Track By Track: Amanda Shires ‘For Christmas’

Dean Budnick on December 22, 2021
Track By Track: Amanda Shires ‘For Christmas’

“I decided to make a Christmas record because I felt like all the Christmas records that we re-listen to every year occupy one space for the most part,” Amanda Shires says of her new album, For Christmas. “Then, I was just thinking about the past year—along with other Christmases and family in general—and I thought, ‘There are more sides to this holiday season.’

“We spent last Christmas in lockdown, although this is not a COVID record by any means. I was thinking about the things that I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy about that. Also, our phones went out in Nashville because someone bombed the AT&T tower, so I was thinking about how I didn’t get to spend Christmas with my dad or even call him. Then, with the loss of John Prine, I was thinking about how Christmas is going to be so different going forward. This all started hitting me all at once so like I do when I start to feel a certain way and want to clear it up in my own head, I consulted the ukulele. Then, I wrote all the songs in just a couple of months.”

In July, Shires (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Highwomen) entered Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville to record her first-ever holiday album, enlisting her friend Lawrence Rothman to produce the follow-up to 2018’s To the Sunset. Their core personnel included bassist Jimbo Hart (her bandmate in the 400 Unit), pianist Peter Levin (Gregg Allman), guitarist Pat Buchanan (Dolly Parton, The Chicks) and drummer Fred Eltringham (Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams). Celebrated gospel quartet The McCrary Sisters joined in for a number of the tracks as well.

“It was like 100 degrees outside,” Shires recalls, “but we made it feel like Christmas on the inside. The place was all decked out. And if you’re wondering about the artwork on the record, just think about a chimney and how cool it would be if I was your Santa Claus.”

Magic Ooooooh

“Magic Ooooooh” with the six O’s. That’s a love song that I wrote with Brittney Spencer. We got the spark of an idea over breakfast. We were celebrating our friendship and how it was good to find each other in the world. And then we were like, “How do we take this happy newness and sing about our own happy newnesses in relationships— and for Christmas.”

The ending part came while we were riding around in my ATV after we had written the song. We came up with that last part, where the outro builds, while we were riding around and singing. Then we said, “We’ve got to add this onto the song.”

A Real Tree This Year

Well, the title is a euphemism.

It’s also eco-friendly because you might have a fake tree in your house to be environmentally conscious, but you also might get a real tree this year, if you know what I mean. Sometimes during the holidays you’re lucky to get together with somebody in the biblical sense and consummate some sort of love.

Christmas is about more than just hanging out with family. Sometimes it’s about the pressure you put on yourself and the decorating. But it’s also about romance.

Let’s Get Away

Let’s get away for Christmas, from Christmas or both. That one features my friends The McCrary Sisters and I wrote it with my piano player, Peter. He wrote the chords and shared it with me and I was like, “That sounds cool. I think it sounds like Christmas to me. Do you mind if I write words and melodies to that?” And he said, “No problem.”

That’s a confessional one. I often find myself struggling with the Christmas lights on the tree and everything. Sometimes there comes a moment when you’re putting it all together and things are breaking and you’re like, “Why do we do all this? Can’t we just go somewhere and not give each other presents. Can we just go to the beach for Christmas and decorate a palm tree or something?” That sounds way easier a lot of times.

I met Peter when I was opening for Gregg Allman and he was playing with Gregg. He played on my To the Sunset record back in the day, and I had him on The Highwomen. We’ve gotten to know each other really well, and we’ve toured together so long that our communication is really easy. It doesn’t take much to describe what we’re going for.

So I was telling him about this Christmas record idea and he said, “I’m down.” Then I explained, “I don’t want it to be where we’re only playing covers, but I do want to throw in a few measures of some Christmas songs here and there.” So he added a little bit of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and a little bit of the Guaraldi-esque stuff with the twinkling piano keys.

Home To Me

I guess I’m a confessional writer, although I’m not always confessing my own story. [Laughs.] But that’s a desperate love song, for sure, where you’re looking back and you’re picturing sunnier weather.

Even though that song doesn’t even say the word Christmas, it’s about the weather all around you. Sometimes the weather forces you to write a song—both the weather in your house and the weather outside.

