Fiddle star Amanda Shires shows unwavering calm through melancholy songs


Amanda Shires performs at Gypsy Sally's. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

Nothing rattles Amanda Shires. That became obvious three minutes into her concert at Gypsy Sally’s on Wednesday, when a small fight broke out in the audience just after the alt-country fiddle star arrived on the intimate Georgetown venue’s stage.

Shires appeared unfazed. “Bouncer?” she called out in her slight Texas drawl, sounding amused. “There’s an argument breaking out at the folk rock-and-roll show.”

As security ended the scuffle, Shires tuned instruments and distracted the crowd by telling the story about the last time this happened: On St. Patrick’s Day, an audience member started practicing karate moves.

Eventually, things settled down. Shires took a breath and smiled: “I hope everyone has a good time — starting now.”

As her crystal clear, mellow country warble washed over the cozy room, Shires’s steely calm became evident in her songs, too, setting up an electric night of deeply melancholy music. Shires, the West Texas fiddle prodigy and backup musician turned singer, mostly played songs from her newest album, “Down Fell the Doves,” based on a rocky year that encompassed broken hearts, bones and instruments. As she has explained in interviews, she split with a long-term boyfriend, injured her finger and wrecked her beloved antique fiddle. But she lived to tell about it all, in the form of 11 divine songs.

“Your eyes are storms, I can see the spirals forming — it’s her,” she intoned during “Devastate,” about the unmistakable feeling you get when the person you love is thinking about somebody else. “She comes rolling in through like waves.”

Swapping between fiddle, guitar and ukulele, Shires, 31, crooned of the saddest things: cheating, lying, dead dreams, dead people. And then there’s “Box Cutters,” which colorfully imagines ways to end it all, including carbon monoxide and falling into tractor blades.

“I forgot to mention at the front of the set, we don’t really play happy music,” she said, admitting it’s a contrast because she has so much fun on stage. But while writing songs, she isn’t exactly in a “fun” state of mind.

No one seemed to care, as she kept things light, sipping a glass of wine and bantering with bassist Stephanie Dickinson. Shires also told lots of stream-of-consciousness stories, including one about striking up a Twitter friendship with rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot.

Even mistakes were turned into charming pauses. After fumbling the chord progression during “The Drop and Lift” — a song about love, which she said may or may not be about her husband, fellow musician Jason Isbell — she put a positive spin on it: “This is what you don’t hear on the record,” she said brightly.

“And,” she speculated. “That’s what happens when a fight starts the show.”

Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter and pop culture blogger for the Style section. She joined the Post in May 2008, a week before she graduated from the University of Maryland, and worked on Lisa de Moraes' TV Column and blog.
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