Musical artists and stylists often view their life's work in terms of projects. That might translate into a new recording, a collaborative work or a concert tour, which are all essential to establish a lasting career.
Amanda Shires is no different. An accomplished Texas fiddler since her teens, a critically lauded songwriter of increasing visibility and a performer who has shared the stage with a number of notables, Shires has charted her career with a perhaps expected number of projects.
But her biggest undertaking — and, by far, her most prominent collaborative work — will get an inaugural public viewing later this summer. In short, she and husband (and fellow Americana music champion) Jason Isbell are expecting their first child. Until then, the other, more musically inclined projects demand attention. That includes Friday night's sold-out concert with John Prine at the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center for the Arts.
"Aside from being eight months pregnant, the shows have been as great as usual," Shires says. "I just have to aim my bow in a different direction so I don't hit myself. That's about it."
Shires hopes to begin work on her next recording, a follow-up to 2013's acclaimed Down Fell the Doves, as early as August with help from producer Dave Cobb. Aside from his work with such Kentucky country notables as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, Cobb is also the producer for Isbell's 2013 Grammy nominated Southeastern album as well as his new Something More Than Free, which is due out next month. Isbell will also contribute to the upcoming Shires sessions, continuing a fruitful artistic alliance on top of a healthy marriage.
"In Jason, I have somebody that I can trust to give me an honest opinion that's not motivated by anything other than wanting to do what's best for the song or what's best for the music, you know?" Shires says. "So if I take something and play it for him, I know he won't suggest anything to make what I do more easily digestible for folks. He encourages me to say what I want to say without fear. I kind of write weird songs, but he doesn't try to tell me about what might or might not be appealing for the masses."
While there is often a noir-like elegance and spaciousness to Shires songs, including Down Fell the Doves' sublime The Garden (What a Mess), there is also a folk essence that sounds comparatively earthy and intimate. Such qualities abound on a version of Warren Zevon's Mutineer she recorded with Isbell on an EP titled Sea Songs. The two also performed the tune during the final weeks of The Late Show with David Letterman (the now-retired TV host has been a vocal fan of Zevon and Isbell).
"We started playing that song a year ago when we toured in Europe," Shires says. "I was playing it in soundcheck and Jason was like, 'That would be a good song to do as a duet.' We're both in love with Warren Zevon's music, so playing it on Letterman seemed serendipitous. It was magical. It was one of those things that makes you feel like you were just supposed to do it."
The couple is similarly enthusiastic about Prine's music, so much so that when Shires was nabbed as an opening act for tonight's performance, Isbell wanted to join in. As such, Shires said Isbell is planning on tagging along tonight as a surprise guest and accompanist for her Singletary set.
"We just both love John Prine so much," Shires says. "If Jason knows I'm playing with him, he's like, 'Hey, I want to come, too.'"