Amanda Shires + Jason Isbell’s ‘The Problem’ Offers a Couple’s Perspective on Abortion [LISTEN]
Four years ago, Amanda Shires wrote a song about abortion -- about a group of women talking about another woman getting one, specifically. The subject matter was important, she knew, but the song itself wasn't fitting quite right alongside her others, so she tucked it away.
"I needed time, I think, to think about presenting it to the world," the singer-songwriter and fiddle player explains, "... but when it came down to it, I knew that it had to be now -- like, right now, it had to come, just because the issues are important and being voted on as we speak."
The original version of Shires' work remains to be released another day, but on Monday (Sept. 28), she debuted "The Problem," a song that looks at abortion from a couple's perspective. Together with her husband, fellow artist Jason Isbell, she presents a story of two 18-year-olds who are faced with unexpected news, never outright named but artfully implied:
"What do you wanna do?" Isbell questions.
"I'm scared to even say the truth," Shires responds.
Delicately and honestly, the verses walk through their decision to get an abortion: "Is it even legal here?" Isbell wonders, while Shires "tr[ies] not to think of names" and worries, "Will you look at me the same?" Heartbreakingly, in the final verse, she asks, "Do you think God still sees me?"
"Trying to say any of those [decisions] are easy is just crazy, or to paint one person in a certain light because they decide to do something like that is just a terrible thing to do ... There's a lot of gray area when making a decision like that," Shires reflects over the phone. Later, she adds, "There's like folks out there that think you just make these decisions willy nilly, or that this is your form of protection or something ... It's the hardest decision to make."
"The Problem" is unique not only in its frank look at sensitive subject matter and its point of view, but also in its male character's unwavering support: "And all I could think to say / Was, 'Everything's gonna be okay / It's gonna be alright / I'm on your side / I'm on your side,'" Isbell sings in each chorus.
Shires is grateful to have her husband singing with her on what could be a divisive song, but Isbell's inclusion is for more than moral support. "We can't really make any changes in the world or stand by people going through tough decisions if we don't have friends on our side," Shires points out, "... and, you know, a lot of men do believe we should have our own rights to our bodies."
As Shires speaks about "The Problem," she slowly opens up about her and Isbell's own connection to its subject. She's writing from the perspective of friends and acquaintances, but she's also writing as someone who "[has] gone through this myself before."
Shires, now 38, was in her late 20s and dating Isbell when she learned that she was pregnant. He had recently gotten out of rehab, and while they loved each other and ended up getting married and having a daughter together, things were "rocky at that time," Shires admits. So, with Isbell's unwavering support, she sought an abortion.
"And all I could think to say / Was, 'Everything's gonna be okay / It's gonna be alright / I'm on your side / I'm on your side ...'"
"Although we later got engaged ... that was not a stable situation to even consider bringing a child into," Shires reflects. "It was the right decision. It was the absolute right decision."
Shires shares her story and her thoughts on her new song in a blend of thoughtful, but halted sentences and waterfalls of words. She speaks without regret, but also a bit timidly; it shouldn't feel so difficult to have this conversation, she muses, but abortion is a divisive and politicized matter.
"The reasons you do stuff like that ... You know, we get told by the government that we have to carry babies [even if] we have no means to do it, and still, at the same time, there's no social programming to help make that something even close to remotely realistic ...," Shires says. "It's like, they don't care."
"The Problem" ends with a lengthy musical outro, Shires and Isbell playing the soothing -- comforting and thought-provoking, even -- melody together, without singing another word. Shires hopes listeners take it as a chance to reflect.
"I think that you can feel some of the strength in that ... the feeling of somebody being on your side, you know?" Shires notes. Above all else, that is the message of "The Problem": Real, unconditional support and love, even in difficult moments, are imperative.
The release of "The Problem" coincides with International Safe Abortion Day. Proceeds from the song are being donated to the Yellowhammer Fund, an Alabama-based abortion fund and reproductive justice organization. Both Shires and Isbell have ties to the state, and Shires hopes that by working with a smaller organization, they can make a real difference.
"We are grateful that Amanda is shining a light to keep the conversation going,” says Laurie Bertram Roberts, the Yellowhammer Fund's executive director, in a press release. "With the 2020 election looming, we want to continue destigmatizing abortion, and we hope that normalizing conversations around it will help folks feel more comfortable seeking the essential health care they need."
Purchasing and streaming the single isn't the only way to support that mission, Shires adds at the end of our call. "Don't forget to vote ... and read up on your states' reproductive issues," she implores, "'cause they will slip them in."
50 Country Songs Everyone Must Hear Before They Die: