Singer-songwriter Amanda Shires reflects on marriage on 'Take it Like a Man' Shires' album, Take it Like a Man, includes songs she wrote during a difficult period in her marriage to musician Jason Isbell. She sings and plays fiddle throughout this interview.

Amanda Shires examines the fault lines in her marriage on her new album

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Amanda Shires, is a singer, songwriter and fiddle player. She performs in several settings and has received awards in each of them. In 2017, for her solo work, she was named emerging artist of the year at the Americana Music & Honors Awards ceremony. The next year, she won a Grammy for best americana album as part of her husband's group, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Shires plays fiddle in the band. She co-founded the country supergroup The Highwomen, which includes Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. In 2020, The Highwomen won album of the year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremony. Shires started playing fiddle professionally when she was 15 with the band the Texas Playboys, which used to be led by Bob Wills, the father of Western Swing.

Shires' new album, "Take It Like A Man," includes several songs she wrote that came out of a difficult period in her marriage to Jason Isbell. I recorded my interview with her last week. She was in her home recording studio with her fiddle and with guitarist Zach Setchfield, and they played a few songs. Let's start with a track from the new album. The song is called "Empty Cups."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMPTY CUPS")

AMANDA SHIRES: (Singing) You're leaving now through the hole of an argument. I guess for awhile you've been looking for the exit. You slammed the door so hard I still hear rattling spoons. The sound of silence rings in every room. That last talk left me a makeup rainbow of tears, turned everything blurry. I can't see a thing from here. I tried so hard to make myself clear. Life can't help but interfere. You used to lean in like I was whispering, any excuse to get near again. I still miss the way you lean in. What happened between now and then? And my hands are two empty cups. Maybe I was asking for a little too much. To keep the newness from wearing off, for every start there's gonna be a stop.

GROSS: That's "Empty Cups" from Amanda Shires' new album, "Take It Like A Man." That's such a great song, Amanda. I'm so glad you wrote it. How did you come up with the image of my hands are two empty cups?

SHIRES: Honestly, a lot of times, my thoughts come to me just in pictures. And I kept imagining, like, how I had nothing left to give and nothing I could do or say to make anything feel right, like, within me somehow. And so I felt - in my mind, I felt those things. And it was a picture of hands holding on to nothing. And sometimes, you know, you can, like, cup your hands and drink water from them or you could cup your hands and - I don't know. There's a lot of things you do with your hands, but it struck me the most is matching the feeling of desperation or even begging.

GROSS: You know, you've said that a lot of the songs on this album come from a troubled period of your marriage to songwriter and singer Jason Isbell, who you perform with and who plays on this album. I mean, many songwriters would say, oh, they're not about me. They're just songs because everybody goes through troubles in their relationship. These really aren't personal. So since they are personal songs, you had to decide to say that. How did you decide to say that these songs are really about a bad period of your marriage?

SHIRES: When I write songs, I go into it either with an idea to explore something, make sense of the world or my feelings, you know, all that. But this part of my life in our marriage was difficult. And it took me back to the reason I came to writing and doing music in the first place, which is expression and trying to do something for me that could make me make sense, I guess. So when I would write the songs, I don't know what's going to come out, but sometimes, it was so - I was just so down that the only way I could get better was to take it out on writing a song. And when I would write these songs, it was never in my mind, oh, I have to record them. Because that's not how I go into songwriting. And then it was never like, oh, they have to be on a record once I do record them. Then I get to the end of the recording process and try to decide what makes the best collection of songs. And "Empty Cups" wasn't even the hardest one for me to put on there. It was "Fault Lines."

But I had about seven different album sequences going on. And I guess when we got to the third album sequence that I had, Jason was like, why isn't "Fault Lines" on there? And I said, I don't know. I just feel like that invites a lot of conversation and questions, you know, into our marriage and our relationship. And I don't know how I feel about that. And he said, well, you can always put it on there and just choose not to answer questions about it and, you know - or you can - he was pushing for me to leave "Fault Lines" on there because it is a good song, as he said. But, yeah, after a while thinking about it, I got more comfortable with it. And here it sits.

GROSS: You know, your husband plays on this album, but the songs are about a bad period in your marriage. When do you show him the songs? Like, do you say, hey, honey, here's a song I wrote about how bad things are between us right now? You know, like, how does that go? Or did you keep the songs, like, kind of secret for a while?

SHIRES: So I thought if I could write a song with my feelings in it, that it might bring him around to the walls that aren't really walls that we put ourselves behind sometimes. And in this certain period of time, there was a lot. And then coupled with the pandemic and all that, he was on self-preservation mode, and I was too. But anyway - so I went and I sat down in my barn of internal wandering. And this is after some kind of nebulous argument. And I wrote "Fault Lines" and then I texted it to him, just like you'd imagine. I said, I just wrote this song. And then in my mind I thought, well, if he couldn't hear the frequency of my voice before, maybe he could hear it through music, you know? And one day, we wound up in the studio, and we cut the song. And after we recorded it, he said, that's a really good song. And I said, that's all you have to say?

(LAUGHTER)

SHIRES: That's all you have to say? No more? But through the process of making the record and, you know, all the things that go with that, the hours and the tedium, it got easier for us to have conversations, not because we were doing the work of addressing the problems but because we were - found common ground on something again, which has always been music and words.

GROSS: Can I ask how things are now?

SHIRES: I mean, I think they're pretty good. He still can't seem to notice when the dishwasher's unloaded and all the dishes are put away. He could still leave it dish in the sink, you know? Other than that, I think we're all right.

GROSS: Good. I'm glad to hear it. So let's hear a song about when things weren't so all right. And this is - can I ask you to perform "Fault Lines," to do an excerpt of it?

SHIRES: Sure. Yeah, I can do an excerpt. I'm going to play fiddle and I'm going to sing in. And Zach's going to play guitar. (Singing) Time was all I'd want. You can keep the car and the house. We both know that none of that was keeping, keeping me anyhow. I cried, I asked and I balled. Curled up on the floor with it all. All the time, the want, the overwhelming volume of breathing. You could say it's all my fault. We just couldn't get along. And if anyone asks me, I'll say what's true - I don't know. There's nothing left to fix. You can say I lost my grip. Say whatever feels better or whatever. You can just say I'm crazy. You can say it's all my fault. We just couldn't get along. And so you know I'll say, I don't know, but no one's going to be asking me. And the character you wrote yourself out to be, the flagship all part of my fooling.

GROSS: Well, thank you for doing that. That's the song "Faultlines," performed by Amanda Shires with Zach Setchfield on guitar in Amanda's home studio outside of Nashville, Tenn. That's one of the songs on her new album, "Take It Like a Man." So let's talk about that song a little bit. It sounds like you were about to leave the marriage.

SHIRES: I don't know that - well, I don't know that I was going to leave or that Jason was going to leave. It felt like maybe we'd both leave at the same time. But I did move a couple of times out of the house, not because it was a leaving thing, but because I didn't want to do anything that would harm, you know, make it worse. I didn't want to do more damage.

GROSS: Well, I want to take a short break here. So hold on to your thoughts. We'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Amanda Shires, and her latest album is called "Take It Like A Man." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA SHIRES SONG, "SWIMMER...")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Amanda Shires, a great singer and songwriter who also co-founded the band The Highwomen, which is a kind of all-star country music band. And she also plays in her husband, Jason Isbell's, band. Her new album is called "Take It Like A Man."

I'm going to change the subject here. You've been very outspoken about the right to have an abortion. And you've called on country music stars to speak out, too. You had an abortion. And then more recently, just about a year ago, in August of 2021, you had an ectopic pregnancy. And that's when the fertilized egg stays in the fallopian tube. It's - as opposed to being in the uterus, where it belongs. And the fallopian tube just can't it - it can't expand enough to accommodate a growing fetus. So either you have surgery or I think you die. Is that right? I mean, is it fatal for a woman if nothing is done?

SHIRES: There's a medication that you can't take right now after, you know, about two weeks after this happened to me. I believe that's when - that that became not an option. But there's a medication you can take that aborts the fertilized egg from your fallopian tube. And usually that works. In my case, I blame the education system, but I didn't even know what an ectopic pregnancy was. So by the time I went into the hospital, my fallopian tube had already ruptured. And I had been internally bleeding for a whole lot of hours. And so I just had to get emergency surgery to remove the tube and clean the blood from inside of my body.

