Violinist Amanda Shires Picks Up The Pieces

Aug 4, 2013
Originally published on August 4, 2013 5:38 pm

When country violinist Amanda Shires goes on tour, she meets a lot of interesting people. Once after a show in Tampa, Florida, a fellow calling himself Tiger Bill handed her a mysterious bag — whose contents, he said, would make her "bulletproof."

"And I opened it and looked inside of it," Shires recalls. "And it was whiskers and claws and teeth and fur."

Shires could have used a little protection during the run-up to her latest album, Down Fell The Doves. In the months before starting work on the record, she had broken a finger, ended a long-term relationship and watched as a cherished instrument — her 150-year-old fiddle, with which she had toured for 15 years — was destroyed in an onstage accident.

Shires discusses her challenging year and the dark, frank music that came out of it with NPR's Jacki Lyden. Click the audio link to hear their conversation.

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for some music.


AMANDA SHIRES: (Singing) I wanna look like a bird, scissor wings and split the sky...

LYDEN: Country violinist Amanda Shires had a tough 2011.

SHIRES: I had broken my fiddle on stage, in an accident. That's the one that I toured with for 15 years, and it was over 150 years old. And I ended a relationship - that was a long-term relationship, and then broke my left ring finger in three places. And I have three pins still in it; spiral fracture.

LYDEN: Even as a child, she was a hardscrabble sort of Lubbock girl. The art on her new album shows a tattooed and smiling woman tumbling upside down. Amanda Shires is fragile and tough at the same time, and she's in a better place now. Her finger's healed, and she got married this spring. But that hard year laid the foundation for a new album called "Down Fell the Doves."

I spoke with Amanda Shires from her tour stop in Buffalo. And we started at the beginning, and the story of what led her to the violin as a 10-year-old.

SHIRES: I went with my dad to a pawnshop in Mineral Wells, Texas, called AD Garretts. And he was in there shopping for a new hunting knife because he wanted one with a compass on it. And I just saw this fiddle hanging on the wall, and I just asked if we could look at it, and he said yeah. Pretty much just begged him to get it for me. It was $65 - which was, for us, a lot of money. He said if I - if he got that for me, I'd have to learn how to play it. And I said I would do that.

And then it just started from there. After that, I went home from my dad's, in the summer, to my mom's, in Lubbock, Texas. And she started me in orchestra and private violin lessons.


LYDEN: There's another song here that pays homage to someone I also just grew up on and love, and this is "A Song for Leonard Cohen." Let's hear a little bit of it.

SHIRES: Oh, man. I'm excited about me and you.


SHIRES: (Singing) I wish that I could buy you a drink, and then more, and then five. I'd get you drunk, and it'd get me out going all week or just this one night...

LYDEN: So what is Leonard Cohen's influence on your work?

SHIRES: Well, I started appreciating Leonard Cohen when I started reading his poetry. I think I just love words so much that I just - I don't know; I fell in love with his. And then I started reading more about him and listening to his music.

I like the place that he came from. I like that he is studied in poetry, and then switched over to music and had a little problem with stage fright. And I like that he played for mental hospitals and things like that. There's a lot of cool things about him. And he's very handsome; I don't know if you've seen him.

LYDEN: Yeah, I have. And I would agree.

SHIRES: He can dance like a madman.

LYDEN: Uh-huh. In that weathered kind of way - I think I can say that, yeah. I also read that you have a Leonard Cohen verse tattooed on your arm.

SHIRES: Yes, I do. Now, this is something I want to talk to him about because I've read in some biographies about him that he doesn't think that "Hallelujah" should be covered anymore. So...

LYDEN: And that's the verse you've got.

SHIRES: ...I decided that - yeah, I don't have to get - I don't have to learn that song or cover that song because I'd hate for him to hate that, if I ever did get to meet him. So I just got the tattoo.

LYDEN: Can you read me the verse?

SHIRES: Sure. It says, "Love is not a victory march. It's a cold, and it's a broken, hallelujah."


SHIRES: (Singing) We'd compare mythologies, and toast those friends that never believed that our voices ever had much to offer. And then maybe we would go for a walk, and I'll just listen while you talk.

LYDEN: You know, you mentioned a minute ago that one of the things you liked about Cohen - you said he had bouts of stage fright. Does that happen to you?

SHIRES: Yeah. I don't really know why I get it. I just do. I think if somebody could figure out how to cure that, I think a lot of people would be happy. Kris Kristofferson, I heard - we should start a support group.

LYDEN: Yeah, deep breathing - the deep-breathing group.


SHIRES: Yeah. I haven't tried that. I've tried alcohol, and that doesn't really do anything except make you fall over.

LYDEN: That doesn't work.


LYDEN: It does something else, but yeah - deep, deep breathing.

SHIRES: Yeah. Yes.

LYDEN: I just want to ask you about the song "Bulletproof," where you wonder what it would be like to be invincible. Let's listen to a little bit of it.


SHIRES: (Singing) Tiger Bill gave me a tiger claw from a real Siberian tiger's paw. He said, this'll make you bulletproof. So I got this tiger claw from a real Siberian tiger paw, in my pocket. It's got me thinking now, what if I really could be bulletproof...

LYDEN: What is the story there?

SHIRES: Truly, it's a true story. Traveling around, playing songs for people, you make a lot of friends. And that's a good thing because starting out as a touring musician, you often need a place to sleep. Then folks start bringing you things. I prefer bottles of wine, at least $10 or greater, in value; hardback books.

LYDEN: Got to make the time go by.


SHIRES: I wasn't making any hints. But I was playing this show in Tampa, Fla., and I went to sell some CDs afterwards and was talking to some folks. And this guy in a Hawaiian shirt - you know - reeking of pot, approached me. And he had this bag, like a brown lunch bag; and he said, "I brought this for you. My name's Tiger Bill." And I said oh, thank you. I appreciate this.

And he said - and I opened it up, and I looked inside of it, and it was whiskers and claws and teeth and fur and animal parts - very obviously, animal parts.

LYDEN: Oh, my.

SHIRES: And I said, thank you so much, Tiger Bill. This is just great. I just love this.

LYDEN: You are a welcoming soul.

SHIRES: (Laughing) And he - yeah. And he...

LYDEN: But did you say, "Hey, it's not a" - is it a real tiger?

SHIRES: Well, I was being polite. I wasn't sure what to make of it, you know? And so I said, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And he said, "OK, trust me here. If anything, you have to keep the whiskers and the claws because they'll make you bulletproof." And I said, all right. And he said, "But it's not what you think." And I said, how do you know what I'm thinking? And he said, "I take care of tigers and big cats and things. We have like, this sanctuary and stuff, and they shed these things. So you don't have to worry that I'm just this crazy person out there, killing tigers and bringing them to girl musicians in Florida." So I said, thank you so much.

And then the next morning, I was just laughing about how odd that was. And then I just started writing that song because that would be awesome if I could be bulletproof. It'd be like winning the lottery. But I don't want to encourage anybody to try switchblades out from any performance. And don't bring out any tasers or anything.

LYDEN: Well, Amanda Shires, it has been a real pleasure talking to you. You clearly are getting enough experiences to fill lots of albums. We really like this one, and look forward to the next one.

That's Amanda Shires. Her new album is called "Down Fell the Doves." It's out this week. Thank you so much for speaking with us from Buffalo, New York.

SHIRES: Thank you.


SHIRES: (Singing) Through whatever the weather the rest of our days ... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.