Raising a child and trying to maintain a healthy and hearty family relationship is never an easy task. With both parents working outside the home and a child’s needs to tend to, families tend to get drawn in several different directions, making life challenging at best and a daily conflict at worst. When the parents involved are two successful musicians with separate careers and individual efforts, the balancing act is even harder still.
Amanda Shires has been thinking about that a lot lately. She and husband Jason Isbell are raising a baby daughter while keeping pace with careers that find the family separated for months at a time. It’s little wonder then that her striking new album, My Piece of Land, places a heavy focus on themes about home and the hearth. Several of its songs make direct reference—“My Love (The Storm),” “When You’re Gone,” “You Are My Home,” and specifically “Mineral Wells,” named for the little Texas town where she lived as a child.
“I was born in Mineral Wells and my dad’s family was from there,” she explains, talking on the phone from her present home in Nashville where she is relaxing on a rare day off. “My mom went to Lubbock because it was pretty much as far as her car would drive her. It was six hours away. The two landscapes are completely different, but if I don’t claim both those places as home, somebody’s going to talk to me on my voicemail about it.” She laughs.
That constant flux was on her mind when she was pregnant with her first child. In the months before the baby arrived, Shires says her concern was with what it would be like raising a family in the midst of carving out their careers. “A lot of pregnancy is about anxiety and hormones,” she says. “And a lot of the worry is about bringing a child into the world. Are we really for this? Plus, there are so many unknowns abut the future that it really becomes wasted energy. I just got to a place to my mind where I felt we would be alright no matter what happened.”
Little wonder then that her thoughts brought her back to her own childhood, and the challenges she faced going back and forth between two homes. It was the solace she gained from making music that helped her thrive in what might have been an otherwise difficult time.
“The thing that was most constant and stable for me was when I found the fiddle and learned to play music,” she reflects. “That was kind of my stability. I wasn’t one to be whining about my situation. I’d rather my parents be happy when they’re not speaking than when they’re when they’re together.”
The time spent when she had to leave the road and hunker down at home prior to the baby’s arrival also gave her time to gather her thoughts about the new album. “I had plenty of time to think and a lot of things to think about,” she admits. “I did things differently this time. I used [producer] Dave Cobb for the first time, who I had never worked with individually, but who I had worked with on Jason’s projects before. I already had a dialogue with him, so he was very easy to communicate with. Also, I didn’t learn any of the songs ahead of time. I just put them away and then I went in to play them for Dave and we started recording. I thought that was a really good way to do it because then you’re not already married to the arrangements and that allows you to also forget you’re recording. You just think about the song and it takes away the self-consciousness that you can get when you’re in the studio.”
Nevertheless, it was the need to find a safe place, a place that could be called home, that inspired the songs and gave her a focus on more immediate concerns. Not surprisingly then, that theme gave her a link between her past and present.
“Sitting around at home, being by myself, I was thinking about that a lot,” she concedes. I thought about what we inherit from home during childhood and in our past…the places that we come from. The song ‘Mineral Wells’ I wrote in 2009, but for some reason I kept coming back to it. That was my initial thinking about the idea of home in song. I was thinking a lot about Texas—Lubbock and Mineral Wells—and missing it, but also thinking about it as the product of a divorce and such. And I started thinking about what home is now, with my husband. I never thought I’d be married with a child, but here I am. Then I thought about all the places where we go which I love so much, and I was thinking we could live anywhere. Home for me is not a physical location. It’s really being around the people that I love.”
While Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, continued to tour, Shires found herself at home, having to cope for the first time with their separation. In between the release of her four solo albums, Shires had played fiddle with the rest of the ensemble. Suddenly she was on her own.
“I still had many of his things to stare at,” she says, chuckling. “But it was tough, and that’s how a lot of those ideas on the album came about. It’s funny the things you notice when somebody’s not in the house with you. You don’t recognize a lot of the house noises. And then when you’re by yourself, you wonder, ‘what’s that noise in the kitchen? Oh, it’s just the ice maker.’ Or, ‘what’s that noise coming through the house? It’s just the house settling.’ Maybe I was watching too many movies with home intruders.”
With a new album to promote, the separation is bound to last a lot longer. Her touring schedule has her away September, October and November. When Isbell and his band are on the road, the baby will be with him. “I’m not in a place where I can afford a bus and he is,” Shires explains. “It’s not safe in a van for grownups, and it’s definitely not safe for a baby. She’s only 10 months old and the idea of her having to ride in the van for eight to 10 hours doesn’t go over well with us…that’s why I can’t have her riding with me. They drive the bus during the night so she can sleep and then get up and play when they get there. That kind of touring life wouldn’t be good for her in a van.”
It may not be an ideal situation, but for the moment anyway, the couple are coping with shared parenthood and individual obligations. “We had tried handing her off to strangers, but that got weird,” she jokes. “Roadies don’t know much about taking care of babies.” She laughs. “This will be my first tour where I don’t have her with me, but I try to remember that her safety and comfort is the primary concern. Also, I don’t want to her to grow up thinking she has to give up her career when she becomes a mother. It’s fine if people want to do that, but I’m trying to lead by example. On the other hand, I don’t know what it’s going to be like going 21 days without seeing her.”