The vast majority of the time, the Austin City Limits Music Festival does an admirable job of avoiding time-slot conflicts between similarly spirited artists. A perfect record is as impossible as guessing fans’ preferences, but it’s clear they work hard at keeping the tough choices to a minimum.
Which is what made Amanda Shires’ 6 p.m. Sunday slot — opposite Willie Nelson — so baffling. The Nashville-via-Lubbock fiddler and singer-songwriter, who’s made a half-dozen records of her own in addition to playing in her husband Jason Isbell’s band, is a true talent that plenty of roots-music fans who came to see Willie would have greatly appreciated.
A couple hundred or so did catch her set at the BMI stage, as a massive throng descended on the Samsung stage for Willie. They were rewarded with a terrific performance from Shires, who alternated between fiddle and guitar, and her three-piece backing band, a set that spotlighted material from her brand new album “My Piece of Land.”
But just how crazy was it for Shires to be pitted against Willie? She noted that the last time she performed at ACL Fest, she was playing fiddle in the band of Billy Joe Shaver — one of Willie’s closest friends. “I don’t know where he is right now, but I wish he was here,” she said, before adding with a laugh, “He might be over at the Willie Nelson stage!”
Shires certainly took it in stride, joking in a pre-show interview that maybe she could find a creative way to avoid the conflict: “We could just like get him super stoned and see if he misses it.” For ACL Fest’s part, a booker noted that sometimes similar acts are scheduled for the same time to help relieve potential overcrowding at one of the stages.
Whether that was the case here was unclear, but the outcome was that not enough people got to hear Shires go hard for the heart with a Dolly-esque vocal on “Devastate”; rip through a blazing fiddle solo in the middle of “Look Like a Bird”; and pledge beautiful, bluesy love on the new album’s resolute yet tender closing track, “You Are My Home.”
By the end of her set, it was easy to imagine that Willie himself might well have wanted to hear her.