Amanda Shires reflects on working with Bobbie Nelson, a longtime idol, for new album ‘Loving You’
Musician Amanda Shires first began playing the fiddle with the Texas Playboys at the young age of 15. That’s around the same time she saw another woman, Bobbie Nelson, pursuing a career in music – and Shires says that made it seem like a musical path for her was possible.
Shires, who would eventually meet her role model and even play on stage alongside Willie Nelson and the Family band, found her own success, not only as a solo artist but also in forming the country supergroup the Highwomen. Her newest album is a collaboration with the late Bobbie Nelson called “Loving You,” a concept that came about as she considered putting the song “Always On My Mind” on her 2022 album “Take It Like a Man.”
“I thought to myself, ‘Self, how do we make this the best version of this song?’ And I thought, I need to have Bobbie Nelson,” she said. “So I reached out and went to Texas to record it. And then, when we got in the studio together, we decided that we were making a record together now, and that ‘Always On My Mind’ would be on our record.”
Shires recalled “the magic” of Nelson as a role model to a young female musician.
“I’d seen her play a lot, you know, as a kid in Texas and saw her as the first side person – sideman, but sidewoman. And I thought during my time of doing that, I was like, ‘Well, if she can do it, I can do it,'” Shires said. “I saw her as a wizard and an effortless piano player and also as a real support in the band. And then later I came to understand her story and realized all that she had done as far as making the road a little bigger for women in the musician role and all that. I hadn’t really seen any other women in that role as far as a sideman. And then I learned a lot more about her story, about all that it took for her to keep her place in music and to have music.”
That story included Nelson having her kids taken away from her for playing in places that served alcohol and the subsequent work to get her kids back, then going to school for business and demoing Hammond organs when they first came out.
“She was not a drunk, and she was not at all an unfit mother. But in those days, you know, we couldn’t even have a credit card or own land without having it cosigned,” Shires said. “So she had to jump through more hoops than most. And I think she did a great job.”
Shires said that Nelson was very open to talking about anything.
“If you asked her any kind of question about any of it, she was ready to answer with a deep and real answer,” she said. “Like I even said, ‘How did you get through all this many years, not only in the music business, but as far as what had happened in your personal life?’ And she said, really, the only thing that she’d know to do is forgive, because that’s really the only thing you could do, you know?”
Selecting the songs for “Loving You” came about organically, Shires said, as she and Nelson went back and forth playing music together in the studio.
“Her and Willie were both big Bob Wills fans, and we did ‘Always On My Mind,’ and she was like, ‘You know what we should do? We should do “Summertime.”‘ And I was like, ‘Perfect, so we’ll do that,'” Shires said. “We just kind of like naturally found our way into recording songs that kind of matched the timeline of her life. We would be recording, and it wouldn’t feel like a whole day passed. And then there it was, passed, and then it felt like a renewal in the energizing feel to music.”
Shires described Nelson’s piano playing as from the heart and experienced – while also truly pure and effortless.
“When the music was happening, she was in the music. There’s nothing coming in from the periphery. Very focused,” she said. “But at the same time letting the music lead, and also like a feeling of intuition when it came to playing together with others – like a knowing. She trusted the musicians, and she trusted herself. A lot of us, I think, struggle with trusting ourselves in our own abilities. And she completely trusted herself.”
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The album’s title track, the piano solo “Loving You,” is the only song that Nelson ever wrote.
“She wrote it long ago, but we didn’t record it till this record. And she had some words for it – but I’m a slow writer, so I didn’t get to finish all the words yet, but I promised her I would,” Shires said. “So one of these days I’ll get the words all together. I have some voice memos and tapes of how far she got with it. And then also facing that responsibility on my own because she passed away has been kind of a tough hurdle to attempt to leap. But as time goes on, it’ll probably get a little easier to pull that one up and not just bawl myself into pieces.
“She played it, and it was one of those one-take wonders. You could tell she put everything into it that she had, and there it sits, you know, [a] captured moment forever. You can hear the kind of like heartache in it but the hopefulness in the way that love tends to last forever, no matter what happens.”
Shires said that as she listens to the album now, what’s stayed with her is the wonderful experience of creating it.
“I could remember when we would do takes, just the happiness that was in the room, and the joy and the warmth. And I could still picture, you know, me messing up and a lot of laughs happening and then starting over,” she said. “And then when I had to get through [‘La Paloma’], which isn’t an easy one to learn if you’ve never learned it… Like after I took that a few times – and being under the scrutiny of everyone else in the console room where they were – she had, when I came out, a drink ready for me to go, a little tequila margarita, and I was like, ‘All right, this is cool.’ She realized that that wasn’t an easy thing to do, but she congratulated me.”
“This music is suitable for dancing, and it seems like the most fitting way to celebrate a life well-lived: with the community, good music, dancing,” she said. “It just feels right. Those rooms are right for this.”
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