Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: Amanda Shires comes into her own as a solo act

Touring behind her 2013 album Down Fell the Doves, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires will perform 
at Willie's  Locally Known on Saturday. Coralee and Ray will open the 8 p.m. show.
Touring behind her 2013 album Down Fell the Doves, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires will perform at Willie's Locally Known on Saturday. Coralee and Ray will open the 8 p.m. show.

Amanda Shires, Coralee and Ray

8 p.m. Jan. 18 at Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. $10. (859) 281-1116.

At the close of her extraordinary new album Down Fell the Doves, Amanda Shires offers a pair of romantic notions that hail from wholly different narrative — and emotive — planes.

The first, A Song for Leonard Cohen, imagines Shires getting the iconic song stylist drunk and then picking his brain for any trace of a like-minded trait. "We'd compare mythologies," sings the Texas-born fiddler, singer and songsmith, "and toast those friends that never believed that our voices ever had that much to offer."

On the flip side is the album-closing The Garden (What a Mess), a more literal translation of romance in a tailspin that provides Down Fell the Doves with its title. "I let him into my garden," the song begins. "A big mistake."

Rooted in various shades of Americana and country, Shires drops hints of her influences throughout her songs without ever sounding imitative. The dry, creviced corners of her vocals — which regularly shift from wearisome to fanciful within the same tune — suggest latter-day Emmylou Harris. But the sweeping emotive sway and subtle dramatic undertow of her songs are more in line with contemporaries like Neko Case. And the sparse, open production that brings such fascinating music to life (supplied by Andy LeMaster) recalls some of Joe Henry's finer records.

Such is the newest chapter in a career that began when Shires received a pawn shop fiddle at the age of 10 and then swung into performance mode when she joined the legendary Lone State swing troupe The Texas Playboys at age 15.

More recently, there have been recordings and tours alongside Todd Snider and Justin Townes Earle. But Shires' most visible collaborator has been her husband, fellow Americana favorite Jason Isbell. In fact, it was as a member of Isbell's 400 Unit band that Shires made her way to Lexington in December 2012 for a concert at Buster's. Since then, she was featured prominently on Isbell's landmark 2013 album, Southeastern. Isbell and the 400 Unit, in turn, provide the much of the instrumental foundation for Down Fell the Doves.

Last Saturday, Shires appeared with Isbell on the pioneering PBS concert series Austin City Limits. This Saturday, Lexington gets Shires in person and on her own at Willie's Locally Known. Local faves Ray Smith and Coralee (performing as Coralee and Ray) will open with a set of Everly/Louvin Brothers-style harmony singing.

The John Cowan Band

9 p.m. Jan. 18 at Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade. $22. (859) 259-2754.

For more than four decades, John Cowan has given voice to an entire progressive bluegrass generation. Maybe "voice" undersells the point. His operatic high tenor is more of a battle cry.

While most of Cowan's contemporaries have worked exclusively within instrumental parameters in forging new stylistic settings for bluegrass-style musicianship, Cowan was without peer as the genre's most daring vocalist. From his days with New Grass Revival (1972 to 1989) to assorted collaborations and band projects under his own name, Cowan displayed octave- shattering bluegrass singing rooted as much — if not more — in soul, pop and gospel.

In recent years, Cowan has returned to his new grass-roots while exploring unexpectedly different musical settings. Many of his recent albums have reinforced compositional and instrumental skills (Cowan is a proficient bass guitarist) that have brought his music more in line with works by such new grass pals as Sam Bush. But the past decade also has seen Cowan moonlighting as a member of the longstanding rock troupe The Doobie Brothers.

Through it all, we still manage to get Cowan, an Evansville, Ind., native, back in Lexington on a regular basis. On Saturday, during a return performance at Natasha's, he will share songs that have come to define a remarkable career.

'WoodSongs' and 'Red Barn' return

Winter hibernation for Lexington's two flagship music broadcast programs ends this week.

Tapings of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour resume Monday at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third Street, with music from guitarist, songwriter and activist David Broza and the duo of Canadian harmonica stylist Mike Stevens and Ghana-born folk/blues musician and dancer Okaidja Afroso. (6:45 p.m. $10. For reservations, call (859) 252-8888. For additional info, go to

On Wednesday, Red Barn Radio returns for broadcasts out of ArtsPlace, 161 North Mill Street. Its first taping of 2014 with feature the Frankfort-based folk-roots band Hot Chocolate and Marshmellows with guest fiddler John Harrod. Red Barn will introduce a new 8 p.m. start time with this program. ($8.