Amanda Shires is not an entertainer. She isn't looking to help listeners escape their everyday lives or soundtrack celebrations. She isn't reaching for celebrity, and she isn't concerned with cultivating a personal brand. She is an artist in the true sense of the word, meaning she creates because she has a real need for the process of creating. That is not to say that the songs on My Piece Of Land aren't entertaining, but that quality is a by-product. The real intention here is to relate. Ms. Shires began her career as a teenager playing fiddle with the Texas Playboys. Since then, she's toured and recorded with John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Todd Snider, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, and most recently her husband Jason Isbell. Along the way she's made three solo albums, each serving to document a particular period in her life while improving on the perceptive qualities of the previous record. The songs on My Piece Of Land deal with family, with anxiety, with the phases of one young woman's life; but the primary focus of My Piece Of Land is the concept of home. Ms. Shires addresses the similarities and differences between the home she was born into, the two homes she was eventually split between, and the home she has finally made for herself. Some of these stories are from the creator's point of view and some most certainly are not. You'd be hard-pressed to identify which is which, though, considering the level of empathy involved in the creation of these stories. «The concept of home, like the concept of love, is more complex than it seems,» says Ms. Shires. «You start out with this inherited idea of home, but as you grow you realize that's only a suggestion. You have to use that along with all the little pieces of wisdom you've picked up along the way to finally build your own place in the world.» Ms. Shires sometimes describes songwriting as «solving the puzzles,» but before the songwriter even begins to arrange rhymes and melodies, she must first be acquainted with the complicated workings of the heart. Most of this album was written after Ms. Shires had reached the seven-month point in a summertime pregnancy, and was no longer able to travel. For a woman used to touring most of the year, being stuck inside brought challenges and offered creative rewards. «Pregnancy does weird things to you,» Amanda says. «You walk around holding your arms over your belly, sometimes almost overcome by anxiety. I constantly wondered if I would be able to protect this child, if my marriage would last forever, if I'd learned enough about the world to be a good mother. At the same time, you're so excited, so hopeful, and so severely physically limited.» About how the setting affected the finished product, she says «This record turned out to be a personal record, set in our home where I had lots of time for reflection and time to face my concerns and fears.» The listener can hear Ms. Shires unpacking those anxieties in a song like «Slippin,'» with its ruminations on what could go wrong in a relationship that seems stable. There'll be a trigger, then up starts the fire, a handful of matches some faulty wiring. You'll say you have this hollow feeling. Something's always been missing. Tonight could be the night you go slippin' away from me. Her piece of land is one with a panoramic view, and she pays close attention to even the smallest details. Take, for instance, the first stanza of «Harmless.» A phased golden light rained down from the streetlight. It fell across your shoulder, paused just above your collar. With this description of one fleeting moment, the writer sets an entire scene. Ms. Shires would argue that the term «poet» should not be used to mean «unusually perceptive songwriter,» since the roles of modern songwriter and poet are so very different. However, it isn't hard to understand how her post-graduate education in poetry helps Ms. Shires choose which details to include. «It's all about precision. My time in the MFA (Master Of Fine Arts) program at Sewanee taught me a lot about different ways of writing and how they all have one thing in common: the better you are at editing, the better your work will be. Spending long hours workshopping poems and reading the classics gave me a solid standard when it came time to edit my songs.» Ms. Shires recorded My Piece Of Land under the guidance of brilliant Nashville producer Dave Cobb at his Low Country Sound studio. Inviting Cobb to produce My Piece Of Land was an easy decision to make, considering Ms. Shires had worked with him before on Jason Isbell's albums Southeastern and Something More Than Free. Ms. Shires knew of Dave's propensity toward arranging the songs in-studio, rather than rehearsing or making demos beforehand. Cobb believes in the spontaneity of early takes, and with the proficient rhythm section of Paul Slivka and Paul Griffith, the studio band was able to record the album in a relatively short amount of time without sacrificing performance quality. This approach gives each song on the album emotional urgency along with a groove that's loose and effortless. Among other things, «Pale Fire» is about consciously shifting one's own priorities. There are two types of lovers: the kind we need and the kind we want. The hard part is finding someone who represents both. «You Are My Home» is written as a gift, a token of appreciation to someone who has helped the narrator define her place in the world. «Mineral Wells» is a song Ms. Shires wrote many years ago, after relocating to Nashville from her childhood home in Texas. It speaks to the part of us that never really leaves that original homeplace. With My Piece Of Land, you get the sense that Amanda Shires has reached a personal pinnacle. This album is the creative milestone suited to accompany the recent milestones in her life: becoming a mother, developing into a true artist, and finally finding a home.
