Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell Take Compassionate Stance on Abortion with “The Problem”

Photo Credit: John Shearer

Amanda Shires goes where country artists have rarely gone before with her new song, “The Problem,” a heart-rending ballad that shines a spotlight on abortion.

Gentle piano notes act as a guiding force as Shires and her husband Jason Isbell narrate the story of an 18-year-old couple who are met with a surprise pregnancy and face a challenging decision. The lyrics take us into the complex inner dialogue as the couple weighs the options, the singers’ emotional, steady voices transporting the listener into the thoughts they share aloud with one another, Isbell asking “What do you want to do?” with Shires responding “I’m scared to even say the truth, this has been the hardest year.” “Is it even legal here?” Isbell ponders.

Shires’ character carries the weight of the situation on her shoulders, stating that she’s trying not to think of names while wondering “Is a chrysalis a butterfly?” before packing a punch at song’s end where she vulnerably shares “Do you think God still sees me/Coming out of this twilight sleep/I’m not sure who I am/Staring into my empty hands.” But what makes the song especially poignant is Isbell’s unwavering support for his partner’s decision, the two singing in unison “It’s gonna be alright” before he assures her, “I’m on your side.”

Written four years before its timely release on September 28th 2020 – International Safe Abortion Day – Shires channeled the stories of friends’ experiences into these teenage characters. But Shires also has a deep personal connection to the subject matter, sharing in in an interview with The Boot that she had an abortion when she was in her late 20s. She became pregnant not long after Isbell’s 2012 stint in rehab for alcohol and cocaine addiction. Shires determined that terminating the pregnancy was “the absolute right decision” and was met with support by Isbell. The two later married in 2013 and welcomed a daughter, Mercy Rose, in 2015.

To give back to those in the same position she was once in, Shires is donating 100 percent of the proceeds from “The Problem” to the Yellowhammer Fund, an Alabama-based abortion fund and reproductive justice organization. “It’s regionally specific to where we live; Jason is from Alabama. Unfortunately in our area, there is not enough support, community education or access,” Shires shares in a statement to Audiofemme. “Yellowhammer provides access to women’s health and women’s reproductive issues where options for terminating pregnancy are fewer and far between. I prefer women to have access to healthcare instead of taking it in their own hands to their detriment. I wanted the proceeds to go to Yellowhammer because we believe in the same things – being able to make choices without shame or state interference.”

Yellowhammer Fund Executive Director Laurie Bertram Roberts is “honored” that Shires chose the organization as a beneficiary, saying the “beautiful” song brought her to tears the first time she heard it. “There’s so many things in the song that resonated with me,” Roberts shares with Audiofemme.

The words in between Shires and Isbell’s voices particularly struck a chord with the activist. As co-founder and former executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, Roberts has spent countless hours on the phone fielding calls from those seeking an abortion for themselves or a loved one. She describes how Shires’ piece captures the very essence of the people on the other end of the line. “The thing that resonated with me is it sounded so much like so many of our callers,” Roberts says. “The conversation was just so real to me. It’s so much of what people relay back to me in conversations over the phone; they sit and have that conversation with their significant other or their parents.”

“The Problem” is powerful because it puts a human face on what can be an agonizing decision, regardless of the circumstances. Roberts says that the Americana-singing couple resemble the variety of ages and backgrounds the clinic sees in its clientele. “They look like people who would be at a clinic more so than what people have in their mind as a stereotype of who would go to a clinic,” Roberts explains. “I also think it’s groundbreaking that she was even willing to share it. She’s in a long line of abortion storytellers, but there aren’t many that have done it in song.”     

Laurie Bertram Roberts. Photo credit: Yellowhammer Fund

While all of the lyrics contribute to the compelling story, when Shires sings in her Dolly Parton-esque voice, “No one even has to know,” it directly correlates to how Yellowhammer staff engages with patients, assuring them that whichever decision they choose will be met with compassion. “Those are strategic choices that people have to make because of the culture of shaming and stigma that we have around abortion,” Roberts states about a woman’s decision whether or not to publicly share that she’s terminated a pregnancy. “Something I’ve talked about with my staff is the power of having all of your options, whether or not you choose to have an abortion or not. Sometimes being able to weigh all your options makes your parenting more powerful, even in an unplanned pregnancy, because it means that when you go ahead and decide ‘yes, I’m going to parent,’ you’re not resentful about it. You don’t feel trapped, because even if it was unplanned, you had all your options and you were like ‘I choose this.’ Even though you didn’t plan to get pregnant, you chose what option and what road you wanted to take, and that is a very different journey than ‘I’m pregnant and I didn’t plan on being pregnant and now I’m stuck.’ I think about those things all the time for our people that call us. They should not have to weigh those things, it should only be their decision.”

As Shires emotionally bares “This has been the hardest year” followed by Isbell’s simple, yet haunting question, “Is it even legal here?” Roberts remarks that their exchanges echo sentiments expressed by Yellowhammer’s clients, while also breaking through the larger media narrative surrounding abortion. Though attempts have been made to restrict access and services across all 50 states, abortion remains legal in the US; this is the first statement people hear when they reach the Freedom Fund voicemail, though Roberts explains that that media coverage on potential clinic closures tends to obfuscate that simple fact. “That’s something I’ve heard over and over again for the last six years of doing this work,” Roberts remarks in regards to Isbell’s question. “All we see is this very politicized information around abortion, not reality. The thing I like about the song is that it’s not angry, politicized, it’s not any of that – it’s just a story about life.”

AF 2019 IN REVIEW: A Year in Country Music

With the end of the year comes a time of reflection. Looking back on this year in country music, the firestorm of conversation about the lack of women on country radio spilled into 2019, while new artists like Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown broke down barriers, and names including Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker saw a resurgence in their careers.

