Amanda Shires - Fiddling for Texas from Nashville
Amanda Shires doesn’t really expect to hear from Gwyneth Paltrow again but if the star of Sliding Doors and The Talented Mr Ripley wants to take up an option as the country singer she played in last year’s Nashville-shot Country Strong, the talented Miss Shires will be happy to play fiddle with her again.
Being a movie star’s on-screen fiddler is just one of the experiences that Shires can point to that go towards making a rich life, if not a huge bank balance, as she sets out on the European leg of the tour that promotes her latest album, Carrying Lightning, and brings her back to Scotland this month.
There was the time she met country songwriting legend Cindy Walker while still a teenage fiddler with the Texas Playboys and was hugely taken with this angelic vision, dressed all in purple, who imparted the wisdom that to be a songwriter you first need to write a hundred songs – and then start again. Or the favour Shires did for Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve, by posing as a model on the cover of his first album.
“Justin was one of the first people I met when I arrived in Nashville,” she says. “We were friends and had played together a lot down in a dive bar outside town. So there was nothing uncomfortable or unnatural about doing that shot and I never had delusions of a modelling career as a result of it. You have to be five foot seven, I think, and be really skinny to be a model. I’m too small and not skinny enough, so I’m happy to stick with music. I’m on Justin’s latest album, singing and playing fiddle, and I think that’s more my line of work.”
Shires’ interest in music came out of nowhere. She was nine when she was out shopping with her father in her hometown, Mineral Wells, Texas, and he went into a pawn shop to buy a knife he saw in the window. Hanging up inside was a green, Chinese fiddle that the young Shires immediately took a fancy to and begged her dad to buy.
“I think he might have bought it just to annoy my mother, because they were divorced by then and living in different towns, dad in Mineral Wells and mom in Lubbock,” she says. “Anyway, I thought I was going to be a bad-ass fiddler and promptly took it home and busted all the strings.”
Her mother couldn’t have been too upset because a year later she arranged for Amanda to have classical violin lessons from a chap who was also studying with the fiddler in the Texas Playboys, the band formed by Leon Rausch who had sung in the original Texas Playboys with their late founder, Texas swing legend Bob Wills.
By the age of fifteen Shires, too, was playing with the Playboys, on selected gigs that her mother okayed and that involved more family oriented occasions, rather than the rougher honky tonk circuit that she’d experience later. At college in Lubbock – her mother insisted that she have a Plan B alongside her ambitions in music – she joined the Thrift Store Cowboys and found herself teaching fiddle at the annual summer music camps run by Tommy Allsup, a former Texas Playboy who was also the guitarist on Lubbock boy Buddy Holly’s ill-fated final tour.
She could easily have remained in West Texas, working reasonably lucrative dates as a fiddler for hire but by her early twenties, having caught the singing bug despite a terrifying first experience with the Playboys, which involved Rausch holding her hand all the way through the song, Shires had begun writing her own songs and felt she needed to “get uncomfortable and make myself grow some guts.” So she moved to Nashville.
“I’d made a CD of mostly fiddle playing and people could hear me doing that if they really wanted to,” she says. “But I wanted to develop as a singer and songwriter and I wasn’t going to do that if I stayed in Texas because it was too easy to take a call offering well paid work and know that your next month, or whatever, was accounted for. Moving to Nashville was tough in a way because I didn’t know anyone there and I earned money waiting tables for a while but once I began to meet people, doors opened and I got opportunities to co-write songs and work as a frontperson rather than a sideperson.”
As well as Justin Townes Earle, she hooked up with former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell and the experienced singer-songwriter-guitarist Rod Picott, with whom she co-wrote and recorded the 2008 album Sew Your Heart with Wires and who joins her and lap steel guitarist Todd Pertil on her upcoming Scottish dates.
“Rod’s a really solid person and although he’s a nice guy he’s also really good to have around if you’re in New York and having to deal with someone surly,” she says. “He’s also great to write with. I write on my own, too. I love words and just the act of putting pen to paper. I keep a notebook by the bed and wake up and write down stuff that comes to me in dreams and quite often I’ll look at it in the morning and wonder why I bothered. But other times, like with When You Need a Train it Never Comes on the new album, I’ll dream something worth keeping and something’ll happen that makes me work it up into a song.”
As for her brush with the movie business, she’d love – what songwriter wouldn’t – to have one of her songs picked up for a film soundtrack or get some more exposure as a musician or singer through the medium but she isn’t sitting at home waiting for a call.
“The Country Strong experience was funny in a way,” she says. “I’d heard they were looking for fiddle players and because they were filming in Nashville, I thought, Why not give it try? I was originally auditioned for Garrett Hedlund’s band and they said, yeah, you’re good but we want an all-boy band. So I thought that was the end of it until they got back and said, ‘but we need someone to play fiddle for Gwyneth, too.’ It was good fun, although it mostly involved waiting around a lot. I think Gwyneth’s over the music thing now. She’ll have moved on. But I did hear her song on the radio quite a lot for a while, so maybe she could have a future as a country singer.”