Ruston Kelly writes and performs the kinds of songs that inspire novels and movies.
You could call him a bastard disciple of Kurt Cobain and Townes Van Zandt, and he'd be totally cool with that. He's just as comfortable wearing a cowboy hat as he is in a Slayer t-shirt. His story so far twists and turns through heartbreak and triumph, an overdose and rehab, empty dive bars and packed venues, living everywhere from South Carolina to Brussels, and as he puts it, «finally getting my shit together and proposing to the love of my life.»
It's this unbelievable experience that informs Ruston's singular style — a gravelly patchwork of folk lyricism, grunge attitude, country heart, Americana spirit, and rock energy. Not only has he penned songs for Tim McGraw («Nashville Without You»), Josh Abbott Band («Front Row Seat»), and more, but his independent solo debut EP Halloweenearned acclaim from KCRW, Consequence of Sound, RELIX, Apple Music, and more. He logged countless miles on the road sharing the stage with the likes of The Lumineers and Robert Earl Keen in addition to performing at Bonnaroo and Wakarusa.
It's no coincidence that he took to music as an infant.
«The first sound I remember hearing was a steel guitar,» he says. «My dad was in some East Texas folk bands back in the day, and he would play steel guitar every night before I went to bed. When he wanted to sneak cigarettes, he'd take me on midnight drives around the neighborhood and play Jackson Browne records. I was fascinated. It seemed like a magical thing to recreate a song you'd heard before.»
As the family shuffled around from Alabama, Cincinnati, and Texas, Ruston learned guitar at 13-years-old. While in Brussels, he immersed himself in classic country and roots.
«Subconsciously, I think I wanted to reconnect with the homeland,» he admits. «It started with The Carter Family, then Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Leadbelly, and Johnny Cash. All of that influences what I do. I was raised with good old Southern kindness, but I was also taught to keep an open mind about things. There are so many different types of cultures and people out there. That's definitely a theme for me.»
Ruston picked up and left Belgium at 17, relocating to Nashville to live with his older sister. He went on to form the popular jam band Elmwood and tour from 2008 until 2011. By 2013, he had signed his first publishing deal with BMG in Nashville and was landing high-profile placements.
However, his life really spun out of control.
«Before I was offered the deal, I relapsed into an old drug habit that I had been struggling with for a few years,» he sighs. «I ended up going to rehab. I couldn't quite get my personal rhythm right. Then, I overdosed in January 2016. That was the last wakeup call I needed.»
Finally getting clean, Ruston released Halloween that June. Produced by Mike Mogis [Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit, Jenny Lewis] and tracked in just nine days, it formally introduced listeners to his voice. «Poison» racked up over 516K Spotify streams, while «Black Magic» soundtracked the Season Finale of the CBS series Scorpion. With its lilting steel guitar, rough delivery, and enchanting refrain, the track showcases his honesty with the cry, «Love is hell.»
«I think everybody's been there,» he continues. «You go through one too many bad relationships and get that feeling like, 'Love shouldn't be this fucking hard and difficult.' It's as if someone cast a spell on you. They're all really just stepping stones for you to be able to see what you really need as far as love is concerned.»
Signing to Washington Square Music / Razor & Tie and gearing up to record his full- length debut in 2017, Ruston holds nothing back.
«When people hear my songs, I want them to be affected in the way music affected me before I started doing it for a living,» he concludes. «I want them to think, 'Damn, that made me feel something important I didn't know I needed to feel.' I love playing music; it brings me so much joy. If I'm still doing this years from now, that's more luck than I deserve.»