GROSS: That sounds really, really awful. Were you in Texas at the time?

SHIRES: On August 9, yes, I was in Texas at Austin City Limits.

GROSS: Yeah. So it was just like a week and a half or two weeks afterwards that Texas banned abortion. Do you think you would have been able to have the surgery if abortion had already been banned in Texas?

SHIRES: Oh, I would have had to find somebody to drive me to Mexico or somewhere else.

GROSS: Well, in 2020, you and your husband, Jason Isbell, recorded a duet of a song you wrote called "The Problem." And the song is from the perspective of a teenage couple. She gets pregnant and wants to have an abortion, although she doesn't feel great about it. And he's saying, you know, basically that he's going to support her and he's there for her. It's a great song, so I thought we'd play some of it. So here's my guest, Amanda Shires, and Jason Isbell singing her song, "The Problem."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PROBLEM")

JASON ISBELL: (Singing) What do you want to do?

SHIRES: (Singing) I'm scared to even say the truth. This has been the hardest year.

ISBELL: (Singing) Is it even legal here?

SHIRES: (Singing) Trying not to think of names. Will you look at me the same? Do you need the reasons why? Is a chrysalis a butterfly?

ISBELL: (Singing) And all I could think to say was...

AMANDA SHIRES AND JASON ISBELL: (Singing) Everything's going to be OK. It's going to be all right.

ISBELL: (Singing) I'm on your side. I'm on your side.

GROSS: Amanda Shires, how did you decide you wanted to write a song about abortion? And how did you figure out what you wanted your point of view to be, you know, like, who the song would be about?

SHIRES: I began writing that song when I did the record "My Piece Of Land" a long while back. Then I tried recording it in a couple of other situations, and I just didn't have it right yet. When it came down to it, when I finally got it done and recorded, Amy Coney Barrett had gotten sworn in. And I was thinking about how much the stories matter. And that song, it's part my story and part, you know, stories I know from friends. And in this case, I wanted Jason to also come in and sing it, too. That way, there could be a more kind of - a wider effort to try and have the conversation with folks and realize that you're not alone. And then you also - you've got guys that'll back you up. And I know that Jason's platform is bigger than mine. And I know that he likes to help. And I know that he feels the same way I do. And it just worked when we did it. And it also made me stronger in the fact that I could feel comfortable singing about it and talking about it.

GROSS: You grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and Mineral Wells, Texas. And you got your start professionally at age 15 playing fiddle with the Texas Playboys. And this is the iteration of the band Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, which got their start in - they were most famous in the '30s and '40s and '50s. And Bob Wills was, like, the father of Western Swing, which combined country music and jazz. So to give listeners a sense of Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, listeners who don't know who they are, this is a classic 1940 recording of "New San Antonio Rose."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW SAN ANTONIO ROSE")

BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS: (Singing) Deep within my heart lies a melody, a song of old San Antone (ph) - San Antone - where in dreams I live with a memory beneath the stars, all alone. It was there I found, beside the Alamo, enchantment, strange as the blue up above. A moonlit pass that only she would know still hears my broken song of love. Moon, in all your splendor...

GROSS: So that was Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys from 1940, their song, "New San Antonio Rose," with Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar. Tommy Duncan was the singer. So Amanda, you took fiddle lessons from Frankie McWhorter, who played with Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys from '60 to '62 - '62 was the year that Bob Wills had a heart attack and retired for a long time from music. So when you started taking lessons with Frankie McWhorter and then became part of the band, how much did you know about Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys?

SHIRES: I didn't know anything about them. I just fell in love with the music, is what happened. I was learning orchestra and classical music in school and privately. And then my orchestra teacher recommended me to a private violin teacher. And I got awarded a scholarship to be able to go to those. And luckily, my teacher was one of those good and rare teachers that notices when - you know, when a student needs a little more help. So I would be studying my pieces. And Lanny Fiel, he would say, you're really, really great at the parts you love. And the other parts, you're just kind of asleep. And I said, yeah, I feel like there's not a lot happening there emotionally for me. So I couldn't really get into it. And couple of lessons like that, he pulled out some fiddle tunes that he had been transcribing aurally from Frankie McWhorter. And he said, try playing this one. And I said, OK. And then I fell in love. It was love at first listen. And I was like, that's what I want to do, because you play this song. And then you also get to play - you get to improvise, which is when you go off the page, as they say, or you just play what you feel within the chords. And I was really into that. And from there, he introduced me to Frankie McWhorter. And then my mom would drive me down there. And I'd sit on his porch. And he'd play songs, and I'd learn them.

