Acclaimed Artist Amanda Shires Talks About Her Work With The Highwomen, Luke Combs, Jason Isbell, And Her New Single, “The Problem”

Amanda Shires
Amanda Shires
(photo credit: John Shearer)

Amanda Shires is a multi-talented singer/songwriter & violinist who is also known for being a member of female country supergroup, The Highwomen (with Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile & Natalie Hemby). She has also released six solo albums, and she was named Emerging Act of the Year at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards show. In addition, she has won a Grammy Award for her work with Jason Isbell (who is her husband), and she has a new collaboration with country star, Luke Combs.

Shires (who is from Texas and now lives in Nashville) first emerged in 2005 when she released her debut album, Being Brave. This album consisted of mostly instrumentals, and showcased her ability as a top fiddle player. Since then, she has become a respected singer/songwriter who also contributes to many projects as a sideperson. Notably, she is a longtime member of Jason Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Amanda Shires, who tells the fascinating and funny story of how she co-founded the country supergroup The Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris & Natalie Hemby.


Currently, Shires is in the spotlight for two reasons. She has just released her new single, “The Problem,” and she is featured (playing violin) on Luke Combs’ new single, “Without You.”

“The Problem” (which features Isbell) is an important song for Shires, because it expresses her concern for a woman’s right to choose and abortion rights. The song’s release coincides with International Safe Abortion Day, and all proceeds from the single will go to the Yellowhammer Fund (an abortion fund & reproductive justice organization based in Alabama). “This song is about making tough decisions and not having to go it alone,” Shires explains. “To me, ‘The Problem’ is a song about supporting someone you love through a difficult time.”

Shires’ most recent solo album is To the Sunset, which was released in 2018 and was nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards show. She is currently writing songs for her next album, and she’s writing songs for The Highwomen, who were nominated for Group of the Year at the ACM Awards.

Here’s the lyric video of Amanda Shires’ song “The Problem”
(feat. Jason Isbell).

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Shires, who talks about her single “The Problem” and her collaboration with Luke Combs. She also tells how she co-founded The Highwomen, and she discusses her songwriting.

Although Shires seriously discussed “The Problem” and other topics in this interview, she also showed that she has a terrific sense of humor. Later in the interview, she was very funny and told some hilarious stories.

DK: I like the new song you’ve released, “The Problem” feat. Jason Isbell. What inspired you to write this song?

Amanda Shires: The inspiration for this song started when I overheard a group of girls talking about another girl’s abortion. That was the spark of the idea. When I wrote [the original] version, and then I wrote another version because I realized this was a topic that [many people were uncomfortable talking about], it made me do some deeper thinking. [I asked why that was], and how little the subject is openly talked about, and how divisive it is. I also thought if we were to talk about things more, and maybe another songwriter showed that it’s not all black and white, maybe we could get more comfortable in conversations, and draw more awareness to what’s at stake for women. [That is, when we] don’t have options for ourselves, or don’t have freedoms to make decisions with our own bodies. So yeah, I wrote this song in 2016, and lately, the fear has turned to anger, the anger’s turned into frustration, and frustration turns to action. And I’m ready to do the best that I can, to make the world a little bit better in some small way.

DK: On a different subject, you have a major collaboration that’s come out, being featured and playing violin on Luke Combs’ new single, “Without You.” How did your collaboration with Luke come together?

Shires: I met Luke a couple years ago, and joined him onstage at the ACM Awards in Las Vegas. When we did that, we got along really well. Sometimes, you just meet folks and you’re able to work well together, especially when you’re trying to sort through the vocabulary with another person’s art. I started as a sideperson…I have tried to develop a good ear at listening to what another artist envisions in the sonic landscape. And I think that’s why we worked together so well. I think it was cool, that he put me with the feature because it was definitely merit-based…it was a nice thing to see. And Luke has a beautiful voice, and I respect his work ethic.

Here’s the lylric video of Luke Combs’ new single, “Without You”
(feat. Amanda Shires).

DK: So Luke had this song, and he knew you were a very good violin player, so he called you to play on this song?

Shires: Yeah, and then I was like, “Let me listen to it and see what it’s about,” because you know, I like to be careful about saying yes before I know what the song’s about (laughs). Next thing you know, we’d be toting guns and putting the boot in people’s ass (laughs). I don’t wanna do that.

DK: Over the past year, you’ve also been a member of The Highwomen. I read that it was your idea to start the group. How did the four of you get together and form this group?

