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Down Fell the Doves, the third album by Texas-bred singer/songwriter-fiddler Amanda Shires, opens with the darkly hypnotic strains of “Look Like a Bird.” Her fiddle drones, guitars ping and a sparse drum beat thuds as she intones in a West Texas twang that she would like to be careless, weightless and free. The album ends with “The Garden Song,” a fragile account of a messy breakup, underpinned by drizzling rain.
In other words, this young woman who joined The Texas Playboys as a 15-year-old is clearly undaunted by digging through the soul’s darkest places. And Down Fell the Doves, recorded in Athens, Ga., with Andy LeMaster and featuring backing by her husband Jason Isbell and his band, includes some harrowing stuff. “When I was writing this record, I was kind of in a bad spot,” she recalls. “I broke a fiddle that I had for 15 years that was like 150 years old. I broke up in a relationship—a really long one—and I broke my finger in three places. The record kind of started with that.”
Amanda’s ordeal yielded tunes like “Deep Dark Below,” where she ponders the concept of evil, and “Box Cutter,” a deceptively catchy vision of suicide that she wrote in a state of prolonged exhaustion. “I was just so tired. You know, you get tired and you get up and you’re still tired,” she explains, noting that the song also contains an element of humor. “I was joking around with myself, really. It’s like sleep versus The Big Sleep, but it’s funny to me.”
There’s also a lighter side on songs like “Stay,” which nods at her relationship with Americana standout Jason. When the couple was getting serious and spending time together, they weren’t writing as much, so they set aside time to create every other day. One of those days produced “Song for Leonard Cohen,” a playfully sweet ode to the legendary songwriter. “I was up there, staring at the ceiling and just could not think of anything,” she remembers, “so I started playing on the Internet, then I noticed it was his birthday. So I wrote him that song. If I would have known I was actually going to record that song, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write it. I would have been too self-conscious to even try it.”
You can catch Amanda and Jason on tour right now, while Amanda is between master’s degree classes in poetry at Sewanee. And for someone who frequently tackles dark subjects, Amanda still maintains a self-aware sense of humor about what she does for a living. “I like to make fun of myself,” she says. “Because why would you ever complain about this job? It’s the best job in the world. You get to do something you like to do and meet new friends.”