GROSS: So we have to take another short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer, musician Amanda Shires. And her latest album is called "Take It Like A Man." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last week with singer, songwriter and fiddle player Amanda Shires. Her new album of original songs is called "Take It Like A Man." She also co-founded the country supergroup the Highwomen, which includes Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. Shires plays fiddle in her husband Jason Isbell's band, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. When we left off, we were talking about when Shires was 15 and started playing fiddle with the Texas Playboys, which used to be Bob Wills' band. Wills was the father of western swing.

You have your fiddle with you. Can you play something that you think kind of epitomizes the style that you learned and fell in love with? It could be something you played...

SHIRES: (Plucking fiddle).

GROSS: ...With the Texas Playboys when you're performing with them or something that you learned from one of your teachers - but that really made you fall in love with the style and that epitomizes what that style is.

SHIRES: There's this song called "Milk Cow Blues." It's blues, you know? And then - and the words are amazing and always brought me a smile. But - and after you did the main melody part, you get to improvise. And I really liked it. And "Milk Cow Blues" goes like this. (Playing fiddle).

GROSS: Thank you.

SHIRES: But some of the words are funny. It goes, (singing) I woke up this morning, and I looked out my door. I could tell my milk cow - I could tell by the way she lows. If you see my milk cow, please drive her on home 'cause I had no milk and butter - no - since my cow's been gone.

GROSS: How did you end up actually playing in the Texas Playboys band?

SHIRES: It was because Tommy Allsup was living in Snyder, Texas, at that time, and he was running the Bob Wills band. And Frankie and Lanny, my teachers - we were at Lanny's house the first time Tommy came over, and then, I met him. And these guys are in their 70s and 80s, and it was very much like hanging out with lots of granddads. And sometimes Tommy would show me stuff on guitar, like a melody to play, and then see if I could memorize it or retain it or whatever.

But one time, you know, not everybody could make a show. And Tommy said, if you can hold down that lower third harmony and - I'd love to, you know, have that spot filled. And I said, I'd love to. And for a lot of folks, that can be the most boring part of the three-part string ensemble thing. But for me, I was just happy to be up there playing music I loved. And so I got to do that basically because I was willing to work in a group and play a part and do just that thing and show up on time. And my stuff worked. And I followed a dress code. I had no problem taking direction, but - and I had no problem helping when I needed to help, so...

GROSS: So how seriously were you taken by the musicians in the band? Were you just, like, the cute kid who could play but, you know - that audiences would go wild over because you were a girl in the band and there wasn't much of that?

SHIRES: The audience really never went wild over me because it took me a minute to really learn how to improvise. And - but I think for the players in the band, they took me seriously as a player. But they also understood that I was a kid. And I remember the first time I sang ever, Leon Rausch had to hold my hand. I was doing fine, and then, I was just like - no sound would come out of my mouth. And (laughter) I, like, played the part. I got up to sing, and I was like, oh, crap. And I was trying to sing that song "A Little Walk With You" (ph). But anyway, he just grabbed my hand and held it. And then, we did it, sing the song. But they took me seriously, but they also knew the seriousness and the impact of the help that they were giving me.

GROSS: Were you nervous about being on stage or just about singing?

SHIRES: About singing, yes. I didn't start learning how to accept my voice until recently. Lawrence Rothman has been a model of self - accepting themselves. And while I - I know the voice that I have is what I have. I accept it now. Whereas before, I would just, in my mind, wish it was something different like Etta James or something.

GROSS: Lawrence Rothman produced your new album. So what didn't you like about your voice? Why weren't you accepting it?

SHIRES: I just - I have never been a fan of the way my voice sounds. I don't feel like it matches what's going on inside my brain.

GROSS: What would the right voice for you - like, what's wrong - what doesn't match?

