On March 15, 2014, I heard Amanda Shires for the first time.
The day before, I’d made my way from Nashville to Chattanooga for the weekend. I was in the throes of feeling heartsick; on the outside it appeared to be about one thing, but the truth is, it was about everything. It was every failed relationship, every denial and dismissal, every “thanks, but no thanks.” I was also in the throes of growth, although I didn’t know that yet; all I knew was, I hurt.
And it was through that hurt that I first truly connected to Jason Isbell and his album, Southeastern. Every word, every note rang true through the hollows of my tender, aching heart, and it was like I’d finally found an outlet; it was just borne of someone else’s pain. It’d been a long time since I’d felt that connection to an artist of any kind; pretty much since my high school years when it felt like everything was terrible and hard, and the whole world of music seemed to get it. I hadn’t cried to an album since Jeff Buckley’s Grace.
But through my own past of addiction, through my own lifetimes of heartache, through the loss and through redemption – or at least, the hope of it – I connected to Southeastern. I dug through a lot of Isbell’s older stuff, too, like “Goddamn Lonely Love” and “Save it for Sunday,” among others, but man. Southeastern really nailed it.
And so, with my sad little heart in tow, I drove to Chattanooga for the weekend to hole up in a hotel room and attend the Isbell show at Track 29 the next night. I was already tender when I showed up, and I was (surprisingly, oddly) surrounded by a lot of rowdy cowboys and cowgirls, whoopin’ and hollerin’ and generally raising hell. I was, in all honesty, baffled. How in the hell do you get that response to Jason’s music? Why wasn’t everyone else showing up solemn and affected like me? I didn’t get it.
And so, the feeling of “apart-ness” grew.
Enter Amanda Shires. I’d never heard her music before that night, but I proceeded to stand there and cry through her entire set. With all of her charm, wit, and sweet engaging way, I was just too wide open to the music to do anything else. “If I” threw me over the edge and I gave up on coming back; I was endeared and busted, all at once. When Jason joined her on stage for a few songs, the hope and promise they represented with their own story of “overcoming” was almost more than I could bear, but it was also exactly what I knew I wanted and needed: hope. I couldn’t make it through all of Jason’s set, though, because by the time I heard the song I wanted to hear most, I was pretty well snotty and destroyed and needed a drink before heading back to my room for the night.
Since then, I’ve had Jason and Amanda on repeat, and have gone to see them perform at the Ryman for the last two years in a row. Their music carried me through some tough and interesting times, to be sure. The interesting (and potentially weird) part is that, over the last few years, I’ve probably had 15-20 dreams about the two of them, and in each dream, we are all friends. The situations change, and some are stranger than others, but in every one, we are connected.
I like to think it’s because their music and their story supported me the way a friend would, through a lot of really challenging moments. I carried their music with me and, as a result, I began to heal. (Of course, I was doing a lot of hard work, too, not to mention experiencing the very worst relationship which, I think, carved out room and willingness to now receive the very best).
So it’s almost as though the timing of Jason’s new album, Something More than Free, perfectly coincided with a shift in my own life and perspective. That album is so different from the previous, and yet so similar to the ones that came before – but better. It threw me for a bit of a loop when I first heard it, but I realized I, too, was ready to move on. Back to the person I was before, but better.
I honestly thought I was at the point where maybe I could just enjoy their music without it being so attached to the feels, because you know what? Life is good. I’ve grown and changed, and between the new job and the perfect fit of a love, it seems like the need to connect by way of some music had moved along.
That is, until I heard a new track from Amanda’s upcoming album. She played this one and another at the Ryman last fall, so I knew what I was in for, but it wasn’t til last night when it finally hit me and all sunk in that this, I think, is the record I’ve been waiting for. It’s the logical conclusion; the bow you wrap around the present. It’s the one where SHE lays it all bare, comes to terms and peace, and without even hearing the whole thing, I just kinda know it’s going to be exactly what I need.
So come September 16th, I’ll add it to the CD player in my car, along with another two of hers and three of Jason Isbell’s intertwined to tell the story, and I’ll likely sniffle my way through the album release in October. And it will be then that I can marvel at just how far I’ve come, all the while in the company of that perfect fit of a love and the friends I’ve never met but couldn’t be more grateful for.