Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires are two of Nashville’s most celebrated musicians — and a married couple whose relationship is widely revered.
In a Rolling Stone interview, Isbell recalls that he first saw Shires when she was playing with Billy Joe Shaver at the 2003 Austin City Limits Festival. They officially met a year later, however, in Athens, Ga., when Shires was playing with her band, the Thrift Store Cowboys.
“I’d never heard of the Drive-By Truckers, and I had two friends at that show, and one of my friends said, ‘That’s Jason Isbell of the Drive-By Truckers band. He’s famous.’ I was like, ‘Cool,'” Shires recalls. Adds Isbell, “So I introduced myself and she said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be famous?’ I didn’t know she’d just talked to a person who said, ‘He’s famous,’ which, I was not that famous.”
For good measure, however, Shires then made Isbell autograph a Polaroid picture (which they now have in their bathroom) as a way of gently mocking his so-called fame. Still, he was intrigued enough to watch the show — from a folding chair placed right in front of her.
“Now in hindsight, that seems really creepy; I would never do that,” Isbell says. “I was like, ‘That’s that girl that played with Billy Joe Shaver, it’s gotta be.’ Because she had the same boots on. We met and just talked briefly after that.”
The two kept in touch and occasionally collaborated — Shires appears on Isbell and the 400 Unit’s 2011 album Here We Rest — and eventually started dating in 2011. The early years had their bumpy moments, however, since Isbell hadn’t yet gotten sober. In a lengthy interview with WNYC, Shires recalls helping facilitate Isbell going to rehab to quit drinking, and how angry she was at his last-chance bender the night before he left.
“It started out like a cool night, you know, and ended up being the worst night ever, ever, ever, ever. At that point, I was not having any more to do with him. Because I was so mad the next morning,” Shires says. However, she remembers, Isbell started writing her letters from rehab: “He said nice and sweet things, like, ‘Wait to see the progress,’ and all this kind of stuff. Drew pictures,” she adds. “And I was swayed, to see the progress.”
After he got out of rehab, the pair moved in together in Nashville. And on July 10, 2012, Isbell visited Shires at Sewanee: The University of the South, where she was taking classes toward her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry, and proposed.
“At the time, I felt like this was not really happening,” Shires told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal a few weeks after the proposal. “But, yeah, it was pretty cool.” (For good measure, the two also tweeted about the proposal, with Isbell writing, “Happiest day of my life. @amandashires said yes!”)
Isbell and Shires got married on Feb. 23, 2013, by officiant Todd Snider (who became ordained specifically for the occasion) and had a daughter, Mercy Rose, in September of 2015. The couple balances parenting and their thriving musical careers with an eye toward equality.
“As a team, our family is a collaborative effort, and we really want to get the best out of everybody,” Isbell told NPR in 2017. “I don’t want to do something that’s gonna prevent Amanda from doing what she’s best at, because as long as we use our strengths, the team is gonna get stronger and the family’s gonna get stronger. If I were to say, ‘I would rather you stay home and watch the baby while I’m out touring,’ that wouldn’t be allowing her to do what she’s best at.”
“That’d be allowing us to split up,” Shires quipped.
“Well, yeah,” Isbell continued. “Even if you for some strange reason tolerated that, it would, I think, take the overall effectiveness and happiness of our family down quite a bit … It’s different for every family. It works on a case-by-case basis. But if you go by that guiding principle of, ‘Let everybody do what’s going to make them really happy and satisfied,’ and try to do whatever needs to be done so that’s possible, then I think everybody winds up happier. I really believe that.”