When Amanda Shires played a June 2015 performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts, she was in the company of three people who, to put it mildly, figure prominently in her personal and professional lives.
The first was her husband, Jason Isbell. That night, the immensely popular Americana songsmith was an unannounced guest but was strictly Shires’ lone accompanist, a placement she had to reiterate when an eager fan shouted out to hear “Cover Me Up,” one of Isbell’s more popular tunes. “If you want to request any of Jason’s songs, you’ll have to go his show tomorrow,” Shires replied. “In Chicago.”
The second was the evening’s headliner, John Prine. As a folk elder with a massive fan following that includes Shires and Isbell, Prine likes camaraderie. He invited Shires to the stage during his set to sing “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title tune to a 1999 album of duets with female artists. Prine just released a sequel of sorts, “For Better, or Worse,” and enlisted Shires again to sing on “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music,” a barroom swing staple that, curiously, was never designed to be a duet.
I was left to face myself and face the real situation of bringing a child into the world with all the hopes and anticipation and, at the same time, all of the doubt and wondering about what kind of childhood she would have.
Finally, there was her daughter, Mercy Rose Isbell, who might have been in the house that night but had yet to make a formal entrance. Shires was pregnant with her at the time. In fact, the Singletary show would be among her last before taking a sabbatical from the road to become a mom. It was during the interim at home — along with the changes, thrills and worries that come with adding “parent” to one’s job description — that songs began to brew for her new album, “My Piece of Land.”
“I was about 33 weeks pregnant and started having to go to more doctors’ appointments,” said Shires, who performs Saturday at The Burl. “Being on the road wasn’t the safest or healthiest thing to do in the late part of pregnancy, so I took some time off and stayed at home. While I was there, Jason was still touring, so I did all the things that kind of go along with the hormones and the pregnancy. I did so much cleaning and nesting, as they call it — everything from cleaning out the drawers to hanging up art in the garage, because the baby needs to see that when she comes home.
“I finished everything I could think of to do,” Shires said. “I was left to face myself and face the real situation of bringing a child into the world with all the hopes and anticipation and, at the same time, all of the doubt and wondering about what kind of childhood she would have. All of a sudden, I started thinking about home and what that meant to me. Through that, I discovered, for me, how home isn’t at all my address. For me, home is with my friends and family. It doesn’t have to be defined by the four walls that I live in. While those walls are nice and I love them and I love to be at home, for me it’s about being together, sharing things together and making awesome memories together.”
That sentiment soars to the forefront on the closing tune on “My Piece of Land,” an atmospheric meditation called “You Are My Home,” a song of both solace and longing that moves along with slow, fervent solemnity. Then, roughly halfway through, Shires picks up her favored musical weapon of choice, the violin, and tears into a solo that matches the jagged, electric intensity that Isbell offers alongside her on guitar.
Unlike Shires’ previous show here, Isbell will be absent this weekend. He will be at home tending to parental duties while Shires digs into a three-week tour that marks her longest time away from her daughter.
“I’m lucky to have Jason, who is just the ideal co-parent. But, honestly, I feel today a little bit like I’ve shot myself in the foot, because I didn’t know what my limits would be in how long I could go without seeing Mercy. To be gone about 21 days without seeing her — that is a lot, and I’m just now internalizing that. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again. I’m just pretty much praying I can get through it and set my limits and boundaries a little better next time. I’m not trying to go down a dark road or anything. She’s going to be fine, but she can’t ride in a van for a million hours a day. It’s barely bearable for adults, but it’s for the end goal. I want to work as hard as I can now so I can set her up better for the future.
“But, really, everything is going wonderfully. I feel super lucky and grateful that I get to do this for my job. I mean, I’m really a crappy waitress.”