Put a Bow On It:
Bobby Moore Talks to Amanda Shires About John Prine, the Texas Playboys and Other Stuff That Doesn’t Have Much to Do With Her New Album (Which is Great, BTW)
Amanda Shires and her husband Jason Isbell come across as funny and interesting people. Even if you don’t jive with their progressive politics, an encounter at your favorite meat-and-three would likely be a chance to talk good music and Alabama football. It’d be like lunch with Lee Bains III, except he pulls for Auburn.
This positive perception carries over to their friends, namely living songwriting legend John Prine. He’s got to be in the running, alongside bluegrass legend and original CMA board member Mac Wiseman, as the most interesting Nashville veteran with no clear retirement plan. During a Q&A at this year’s International Country Music Conference, 93-year-old Wiseman hinted at a future album with Willie Nelson, so he might get his just due soon enough. As for Prine, he has Shires, Isbell, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and others in his cheering section and on his list of collaborators. That pretty much makes Prine the elder statesman – and most visible cheerleader – of the current batch of genuine country singers.
Naturally, when the opportunity came to interview Shires about her new album To the Sunset, I chose instead to nerd out over Prine with one of his famous friends. She obliged with a funny, informative conversation that dovetailed into a short chat about her teenage years with Western swing giants the Texas Playboys – as in Bob Wills’ historic backing band. Beneath the album’s layers of fiddle licks and guitar fuzz lurk lessons Shires picked up over the years from the greats she’s been blessed to call friends, bandmates and mentors.
I’m hoping we can focus on John Prine a little. You seem to have a pretty good friendship with him. How did you meet John?
“The first time I met him, he was recording in Nashville with an Alabama legend. What’s his name? His name’s escaping me. So basically, I met him on a session. I was too scared to really talk to him much then. A few weeks later, I was invited out to do some shows supporting him, and we just became friends through music and various jokes I would pull on him.”
So you were a little intimidated at first, but you found out that he’s approachable and somebody you could become close to?
“Totally. You know, there’s this fear in meeting your heroes that they might not turn out to be who you’d want after you’ve listened to them your whole life. He’s definitely the most gracious and kind and generous person you’d hope he’d be, and even more so.”
What are some things you might have learned from him as far as songwriting goes?
“Oh man. I really value the way that he uses everyday images and details to present his songs so that they’re relatable and they show a human experience similar to what anybody’s having. He can make you feel incredible joy through his heartbreaking, sad songs. His songwriting tends to remind me that there’s always hope and there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”
Have you picked his brain about these things, or have you learned from being a longtime fan and through observation in the studio?
“Any time I get the chance to ask him about the process or to get to hear him talk, I’m all ears. When I do ask him questions, he’s always open and always gives a genuine answer. He doesn’t just joke or play it off like you don’t have real intentions when you ask him questions.
“It’s been super helpful to just even find out what he thinks about things. The way his mind works, he’s really witty. I think that comes across in his songs. That’s who he is on the daily.
“Although I can say that he’s terrible at whistling, and sometimes he forgets that his razor is sharp and occasionally shows up at the airport with pieces of some kind of cotton stuck to his face. I mean, you can’t be good at everything, can you?”
So he’s got his quirks! That humanizes him. We’re both speaking in an almost reverential way about him, but then you tell me that he can’t whistle and messes up while shaving. While we’re laughing, what are some of the inside jokes you share with John?
“I gave him a cat pajama onesie two years ago. I’d been wearing mine all weekend on tour. Actually, it was sock monkey pajamas I’d got him. He swore to God he’d wear it, so I found one. At the last show of the tour, I put it in his dressing room. During my set, he came out to the side stage and was wearing a sock monkey onesie! I almost forgot how to play music. I was dying laughing so hard.”
Could people up front see him?
“No, but there are some pictures on the internet somewhere.”
That probably says a lot about your friendship. One, that you’d buy him sock monkey pajamas. Two, that he’d show up wearing them while you were doing your job. Building on that, have you learned anything about the live performance end of things from him?
“No, everything I learned performance-wise, I learned from the Texas Playboys. When I get on stage with him, he goes by those same rules – being respectful and having fun while doing your job. As long as you’re doing your job, it’s okay to have fun.”
You mentioned your time with the Texas Playboys as a teenager…
“That’s from before I was a songwriter.”
How many original members were there in the band?
“Over the span of the Playboys career, there were more than 500 members. Everybody I played with was original members, and I learned from a guy named Frankie McWhorter on his porch how to play the songs. I started working with Bobby Boatwright. Those guys are all long gone now, but having those kinds of friendships at a young age isn’t something I take for granted. I wish every day that I could just hang out with those guys again.”
You had this awesome hands-on education from some legends, and now you have John Prine in your life.
“When I was younger, I didn’t know all about them. I just knew that they played the style of music that at the time was my passion. Looking back now as an adult with more experience but also more knowledge about music, it’s just incredible the role they played in music and what they did for country music.”
How does that classic Texas swing style impact what you’re doing now, if it does at all? Some of your stuff now is a little more rocking and incorporates other types of elements. How does your old-school upbringing impact the new album?
“I learned improvisation and melody in that band and, you know, how to play in front of live audiences. I just feel really lucky that I get to do the work that I get to do, and that I did learn so many skills early on.”
Was there any temptation to stick with old-timey music as a fiddle player, or did you always know that you’d want to progress toward what you’re doing now and add your own spin to it?
“What happened with me was I had immersed myself in old-time fiddle music. Not bluegrass, but old-school traditional songs and Western swing and country. Then I started listening to more music and discovering and growing along the way. I keep trying to branch out.”
Are you working on new music already?
“I’m always writing, and I try to spend some time – if not each day, every other day – writing something just to keep in practice and because I enjoy writing. I’m also trying to finish my book of poems.”
If you come up with a song idea, how do you know that it’ll be something for you solo or something for the 400 Unit or even something for a new collaboration? Do you have a certain mindset going into writing for each thing?
“No, I just write and, you know, if it’s my own stuff I just try to let my internal compass guide me. If I’m writing a part for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, it’s definitely juried by Jason and the producer, whether it fits or not.”
I think I’ll wrap this up. I kind of learned about John Prine through you and Margo and your husband, of course. I had in mind that if I met any of you guys, I’d want to talk about John Prine a lot.
“That’s awesome. If you do run into him, unless he’s on the way to the bathroom, he’ll definitely be glad to talk to you!”
Photo by Elizavet Porodina.