The road which led Amanda Shires to the cusp of mainstream success has taken some interesting twists, but it was the singer’s decision to up sticks and relocate to Nashville which has had the biggest impact on the country singer’s career. Carving out a living as a highly talented violin player and backing singer on the Texan country circuit, Shires realised she was slipping into a complacency that was unhealthy for her musical development. The multi-talented Shires, who is the model on the cover of Justin Townes Earle’s “The Good Life” and played Gwyneth Paltrow’s fiddle player in “Country Strong”, took the bold step of relocating to Nashville, a move that changed everything. On her third full length album Carrying Lightning – her second as a genuine solo effort following 2008’s West Cross Timbers, (her first was a collaborative effort with longtime partner in crime Rod Picott) – the switch has paid off in full.
Given Nashville’s grand ole country roots, it’s interesting that Carrying Lightning sees the singer tone down the Texan twang to inhabit the same crossover musical space that has made Caitlin Rose such a success, particularly on this side of the Atlantic. There are plenty of country touches on Carrying Lightning, with dashes of pedal steel and the bluegrass heritage of Shires’ violin work still occasionally shining through, not to mention the singer’s vocal and lyrical style, which shares much of the black humour and pathos of traditional country lyricism, but there’s an undeniable everyman songwriting touch to Shires. It’s the culmination of a development that may never have happened without the move away from Texas.
Carrying Lightning joyfully showcases Shires’ multi-faceted talents, from the woozy dream of Swimmer to the near a capella of Love Be a Bird and swooning, romantic strings of Kudzu. Elsewhere there are more classic country influences. Ghost Bird is a tumbling piece of country rock lit up by Shires’ violin part and her vocal warmth, while She Let Go of Her Kite is an equally rousing anthem for female emancipation. When You Need a Train It Never Comes is the clearest indication of the singer’s gift for combining a clever lyric with a hooky melody, the pseudo-gothic tale of an abandoned woman weighing up escape or suicide courtesy of the Union Pacific – if it ever shows up. By all means Carrying Lightning is an album about love in all its glory and misery, and in the hands of Shires you can’t help but be swept along for the ride, from the sweaty, night time passions of Shake the Walls, a song which invokes some True Blood-esque southern lust, to the pretty-as-a-peach melancholy of Bees in the Shed.
Shires’ songwriting productivity meant she had to shelve several of the tracks she wrote and recorded during the Carrying Lightning sessions. Hard work is clearly no issue for the Texan, who has trouble finding time to record the songs she writes constantly in amongst all the touring. The good news is the songs that missed the cut for Carrying Lightning – mainly for reasons of forging a coherent tone on the album – may see the light of day on an EP later in the year. New Nashville is at the centre of a musical resurgence, and while country is a strong influence, the new breed of artists take their heritage and package it for the modern musical world, where the restrictions of genre are a thing of the past. And it’s not just Nashville – a string of American characterful female singer-songwriters, from Lissie to Anais Mitchell, from Caitlin Rose to Amanda Shires are making American music that draws from the past but has its sights set firmly on the future.
“Carrying Lightning” is out now on Silver Knife Records.