Renaissance Moment

 In 2019, country fans saw two legends experience an unexpected, but celebrated resurgence in Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker.

Though known as ’90s country star with the breakthrough hit “Achy Breaky Heart” and as the father of Miley Cyrus, his name is now synonymous with the global hit that is “Old Town Road.” While the Nine Inch Nails-sampling Lil Nas X penned rap gained traction as a viral favorite on Tik Tok, it was a remix version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus that came to define the newish genre of “country rap.” Kicked off the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart based on the claim that it “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version,” “Old Town Road” quickly grew into a smash hit that broke the record as the longest running No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 – and Cyrus was a significant part of this. Though the song was already a jam in its original state, the unlikely pairing of the millennial rapper and baby boomer country star made for an important moment in pop culture. The song feels complete with both on the track, and Cyrus’ affinity for the song and ability to see how it connects to the history of country music is part of what gave him a second life in the genre.

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X. Photo by Derrek Kupish/ dkupish productions

Tucker enjoyed her own renaissance moment in 2019; the 61-year-old icon, who had her first hit single at age 13 with “Delta Dawn,” released her first album in 10 years, While I’m Livin,’ produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings. Partnering with a new generation of talent gave Tucker an edge and refreshed identity while still delivering a strong body of work, and earned her four 2020 Grammy nominations. It was gratifying to see two iconic stars rise like phoenixes for a new phase in their lives.


 It’s disappointing to think that even in 2019, you can count the number of mainstream African American country artists on one hand. Over the past few years, we’ve seen acts like Kane Brown become rising superstars, while Jimmie Allen reached No. 1 with his debut single “Best Shot” last year. But with Lil Nas X breaking down the walls for artists creating country trap, it feels like the beginning of a tidal wave of diverse artists who we’ll see breaking through in the next few years.

Yola is one of the many artists blazing this path. The elegant British country singer had a banner year with her debut record Walk Through Fire. Her spell-binding voice and awe-inspiring songwriting solidified her as a major breakthrough act this year, so much so that Kacey Musgraves invited her to be one of the opening acts at her first arena headlining show in Nashville and Elton John declared himself a fan after hearing her cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” She’ll embark on her own headlining Walk Through Fire Tour in 2020.

Blanco Brown also took country by storm with his original “Cotton Eyed Joe” style dance song, “The Git Up,” which was the longest running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and spent 13 weeks as the top selling country single in the U.S. Meanwhile, former X Factor contestant Willie Jones spent the year building momentum with songs that range from the sweet (“Down For It”) to playfully observing the influx of bachelorette parties in downtown Nashville with “Bachelorettes on Broadway,” while up-and-coming singer-songwriter Tiera was named to CMT’s Next Women of Country class of 2020.

Jimmie Allen also joined forces with dynamic duo Louis York for a poetic number titled “Teach Me a Song” on the twosome’s American Griots album, and when they all performed on the Grand Ole Opry, it marked the first time three African American artists have appeared on the Opry stage at one time. With Louis York set to make their own Opry debut in February, it feels like we’re at the start of a revolution of multi-racial artists finally becoming a mainstay in a genre that has been sorely lacking in diversity.

Women in country

 The conversation surrounding the lack of women on country radio was a dominant theme in 2018, with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and countless others speaking out. At 2018’s end, there were no women in the top 20 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart for the first time in the chart’s near 30-year history, and they didn’t fare too much better in 2019, as there are no solo female artists on the year-end list of Billboard Country Airplay songs. With the conversation being so loud, it instilled a false sense of hope that radio would take action and begin to move toward more balanced playlist.

But where radio faltered, women united in the form of all-female tours in 2019. Underwood set this precedent by inviting duo Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June as her opening acts on the Cry Pretty 360 Tour, proving that a troupe of half a dozen women can sell out arenas across the country. Lambert followed suit, as her Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour featured a massive all-female bill with openers including Maren Morris and CMA New Artist of the Year Ashley McBryde, along with newcomers like Tenille Townes, Kassi Ashton and many more.

Morris also set a standard by joining forces with Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby to form The Highwomen, whose debut album serves as one of the year’s best (and their surprise performance with Dolly Parton at 2019 Newport Folk Festival is arguably one of the highlights of the year in music). Morris continued with her support for women by bringing a mix of five female friends and rising artists in country on her aptly titled Girl: The World Tour named after her CMA Album of the Year. Even legends like Trisha Yearwood stepped up, taking an all-female bill out on the road with her for the Every Girl on Tour.

In addition, several new female artists not only made an impact on fans and the industry alike, but brought a distinct element with them: empathy. It’s the foundation of Townes’ “Somebody’s Daughter,” a compelling narrative inspired by a woman she saw on the side of the road who was homeless that should have been a No. 1 hit, but just barely made the top 30 on the country charts. Meanwhile, Ingrid Andress broke hearts in the best way with her powerful debut single “More Hearts Than Mine” that made her the only female artist to have a debut single reach the top 20 in 2019.

Though the fact that Carrie Underwood lost Entertainer of the Year to seven-time winner Garth Brooks during a year where she put on an impeccable production that led to growth as an artist while supporting deserving young women felt like another major blow to the cause, it was inspiring to see so many women uniting in the face of adversity – there is something truly special about seeing a group of gifted women lifting one another up in a bold way.

But in order to see real change, there needs to be integration, and there seems to be signs of that going into the new year. Dan + Shay, the country duo behind the wildly successful, Grammy winning crossover hit “Tequila,” recently announced that Andress will be joining them as an opening act on their 2020 Arena Tour. Jordan Davis, who has two country hits to his name, is bringing a pair of compelling singer-songwriters, Ashton and Hailey Whitters, as his openers on the 2020 Trouble Town Tour. I hope this is a trend that turns into a movement in 2020.