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On 'Take It Like a Man,' Amanda Shires takes aim for the heavens

Amanda Shires' new album, <em>Take It Like a Man,</em> is her finest release, encapsulating much of what makes Shires an artist deserving of the word "singular."
Michael Schmelling
Courtesy of the artist
Amanda Shires' new album, Take It Like a Man, is her finest release, encapsulating much of what makes Shires an artist deserving of the word "singular."

"I know the cost of flight is landing."

Amanda Shires sings this line in the chorus of "Take It Like a Man," the title track of her new album. It would be easy to read the lyric as specific only to the song, but the line encapsulates so much of what makes Shires an artist deserving of the word "singular." Within her songwriting, her activism, her musical collaborations and her personal life, Shires always takes aim for the heavens, landings be damned.

Such fearlessness requires vulnerability. Since breaking through with 2011's Carrying Lightning, Shires has ventured into increasingly personal territory with each release, writing nuanced, image-rich songs that illustrate the complexities of the many roles she plays: musician, songwriter, band member, activist, wife, mother, woman, human. She's a dedicated collaborator, too: She plays with her husband, Jason Isbell, in his band the 400 Unit, and in 2019 she formed the critically acclaimed supergroup The Highwomen with fellow artists Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. Shires has also become one of the more outspoken figures in music, country or otherwise. Not content merely to tweet a vague message of support, Shires puts her money where her mouth is: attending protests (she recently marched in support of abortion rights alongside Isbell in Nashville), penning op-eds in support of abortion rights for outlets like Rolling Stone, stumping for progressive political candidates and making concerted efforts to create opportunities for marginalized artists.

Accordingly, the path to Take It Like a Man had its bumps. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, had Shires questioning her career in music; for a period, she had no plans even to release a follow-up to her previous LP, 2018's fantastic To the Sunset. The uncertainty wrought by the pandemic coupled with enduring years of music industry politics had worn Shires down.

But a chance connection, spurred by advice from the late John Prine, helped Shires reconnect to her inner well of creativity. It started when Shires received an email about collaborating from Lawrence Rothman, a Los Angeles-based musician and producer. Rothman was working on their 2021 solo album Good Morning, America and was hoping to include guest vocals from some of their favorite singers, among whom Shires numbers.

Before his 2020 passing, Prine had told Shires to listen to any music that crossed her desk, so she listened to Rothman's — and quickly connected to it. Shires recorded her part for Rothman's track "Thrash the West" and the two soon began an active creative correspondence, though it wasn't immediately clear that it would turn into Take It Like a Man.

"At that time, she had given up on music," Rothman tells NPR Music. "She had told me that she was just like, 'I'm gonna be a painter now.' ... I was very shocked. I didn't really realize that when I reached out. And I was actually frustrated that somebody with such talent, with such a great voice, with such great lyrics and a great vision, would be giving up on music."

After a few trial co-writes and studio sessions, Shires and Rothman realized the strength of their creative bond and set up shop at both Nashville's famed RCA Studio B and Shires' barn-turned-studio at the home she shares with Isbell just outside of Nashville to write and record new material.

Still, Shires hadn't fully shaken her uncertainty, so Rothman decided they would be her "cheerleader" in the studio. They stood next to Shires in the booth while she sang, dancing and mouthing lyrics, even cheekily removing their shirt to mimic the experience of a rowdy rock show. Shires eventually reconnected to her inner muse and Take It Like a Man began to take shape.

"We hit it off, me and Lawrence, in a really special, magical way," Shires tells NPR Music. "There was a lot that we understood, influence-wise, because we're only two months apart in age. And then we both are such weirdos that we just got along really well. They're very encouraging in helping me learn to accept myself and go boldly in the right direction."

Rothman's production, while often complex and larger-than-life, is intentionally built to highlight Shires' singing voice, which — undeservedly — doesn't always receive the same attention as her writing or violin playing. It's that very decision, though, that further cements Take It Like a Man as Shires' finest release. She has an uncanny ability to communicate emotion with something as simple as a quarter-bent note at the end of a word or a mid-phrase ache of subtle vibrato and sounds like few other vocalists working today. Rothman considers Dolly Parton and Stevie Nicks as her closest vocal contemporaries.

Tracks like "Fault Lines," "Empty Cups" and "Don't Be Alarmed" — the latter of which includes co-writing credits from Isbell, Ruston Kelly and Liz Rose — frankly address real-life marital issues she experienced with Isbell, some of which he expressed, from his point of view, on his 2020 record with the 400 Unit, Reunions. That thematic undercurrent doesn't obscure the pair's power-couple image so much as bring it into sharper focus, like the sometimes-jarring feeling of watching a television show in high-definition for the first time; suddenly, the blemishes appear. This willingness to be real and forthright is a quality that attracts listeners to both Shires and Isbell, though it's not without its complications.