Blame It on the Mistletoe

I also wrote this one with my good friend Brittney Spencer. The song shares the thoughts of two characters. Let’s say you have a crush on somebody and they have a crush on you too, but neither of you are brave enough to do anything about it. Then you get a little Christmas cheer in you and there’s some mistletoe hanging over your head. This song goes through the thinking that these two characters could be having at that moment.

Originally, this had the line “the best fucking Christmas” but I had to take the word out because I wanted it to be able to play it to my daughter. I also wanted The McCrary Sisters to sing on it and they don’t really sing that word.

The McCrary Sisters have beautiful Christmas recordings of their own. They’re out here in Nashville and surrounding areas. The way that they work with their gospel leanings—and the way that they can sound so complicated, yet perfect, with those sibling harmonies—is what I think angels must sound like. I felt like the luckiest person in the world when they showed up.

Slow Falling Snow

This one is about the loss of my grandfather, who meant a lot to me, coupled with the people who feel like family members, like John Prine and Billy Joe Shaver. All these folks have gone on to the great hereafter, and there’s that missing place at the dinner table and a missing person in your life. So that song is about wishing that they were still there on Christmas.

There’s so much emotion and thinking and planning that comes with Christmas. It leads to all these different moods and feelings. I didn’t ever picture myself writing a Christmas record, but I also see myself writing another one because I didn’t get all those feelings in there.

There’s more to it than “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” Not everybody has the same Christmas experience and I wanted to make room for that.

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve

“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” is my favorite Christmas song. I know it’s not really a Christmas song, but I like to think about New Year’s Eve around Christmas because Christmas is so family-oriented. You’ve got a lot of cooking, wrapping and gift giving to do. But then, between Christmas and New Year’s, you get to think about something different than what you’ve been thinking about for the past month and a half. So after all that, I like to think about kissing on New Year’s.

I also like the idea of the girl asking the guy out and then being afraid of rejection because who isn’t?

Silent Night

We all know “Silent Night,” but the way I think about it is: When you’re in the midst of all this celebration and reflecting on the year, you might find yourself thinking that nothing’s been bright. You’re not ready to go to parties and put your smile on along with some nice clothes because it doesn’t fit your mood. You think, “I’m still not done processing everything I’ve had to process.”

So I made it minor and I tried to be truthful. And, even though it is a bit dark, I think there’s healing when you face the darkness.

Gone For Christmas

This was the first song I released from the record. It was around Halloween, and I decided to put it out first because it was scary enough to be a Halloween song. [Laughs.] It’s a little bit Grinchier than some of the others and more alt-country.

On my Christmas list, I would like to go for coffee with Larry David. I’m a huge fan. That’s on a big, long list of things that are impossible, but you never know. Maybe I’ll get one of them. I think the most easily attainable one on that list would be an awkward silence between me and Larry David.

I also would say, “If you’re out there Larry David, and you need to skip ahead to the verse where it mentions you, then go for it.” [Laughs.]

Wish for You

This is one I wrote with my friend Lawrence Rothman, who’s my producer and BFF. It began with an image in my mind that I had because I didn’t get to talk to any of my family last Christmas because our phones went out after somebody bombed the AT&T tower in Nashville. So my sentiment, which is in this song, was: “The only wish I have for me is that all of mine for you come true.” I was trying to say, “Merry Christmas! I hope you loved everything and everything was awesome. Sorry, I can’t talk to you.”

Always Christmas Around Here

Thinking back on this record, I wanted to show all the different corners, both musically and in terms of life. You’ve got a hopeful corner and you’ve got a dark corner, and all the range of emotions in between. The thing I always keep in mind is that if life didn’t go so dark, then the bright spots wouldn’t be so bright.

Christmas can be fun and jokes sometimes, but we’re also sitting around with family members we don’t see that much for longer than we probably want to. At first, you might be looking forward to seeing them for like three or four days, and then you’re wishing, “Oh, just one.” And you’re making this dish that nobody cooks all year long. Nobody’s practiced making a turkey and you’re going to eat that? It’s crazy.

Another thing about this album is that I didn’t feel any pressure to do it. I was writing something seasonal without any expectation of it turning into a whole touring situation. Sometimes pressure will freeze you up—it constricts things and there’s fear that goes along with that pressure.

I just felt like I had a chance to write how Christmas makes me feel sometimes, and maybe other people feel that way too.