Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires Celebrate Vinyl and Indie Retail as Record Store Day’s 2023 Ambassadors: ‘We‘re Building the Embassy as We Speak’

AMANDA SHIRES AND JASON ISBELL record store day ambassadors 2023 vinyl

“Hell yeah, they did it right, picking me,” says Amanda Shires, on being named as one of Record Store Day’s 2023 Ambassadors. Unlike most of the previous stars to hold the position (like last year’s ambassador, Taylor Swift), Shires actually did time as an indie store clerk. She can also offer a heck-yes in support of her co-diplomat, Jason Isbell, a fellow singer-songwriter and her husband. Together, these heroes of Americana-style rock ‘n’ roll know very much of what they speak when it comes to celebrating brick-and-mortar shops and/or vinyl — two conjoined phenomena enjoying major resurgences as of the 2020s, after having been considered at death’s door at the Napster-happy turn of the century.

“They’re the ‘First Couple’ of record stores, as far as I’m concerned,” says Record Store Day cofounder Carrie Colliton.

Isbell and Shires have never made a big deal of that first-coupledom in the form of their respective releases, and never had both their names on the spine of a record before (although she frequently performs as part of his 400 Unit band when not busy with solo projects). They do so for the first time with “The Sound Emporium EP,” a four-song record that is coming out as an exclusive for Record Store Day on April 22, 2023. (For anyone waiting to find out the rest of this year’s exclusive RSD releases, those will be announced some time in February.)

Isbell and Shires shared details of the joint record as well as thoughts about community, clerking, favorite stores, socks and other related topics in a phone call with Variety.

Record Store Day always has a good pick of ambassadors, whether it’s St. Vincent or Brandi Carlile or Taylor or Metallica.

Isbell: They picked the right people, with us. We’re the most ambassador-ish people I’ve ever seen.

Shires: I’m currently learning how to tie a bow tie, though.

Isbell: We’re building the embassy as we speak in Nashville.

What’s meaningful to you about celebrating retail, and records, both?

Shires: My return back to touring out [with the 2022 release “Take It Like a Man”] was visiting all the record stores, and it’s just a beautiful thing. The community’s wonderful. There’s more than just records you can buy there or not buy there. You can make friendships and …

Isbell: …meet people in person. In person, where you can’t be catfished. It’s hard to catfish somebody in a record store.

Shires: It’s discovery. It’s that sense of not everything is learned or known, and you find it in some kind of magical way. Predetermined determination, I guess.

Isbell: With the fact that vinyl’s doing as well as it is these days, it means you have to wait a little bit longer to put an album out if you’ve recorded one [due to pressing plant backups]. But it’s worth it — I feel like it involves people more in the process of listening to music and understanding just the overall creative statement that the artist is trying to make. Because you get all these pictures you can look at. And it keeps you from getting too terribly high, because you gotta get up off the couch and flip the record over at some point.

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires 2023 Record Store Day Ambassadors image (Courtesy Record Store Day)

Shires: It feels sometimes like it’s hard to always be a fan of music when you’re in this job, but you can go into the record store and still be a fan of music, and also meet fans of music.

Isbell: They [indie stores] are such a huge part of our career. We came up in stores and doing signings. And a brick and mortar record store, to me, sort of replaces some of the value on the music itself, because sometimes it feels like what we’re making is worthless. People are just out streaming it for free and listening to it while they’re doing other things. And I’m not saying that that’s the end of the world, but it’s nice to have a real building that’s devoted and committed to selling records to people. That feels like: “Hey, we’ve still got a real job.”

And vinyl sounds great, especially if you have a good system. The vinyl upswing is keeping a lot of our friends in business, from record stores all the way down to artists and managers and agents and everybody in the business. It’s been a boon for all of us.

Can you talk about the joint EP you’re putting out as an exclusive for RSD?

Isbell: This year me and Amanda recorded four songs for Record Store Day, together in the studio. One of mine that hasn’t been released on anything else, and one of hers too — mine is “Hired Gun” and hers is “Old Habits.” And then we did an acoustic version of “Tour of Duty” with me and Amanda and (400 Unit guitarist) Sadler (Vaden). [That’s a remake of an older Isbell original. originally released on a 2011 album.] And Richard Thompson’s “Beeswing.” It’s a four-song super-set.

Shires: All wars of the heart, it turns out. I just now determined that in thinking of them.

Cover art for Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ Record Store Day exclusive EP

Isbell: “Beeswing” is hard to play, as Richard Thompson songs are.

Shires: Early on in our dating, Jason was trying to impress me by learning it.