"I wrote 'Fault Lines' because I was trying to find a door or an opening into a disconnect that I was having in my marriage," Shires says. "And I thought, 'Well, we always communicate well with songs. ... Maybe this will get the door open to getting stuff solved.' So, I wrote the song and I recorded a little demo and I sent it to my husband. He did not listen to it."

When Shires sent Rothman the track, though, they loved it and encouraged her to include it on the album. She was uncertain — people love to gossip, after all —but eventually, went back to Isbell, who realized both the track's emotional heft and the narrative hole it would leave in an otherwise strong sequence and encouraged her to include it. With its familiar depiction of the storm of emotions after an argument, "Fault Lines" is not just one of the album's best tracks but, through the power of Shires' specific imagery, is also its most universal.

The lyrics on Take It Like a Man are Shires' most dynamic and poetic yet. She did, after all, study poetry at Sewanee's prestigious School of Letters, and that pedigree shows in her writing, like her description of the human heart as an "unknown machine" with "tricky wiring" on "Stupid Love" and the devastating idea of a lover "leaving through the hole of an argument" and rendering her face "a makeup rainbow of tears" on "Empty Cups."

Using the poetic as the political, Shires knowingly plays with archetypes of womanhood on the record. One motif running through the album is the idea of the "crazy" woman so often portrayed in tales of romantic conflict, recalling the literary stereotype of the "madwoman in the attic." The title track opens with the double entendre, "Like a common loon I started hearing birds." On "Fault Lines," Shires sings, "Say whatever feels better or whatever / You can just say I'm crazy," while on "Don't Be Alarmed" she asserts, "I'm losing my balance, not losing my mind," the latter expressing a key, often gendered distinction. Shires knows that being a woman means that the bulk of any public criticism of her marriage could and likely would land squarely on her shoulders, deserved or not – and she knows how to subvert and refute that stereotype in her songwriting.

Sexuality also factors heavily into Take It Like a Man, though Shires says at first, she felt reluctant to express this part of herself publicly. In writing "Hawk for the Dove," which subverts clichéd narratives of seduction and presents Shires as the aggressor in a potential dalliance, she asked herself: "Is this okay for me to say? As a mom and a wife and all this bulls***?" The response she came to? "F*** yes, it is."

"You're worrying about other things that don't matter, like other people's perceptions and, 'What does this make me look like in the world?' " Shires says. "And then I was like, 'Oh, there's those chains we're getting held back by. We don't need those. Let's just do it anyway.' "

"Bad Behavior" — the slyer, sultrier cousin of "Hawk For the Dove" — narrates a potential encounter with a stranger, but the track is more about Shires' own self-awareness ("The ways I get ahead of myself, I know I do," she sings) than any attempts at seduction. Here, and across the record, that strong sense of self gets some backup: Brittney Spencer and fellow Highwoman Maren Morris lend guest vocals on that track; Morris also appears on "Empty Cups," while Spencer joins for "Hawk For A Dove," "Here He Comes," "Stupid Love" and "Lonely at Night."

That kind of collaboration is par for the course for Shires; like Rothman, Spencer met Shires online, after Shires saw a video of the buzzed-about newcomer covering the Highwomen's "Crowded Table" on Twitter. She quickly messaged Spencer and, as Spencer tells it, invited her just a month later to write with her and Isbell at their home. While recording with Shires and Rothman in the barn, the trio got matching tattoos of a dagger paired with a dove, a fitting symbol for three artists who wield their talents to foster peace and inclusivity.

Those values connected the three artists while recording, but they're also key to Shires' most impactful trait: her willingness to speak loudly and clearly about what she believes in and on behalf of the people she loves. It's an approach she and Isbell share, and one that has landed her within a like-minded group of artist-activists, including the other three Highwomen.

"I think it's brave for her to speak out like she does, because a big part of that [Nashville boys] club is that the more vocal you are, the more you're pushed out," Rothman says. "If you're going to get vocal about issues, you're risking a lot. You're risking exposure on the radio, you're risking exposure in print, you're risking a lot of opportunity."

Spencer agrees. "Amanda's willingness to talk about the hard topics, and to be vocal about what she believes —especially as it pertains to social issues — is very disarming to me," she tells NPR Music. "It creates so much safety for people like me. I'm a Black woman in country music. For years, I thought that I would have to 'turn down' parts of myself. ... I did not know that I would have safe places like Amanda. I didn't know I would have safe places like Jason. For some of my first points of connection with artists in [Nashville] to be people who are vocal and care about marginalized community groups, who care about our rights and care about women's bodies — I never thought I would get to have that. What Amanda does is not common."

The songs on Take It Like a Man are not common, either. They are honest and brave, and true to who Shires is as a person. Most can be interpreted in more than one way, perhaps swapping romance for politics or vice-versa, making room for a welcoming, thought-provoking gray area that both art and activism can thrive within. This is music built to take flight and, perhaps more importantly, to take flight alongside, the kinds of songs that inspire action in their listeners. Reaching such heights should land Shires among our finest pantheon of artists.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.