SHIRES: I feel like it's a little nasally, and I wish it was, like, a little bit lower.

GROSS: What I hear in your voice is that it rings out. It is not trapped in your throat. It rings out like it's supposed to.

SHIRES: That's - well, see, I'm accepting that it sounds like it's supposed to now.

GROSS: So one of the ways you ended up becoming a songwriter as well as a singer and musician was that Billy Joe Shaver heard you play. And tell us how...

SHIRES: I forced myself in that position.

GROSS: You forced yourself in the position of having him hear you play?

SHIRES: Yeah. I was playing a music festival, and I noticed that there was a fiddle on stage with Billy Joe. And there was a guy that also played the guitar, like a multi-instrumentalist side person. And I hadn't heard the fiddle being played at all. And, you know, I didn't know that this was a thing you should normally ask to do 'cause I was young. But I just got up on a stage and took the fiddle and started playing it.

GROSS: So you ended up, like, accompanying him...

SHIRES: Yep, yep - on his songs without asking him.

GROSS: ...Without him asking? Yeah - without you asking.

SHIRES: Yeah.

GROSS: And his reaction was what?

SHIRES: You want to come to the - play the show tomorrow night, too? And I said, yes, I'd love to.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. On your Twitter, you describe yourself as a disciple of Leonard Cohen. That's, like, part of your identity on Twitter. What made you think of yourself as his disciple? Did you actually meet him? Or is this through listening to his records that you feel like you're his disciple?

SHIRES: I've listened to all of his records. I've found and scrounged and continued to for every interview that he's done in any form and any language. And I save them all. And I return to them often. And I also went to Greece and hung out at his house. And nobody would let me in, but I sat there anyway. I own one of his guitars and...

GROSS: Whoa. How did you manage to do that?

SHIRES: Well, that was - that part's a secret, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

SHIRES: (Laughter).

GROSS: One of the things I love about his music is the way he combined the spiritual and the profane in his songs and the spiritual and, like, anger and resentment and despair. Do you have - you do a great version of "I'm Your Man," his song, "I'm Your Man," on YouTube. Is there a song that you could play - a Leonard Cohen song you could play an excerpt of for us in tribute to him since we're both such great fans? It doesn't have to be "I'm Your Man." I just know that you've done that.

SHIRES: But I like it because I like to imagine - like, if he was alive and I got to play this for him, I would be singing I'm your Amanda. I'm not joking.

GROSS: Oh, that's so funny. Well, why don't you sing some of it for us?

SHIRES: (Singing) If you want a lover, I'll do anything you ask me to. And if you want another kind of love, I'll wear a mask for you. If you want a partner, take my hand or only you want to strike me down in anger, here I stand. I'm your man. If you want a boxer, I'll step in the ring for you. And if you want a doctor, I'll examine every inch of you. If you want a driver, climb inside or only want to take me for a ride, you know you can. I am your man. I'm your Amanda.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, I wish he could have heard you do it.

SHIRES: My whole left arm is tattoos of Leonard Cohen.

GROSS: Seriously?

SHIRES: Not joking.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

SHIRES: I really do feel like he did a lot of work for me that I don't have to do. Like, I know that in all of the searching that he did still believe that there was something bigger out there. So I don't have to go trying to learn all these other things. I could just trust based on how Leonard Cohen did all that work for us.

GROSS: I think it's time for another break. So let's do that. If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and musician Amanda Shires, and her latest album is called "Take It Like A Man." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA SHIRES SONG, "SWIMMER...")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with singer, songwriter and musician Amanda Shires. She's also one of the founders of the group The Highwomen. I want to talk with you about The Highwomen. And this is basically, like, a country supergroup. It's you, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris. Why did you want to form this group?

SHIRES: In 2016, I was going on the road. My daughter was about a year old, and I was getting into my touring van because I hadn't worked my way into a bus yet. And as it happened, eventually the auxiliary cable quit working in the van. So I was left to the radio choices of sports ball and country - top 40 country music. Also, during this time when I was leaving, I was thinking about how Mercy was - you know, picked up a kazoo, and she could play a kazoo. And, you know, she...

GROSS: Mercy is your daughter.

