fall down.” 

If To the Sunset was about acknowledging your past and moving forward, then Atmosphereless is about moving up, moving beyond.

A self-described curious person, Shires carries that attitude into her life outside of music. In 2017, she completed her MFA in creative writing, with a focus in poetry, and she recently started painting at her mother’s suggestion. “The more you show up for yourself, the more growth you have,” she says.

It’s an idea that’s echoed in The Highwomen, which Shires describes as being “about lifting each other and being there for one another.” To further that mission, members of the group have discussed the idea of settling in to play several nights at select venues. That would allow more Highwomen to step in—artists who weren’t able to join the group the first time around. Residencies would also let Shires and others offer songwriting classes for kids or work with organizations like She Is The Music, which aims to empower female creators.

Later this month, she’ll play at Luck Reunion, the annual music festival hosted by Willie Nelson. At Nelson’s ranch outside of Austin, Shires will join a lineup that features both legends like Kris Kristofferson and rising stars like Orville Peck.

Looking to the future, her taste for collaboration extends outside of country music—she names Radiohead’s Thom Yorke as an artist she’d like to work with. And she hopes to one day get top billing at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Colorado’s iconic open-air live music temple. (She played there with Isbell and David Crosby in September.) She wants to have another tour bus so she can travel with her daughter on her solo tours. “But like I always tell her and Jason, the actual place where our beds and our cars and our things are, that’s not my house,” Shires says. “My home is wherever Jason and Mercy are.”

But, most simply, she wants to do what she’s always done: create, whether through her voice, pen, or paintbrush. And when she plays her newest song, “Deciphering Dreams,” in her studio, it’s clear inspiration is still in strong supply. “I just want to keep making things,” Shires says. “I feel like playing music and being on stage is where I’m supposed to be.”


Melissa Flandreau is an editor of this magazine. Email her at melissa.flandreau@paceco.com.

Photography by David McClister; wardrobe styling by Kim Rosen; hair and makeup by Courtney Small

Originally Published March 2020