Isbell: I put it up on YouTube and she’s the only person I gave the link to. So somewhere still, lost in the catacombs of YouTube, is a video of me playing that 12 or 13 years ago.

Jason, you had a couple of RSD exclusives before. They say that most RSD titles don’t really appreciate that much in value, and the amount of profitable “flipping” that happens is really overstated. But in your case, I just looked up “Live From Welcome to 1979,” which you put out for Record Store Day in 2017, and I saw a copy being offered for $400 on eBay. Glad I got that when I did.

Isbell: Oh, wow. You should have never told my wife that. Now I’ll die without a copy. [Shires laughs.]

Shires: You know, the “Georgia Blue” record that you just did for record stores [an album of covers of songs by Georgia artists, released exclusively on vinyl for Record Store Day Black Friday 2021], that did a lot of good, I think, so congratulations, Jason.

Isbell: Thank you. And I think they’re pretty happy about the fact that we put “Reunions” out a week early for record stores on vinyl [in early 2020]. Because we were all on lockdown and nobody was going to the record store, and I think that helped a lot of the shops out, at least for a little while.

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires perform during the 2019 BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival at Prospect Park Bandshell on June 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images) Getty Images

You both worked in record stores at some point, right?

Isbell: I did for a little while, at Pegasus Records (in Florence, Alabama). Not for very long, but I would get tickets to shows; the owner of the record store would let me have the tickets if I would work the counter for a few days for each ticket. I was terrible at it, though. She was pretty good at it. Her store, Ralph’s Records (in Lubbock, Texas), is still standing. Pegasus is not there anymore.

Amanda, do you have any distinct memories of your stint in music retail?

Shires: Working at Ralph’s Records was great, but I had this guy that worked with me that played Fugazi nonstop. One day I’d had enough and he was like, “It’s come to the end of the record.” I was like, yes, I know, thank God. He was like, “It’s your turn, I guess.” And I reached for the quickest thing I could find, and it was that “Songs of Love and Hate” record with Leonard Cohen, and I’d never heard it before. And that is when I fell in love with Leonard Cohen. So I owe my entire existence to that day in the record store.

Isbell: If it hadn’t been for Fugazi, you never would’ve found Leonard Cohen. [Laughter.]

Shires: And I remember when the [release] days were Tuesdays, not Fridays. And I also remember what it looks like to see 300 (used) copies of Ace of Base after everybody had their heyday with that.

Isbell: When they saw the sign. I’ll tell you, it still feels great to walk in and see your own album on vinyl at a record store, if it’s in-cap or something, or one of their best sellers — like, Amanda’s record [“Take It Like a Man”] was one of the best sellers at Grimey’s in Nashville this past year. That’s genuinely exciting for us, because then you feel like the community that you’re a part of really does care about the work that you do.

Shires: Working at the record store, I was able to have the first pick of records when they’d come in, like if I bought ’em back that day. And that’s how I acquired a huge amount of my record collection. But I sold that entire collection to move to Nashville, to pursue my dreams of becoming a waitress. And I’m just now started getting comfortable with rebuilding it, going to the record store with Jason, or with Mercy [their 7-year-old daughter]. Even Mercy’s into records now. It’s a beautiful thing.

Isbell: She’s got a little record player that Amanda got her, and she’s got a little wall display where she puts her favorite records up. And right now it’s like three of Amanda’s records, and Demi Lovato.

Shires: Yeah. And just the poster of the Harry Styles album.

Isbell: She likes the poster, yeah, more than the album, I think.

Do you have a favorite record store in the world, besides the ones you worked at or had that early connection to?

Isbell: Every time we put a record out, we’ll do a show at Grimey’s to celebrate it. And I love the staff there, and Mike Grimes, and it’s a place that feels like home.

Shires: I agree, Grimey’s. And also, you can’t not say Amoeba, especially with their awesome putt-putt game that they let you play [behind the scenes]. And then, the folks at Rough Trade are always nice in New York. The Twist and Shout —is that Denver? — is a good one.

Isbell: And then there’s the heavy metal shop in Salt Lake City. That’s a really good spot.

Shires: Anytime a record store has prayer candles, especially ones with Larry David or whoever, I’m into it.

Isbell: Or Rosalia… [Laughs.] It’s fun.  It’s like what we used to call a head shop, right?

Shires: I like record stores where they’re organized and clean and they also sell things like socks. Like, when you’re on the road, you might need some fresh socks.

Isbell: Yeah, although the socks always say stuff like “Get shit done.” I don’t mean it as a bad thing. I just mean the socks that you buy at a record store always have some sort of wit to ’em. They’re got pizzas or aliens on ’em or something.

Shires: I’ve got some lovely rainbow socks.