SHIRES: Oh, yes, Mercy is my daughter. And she would dance a little bit to the Beatles and stuff and started seeing the possibility that she might go into music one day. So I started just taking notes on the radio because I heard it. I heard - in 22 songs, one woman's voice I heard. And it was a Carrie Underwood song from - it was, like, six years before that or something. And even on the charts, there's one spot usually I think - in 2016, there was 13% representation of women to men on country radio, and now it still sits pleasantly at 16% on a good week. But I thought, what am I going to do about that in the event that she does go into country music? And then I thought about Waylon and Kris and them of The Highwaymen, and I was like, they were kind of speaking about ageism. I said, it'd be cool if I was The Highwomen or maybe had a band The Highwomen. Then I told my friend Dave Cobb about my idea and he really liked it, and he said, I'm going to have you meet Brandi Carlile. And we met. And then, really, while the idea was mine, it wasn't only me that made The Highwomen be a thing. It was - it took Dave Cobb and it took Brandi, and then it took Natalie and Maren Morris.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a song performed by The Highwomen, and the song is actually called "The Highwomen," and it's a song sung from the point of view of different women. One is a Honduran asylum-seeker who died while trying to cross the border. Another is a freedom rider who died during the Freedom Rides. And your verse, you are somebody who thinks of herself as a healer but was hung in the gallows during the Salem witch trials. Why was that the verse that you wrote or sang for yourself?

SHIRES: Well, myself and Brandi wrote the song.

GROSS: Brandi Carlile.

SHIRES: Yes. You know, it's Jimmy Webb's song originally, but...

GROSS: "The Highwayman"...

SHIRES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Is his song.

SHIRES: We were writing that, and Brandi was like, I'm going to take the first one. And Natalie said, I want the one about preaching. That one speaks to me. And I said, OK, well, I'll be the healer. And healer seemed fitting for me not only because it happened that way, but my mom's a nurse. And - I don't know. I think a lot of women are born healers and nurturers.

GROSS: So this track features you, Natalie Hemby and Yola as a guest artist on it.

SHIRES: And I think Sheryl Crow plays bass on that one.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear a little bit of that song. We'll definitely get to your verse, which is the second one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWOMEN")

BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) I was a Highwoman and a mother from my youth. For my children, I did what I had to do. My family left Honduras when they killed the Sandinistas. We followed a coyote through the dust of Mexico. Every one of them except for me survived. And I am still alive.

SHIRES: (Singing) I was a healer. I was gifted as a girl. I laid hands upon the world. Someone saw me sleeping naked in the noon sun. I heard witchcraft in the whispers and I knew my time had come. The bastards hung me at the Salem gallows hill. But I am living still.

GROSS: So that was the "Highwomen," which is a song performed by the supergroup The Highwomen, which was co-founded by my guest, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile. So one of the things you learned, like, I think in the past few years is that your grandfather had spent years in prison.

SHIRES: Oh, right, in Alcatraz. When it reopened, he was in the first 200.

GROSS: How did you find that out? And how come you didn't know before?

SHIRES: I found that out - for Christmas, Jason's merchandise guy, Chance, gave us each our family trees. And I was reading mine. And I was like, my granddad was in Alcatraz? No way. I didn't believe it. And then I asked Chance, and Chance was like, no, those are real documents. They're just, you know, scans of them. And I told my mom to come over because I had something to show her. And she came over and I showed her. And she was like, I had no idea. And then she wanted to know if it was real, so she hired a private investigator and all this. But it was true. And he was there for 25 years. And after he did his time, he didn't say anything about it. And he married my grandmother. But I think she probably knew. But she was very good at keeping a lot of secrets. I think she probably knew 100%, but..

GROSS: Was this your mother's father or your father's father?

SHIRES: My mother's father.

GROSS: So your mother didn't know...

SHIRES: No.

GROSS: ...That your Father had spent 25 years in Alcatraz?

SHIRES: No, not until a couple of years ago. And the reason I think that my grandmother knew is because also lately, we found out that my mom's oldest sister isn't - doesn't have the same dad as her, as my granddad. So there's thinking - my thinking is that my granddad married my grandmother knowing that she was pregnant with somebody else's child. And I think they probably had conversations that you would, if you were that close to each other, about that stuff and didn't bring it up. And then - and neither of them told us that stuff. We found all this out afterwards.

GROSS: Your mother earlier in her life worked as a bail bondsman, right?

SHIRES: She did. We would sleep on the floor in the closet there because she would do the night shift, because she would - was going to school in the daytime for being a nurse. And she was also holding down a day job as a single mom.

GROSS: I think it's so interesting that your mother worked as a bail bondsman, not knowing that her own father had spent so much time in prison.

SHIRES: I mean - OK - I'm going to call her up after this, too. I like the way these lines kind of happened in our lives and like tributaries in a way that we don't realize are happening.

GROSS: The bail bondsmen are often - their offices are often located in a very low-rent part of town.

SHIRES: Across from the jail.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. OK. So did you ever visit her at work?

SHIRES: Oh, yeah. I had to spend the night with her at work. I would - she would set us up in the in the closet of the bail bonds office. And we had a TV that we'd watch, you know, "Saturday Night Live" on Saturdays. And we would be quiet so that she wouldn't get in trouble because it was a lot then to be a single mom and deal with the difference in pay for men versus women. So she did daytime job. She was going to school. And she was doing the bail bonding on the night. And it was much safer for us to sleep in the closet with the TV at the bail bonding place than to be left to her own devices at home. So I think she did a good job.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and musician Amanda Shires. Her latest album is called "Take It Like A Man." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with singer-songwriter and musician Amanda Shires. She's also one of the founders of the group the Highwomen.

So I'm going to ask you to play one more song from your new album, to perform it for us. Is there a song that you'd like to do?

SHIRES: "Take It Like A Man."

GROSS: That's the title song from the new album. What does that phrase mean to you? And why did you want to work it into a song?

SHIRES: I didn't know I was going to work it into a song until I got to the - to writing it. And a lot of - it's multilayered, the meaning - take it like a man. But a lot of times when you're growing up and taught what - how to be successful and how to be - to survive in the world as a woman with a career and all this stuff - and probably young - many young kids are taught this. Like, don't cry; don't show your emotions; be stoic; be strong; everything else is weakness. And because I was in the time of my life where I was having a disconnect in my marriage and not feeling great in - with music - but I discovered that it takes a lot to be vulnerable, and it takes a lot to talk to folks and to understand each other. And I think there's more valuable strength there than there is in suppressing your emotions and poisoning yourself with your own feelings, I guess.

GROSS: Well, would you play "Take It Like A Man" for us?

SHIRES: I would love to.

(Playing guitar, singing) Like a common loon, I started hearing birds, birdsong everywhere. A lark in the shower from the night to the morning after. Warblers and wrens, hymn at my throat, shook and quivering. Oh, I could have crowed. Oh, I could have crowed. I was snared by your wrist. I know what the cost is in the octaves of consequence. I know the cost of flight is landing. And I know I can take it like a man. I know I can take it like a man. I know I can take it like a man. I know I can take it like Amanda.

GROSS: Amanda Shires, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for doing the interview. Thank you for performing for us. Thank you for your songs.

SHIRES: Thank you so much. And thank you for putting up with me. And thank you so much for having me as a guest. I'm a big, big fan.

GROSS: And me of you, so thank you. And I also want to thank Zack Sedgefield for playing guitar and also Diana Walsh, who engineered your end of the music and the conversation from your home studio in - well, outside of Nashville. So thanks to them as well.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the power, promise and potential harm of YouTube. Our guest will be Mark Bergen, author of the new book "Like, Comment, Subscribe" in which he reports on how YouTube ushered in a world of abundant content and creativity of influencers and online hustlers, of information overload and endless culture wars. Bergen is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA SHIRES SONG, "HAWK FOR THE DOVE")

GROSS: Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I am Terry Gross. We'll close with the opening track from Amanda Shires new album. The song is called "Hawk For The Dove."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAWK FOR THE DOVE")

SHIRES: (Singing) I'm well aware of what the night's made of. And I'm coming for you like a hawk for the dove. You can call it serious trouble 'cause that's what I want. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble. You can call me serious trouble. Just admit I'm what you want. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble. I see you talking, but I can't hear a thing. Too caught up in the way I want you rolling over me. The spurs of hip bones...

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