Shires: You know, my own music is what the folks in Nashville like to say, “left of center.” I like to call it rock & roll…with country influences. And I was leaving on a tour…my daughter was staying behind. As a mom, that’s pretty difficult to just leave your child, even though my husband is a great father.

I was riding around in my touring van, and the aux cable broke, so no streaming platforms were available and I didn’t have a CD player. So I was listening to Top 40 country radio. At the same time, my mind was paralleling these thoughts of…What if my daughter decides to do music as a career? I was thinking…Well, it’s a beautiful life, it’s unstable as hell, some of the best friends I’ve ever made are because of my music relationships. And I said, “Shit yeah, I could see her doing this.” Then I thought…What’s the worse that can happen? And I was also listening to Top 40 country, and I thought…Oh shit, I’ve only heard one woman artist in 22 songs, and I’d been making a list. So I thought…Well, that’s going to be isolating, and who’s she gonna talk to? Will she have any friends, and if they do, are they allowed to be friends because they’re the competition? And I was like…Why isn’t there more space for women in country music now? Where did it go?

Then as the tour went on, I started thinking. You know what? What would my heroes have done? They would have started a band together, and been friends, just like the Highwaymen (which consisted of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings & Kris Kristofferson). So yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do! I’m gonna start a band called The Highwomen. We’re gonna try and make positive change in country music. And not just in country music, but within other work realms, because anybody can be a Highwoman. There’s tons of women in their fields that are the only ones, who have to compete in a different atmosphere that’s men-heavy. And so I told Dave Cobb, the guy that produces me and Jason (Isbell) on regular basis, He’s the only person I told, because sometimes when you have an infant idea like that, and you share it with somebody, that person could be the person that squishes your idea or your dreams. You have to be real careful with your dreams. [But] Dave has a daughter, and he looked at me and said, “That is a great idea! We’ve gotta do this.”

Here’s the video of The Highwomen’s song, “Crowded Table.”

Then a few days later, Dave was like, “You should meet Brandi (Carlisle).” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m just gonna show up at her house and say, ‘Hi Brandi” (laughs). He said, “No, she’s playing a show. We’ve been working on a record together, and I’ll take you and introduce you.” So I said, “Yeah you can take me, and when I get there, I’ll decide if I’m ready to meet her.”

Then we went to the show, and Brandi was about to go onstage. When I saw her, I decided I was gonna tell her, and it was the poorest timing of my life (laughs). She was walking onstage and I said, “Hi, I’m Amanda Shires and I want to start a band with you. It’s gonna be called The Highwomen” (laughs). And she looked at me and said, “That’s interesting. Can we talk about this after the show?” And I said, “Okay.” And I was embarrassed so I left. But Dave gave her my number and we started talking on the phone. Then we started asking everybody we knew if they would be willing to participate in either songwriting, joining the band, and helping us with everything we could think of. We started making lists. And eventually, Dave put us with Natalie (Hemby), with whom Brandi had already worked, and also with Maren (Morris). And then Brandi called Maren, who was in her dressing room at The Tonight Show, and she said, “Yeah.” Then we started calling everybody, and there’s a lot of folks that said “Yes,” but the timing didn’t work out. So there are more Highwomen than are pictured on our first record. And our goal was, we were gonna play shows and have these other Highwomen. Like, how cool it would’ve been to see Bonnie Raitt play slide guitar on a song? And stuff like that. But COVID happened, and so that was put on pause. But The Highwomen formed, and we’re not done yet.

DK: Are you working on new music together?

Shires: We’ve been writing. I know Maren and Natalie have been writing, and I wrote with Natalie some. We’re writing, [but] we’re in this holding pattern because of COVID. It’s really mixed feelings about this COVID thing. It’s good and it’s bad, as we all know. So whenever there’s a vaccine, then hopefully we will have learned some stuff and we’ll be able to laser our focus and do some more good in the world.

DK: Your last solo album, To the Sunset, was released in 2018. Are you working on your next solo album?

Shires: Yes, I started that too. You see, I never stop working. Set me up in a room and I just keep on making things. It’s because I’m a very shitty waitress (laughs), and I’m terrible with computers, so I don’t have anything else I can do (laughs). I can write songs and I can paint, and poems. That’s all I can do. And I’m also half-assed at mopping (laughs). Right now, we’ve got this song with Jason (“The Problem), and I’ve got the other version called “Our Problem,’ which is gonna be me and a whole bunch of other women, but with different lyrics than this one. Then I’ve got a couple more singles, and I’m working on my album.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima