THE 15th Smithwick’s Kilkenny Roots Festival will continue the policy of bringing new names, largely unknown to Irish audiences, to the festival over the May Bank Holiday weekend. This year one of the most eagerly-awaited and hotly-tipped of this year’s acts is Texan singer/songwriter fiddle player, Amanda Shires.
Her Texas twang and fetching vibrato can dance playfully around a melody or haunt a line like a mournful ghost, and she deftly employs her fiddle/violin, ukulele and even whistling skills to similar effect. The resulting sound is a beautiful but woozily surrealistic swoon — as well befits an artist who cites Leonard Cohen and alt-country dark horse Richard Buckner, who also appears at the festival, as two of her biggest musical influences. Or, as a review in Americana UK once observed: “At times, her energetic, jittery vocals and eccentric lyrical subjects mark her out as a young female heir to the godfather of strange, Tom Waits. In her more conventional moments, Shires sounds like the weird young niece of Dolly Parton.”
In fact, Shires is just a down-to-earth, self-effacing West Texas gal currently residing in Nashville, working her tail off trying to find her niche in the music industry as an independent artist. In the recent Hollywood movie Country Strong, she played the fiddle player in the band backing Gwyneth Paltrow’s fictional country superstar. In real life, Shires runs with a decidedly more left-of-mainstream-type crowd, including Jason Isbell (she sings and plays fiddle on the former Drive-By Trucker’s latest, Here We Rest) and Justin Townes Earle (she’s the lovely model gracing the cover of his 2008 debut, The Good Life).
She was only 15 the first time she played onstage with the Playboys (the Western swing band made famous by the late Bob Wills) — a mere five years after she coerced her father into buying her first fiddle, a lime-green Chinese instrument from a pawn shop in dusty downtown Mineral Wells, Texas.
In 2005, while still a regular member of the Thrift Store Cowboys, Shires released her solo debut, a mostly instrumental showcase for her traditional fiddle chops called Being Brave. But the fertile Texas music scene was overripe with side-person work for the talented young player and backup singer — so much so that Shires feared sliding into a complacency that, left unchecked, threatened to stunt her growth as a songwriter. So she relocated to Nashville — “to get uncomfortable and make myself grow some guts,” as she put it once — and dived headlong into the process of writing and recording the first two albums to really put her on the roots-music map: 2008’s Sew Your Heart with Wires, a collection of duets co-written and recorded with singer-songwriter Rod Picott; and what Shires calls her “true” solo debut, 2009’s West Cross Timbers. Both were met with enthusiastic reviews and radio support, with the former being voted the fourth best debut album of 2008 by FAR (Freeform American Roots) Chart reporters and the later reaching No. 21 on the Americana Music Association Chart. The Gibson Guitar company featured Shires on their website as one of 2009’s breakout artists, and No Depression called West Cross Timbers one of the 50 best releases of the year.
Shires was eager to get right back into the studio, but a busy touring schedule — averaging 120-160 dates a year, including at least one or two annual trips to Europe — necessitated that the follow-up, Carrying Lightning, be recorded piecemeal.
“Some people only write when they’re at home, but I just write, whenever or however I can,” Shires says. “We ended up recording 20-something songs for the album, and the hardest part was trying to decide which ones to use. But having the whole process take so long is what ultimately helped give the record its shape and focus. I was really able to think about which songs fit together the best, as opposed to just, ‘I’m going into the studio to make a record, and in two weeks I’ll be done.’ I had a lot of time to sleep on this one.”
The album has brought Amanda’s talent to a wider audience in the USA and Europe. The song “When You Need a Train it Never Comes” was chosen as No 5 Song for 2011 in American Songwriter Magazine and Amanda was named ‘Artist of the Year 2011’ by Texas Music Magazine.
Amanda plays three gigs at the festival, accompanied by Rod Picott (guitar) and Tod Pertll (pedal steel).
Tickets are available from Rollercoaster Records or online from Kilkenny Roots website, www.kilkennyroots.com