Amanda Shires was touring for “My Piece of Land” in 2016, riding in a Ford Econoline listening to the radio, when she noticed how few women she heard singing.
Shires, an American songwriter and fiddle player, realized that the issue didn’t directly affect her too much, but she had a thought.
“I started thinking if [daughter] Mercy goes into the music business, she’s going to do the extreme opposite of what I’m doing. What would that be?” Shires said. “Then a light bulb went off: ‘Oh, no. We’re going to have to fix country music as quick as we can. I don’t want her to have to operate in a world that’s lonely and isolated.’”
That thought led to a country music supergroup that, last year, came to define a moment. The Highwomen — made up of Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris — released an acclaimed self-titled album that, with its artistry and social consciousness, both depicted and helped drive a movement to bring more equal opportunity to country music.
“It sounds crazy, but I didn’t know I was creating a moment,” Shires said. “It’s all kind of a collective conscience. Everything has been simmering and bubbling, probably starting around 2016, because of politics, and feeling more empowered to speak up.”
After a few years of public conversation on the matter, there’s been only a little improvement, but Shires recognizes that while “we’re making little changes,” that “more changes will come, and that can be slow.”
The work continues as Shires tries to figure out who to talk to in an industry that should know that “everything always goes back to Mother Maybelle.”
“We have a lot more stories than what we get to tell on country radio,” she said. “As a person who’s played in one of the most legendary and historic bands, the Texas Playboys, I have faith. All I’m trying to do is to make a little bit more room.”
Shires currently might find her collaborative work getting some attention, but it was just in 2018 that she released her stellar album “To the Sunset.” As she took on powerful topics in her lyrics (her poetry MFA didn’t hurt), she set them to surprising sounds that moved her away from any possible folk pigeonhole.
“I think it’s a sonic representation of what I want the future to look like for me,” she explained. “I think it is sounds that are modern and forward, because I believe in modern and forward things, like moving from your past and moving on and trying to make a difference in the world. Those ideas aren’t traditional sounds. They’re bright and ethereal and spacey and rock ‘n’ roll and dancey, because sometimes situations get hard and tough, and the best way to handle it is with a good groove.”
Having her first child helped connect Shires to her own mother in some new ways, and some of the songs come from her stories, like “Eve’s Daughter” and “Charms.”
“Wasn’t I Paying Attention,” a story about a friend’s attempted suicide, comes from her dad’s life. These songs don’t deal with easy topics, but, ultimately, they aren’t dark.
“It’s just trying to put stuff out there to encourage people to do more within their friendships,” Shires said. “Last year, there’s been a lot of folks I know just fall down the rabbit hole ... for me not wanting to say the word ‘suicide.’ But that’s part of it. I should be more comfortable saying things like, ‘My friend killed himself.”
“It’s such a big and heavy thing,” she continued. “What makes me feel better at night is knowing that I’ve tried to help my friends and family — and, maybe, if I did it right, someone else out there.”
“To the Sunset,” then, becomes a way forward, a celebration of survival. It “Take on the Dark,” Shires proclaims, “It’s OK to fall apart,” but she does so with a hope that we can put each other back together again.
“It’s hard to be in a hard place, but talking about it, laughing about it, dancing about it, or just having faith that there’s light and hope at the end of whatever road you’re in the middle of. Take on the dark. Trust your friends that they’ll be there for you. Trust that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling.”
With Shires, it’s not just music. She’s fighting for something big for both the individual and her broader community. Her desire for change and for hope is genuine. Asked about the way her career is taking off, she’s hesitant to embrace the idea, saying that “if I believe my career’s doing super-great, I’ll be letting myself down if it isn’t.”
For Shires, getting onto bigger stages isn’t about fame, but something else.
“If I get into bigger rooms,” she said, “I can bring [Mercy] with me. My goal is not to be the most famous person in the room, but to get to take her with me.”
As seems typical, there’s the short-term joy of being with her daughter, and the long-term thought about how to raise a healthy human.
“She’ll see she can do music her own way and be a mom on the road,” Shires said.