Sewanee stages graced by two incredible performances

Amanda Shires (L’17) performs with husband Jason Isbell in Guerry Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Buck Butler (C’89).

By Jeremy O’Neill 
Executive Staff

Sewanee has been blessed by two performances of world-renowned musical artists in the past weeks, albeit of very different genres, and in very different settings. October 29 saw a powerful performance from the San Francisco based male acapella group Chanticleer in All Saints’ Chapel, while November 1 featured country music singer and fiddle player Amanda Shires (L’17).

Chanticleer’s performance took listeners on a journey of hundreds of years and thousands of miles. Gregorian chant, Korean folk music, African American spirituals, and Welsh sea shanties defined an eclectic performance that highlighted the group’s incredible vocal skills. The reverberative and beautiful space of All Saints’ Chapel only added to the aesthetic pleasure of listening to the group work their way through elaborate melodies and harmonies.  

Under the supervision of Music Director and Thomasville, Georgia native William Fred Scott, Chanticleer performed their program “Trade Winds.” The performance is divided into two sets, with a total run time of a little over two hours, plus an intermission. Crowd favorites from the performance included the multiple examples of Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander folk music. describes their program: ‘“Trade Winds’ reflects the eclectic and far-reaching repertoire which has made Chanticleer a world-wide audience favorite for over forty years. Early music, with which the group first distinguished itself, will be represented by songs about the sea and the spheres by Monteverdi and Gesualdo. Portuguese music from the same era will be sung by Chanticleer for the first time with Filipe de Magalhães’ Mass, O Soberana Luz. A selection of Sea Shanties from the British Isles, and folk songs from China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand will complete the program.”

Homecoming weekend included many memorable events to commemorate 50 years of co-education at Sewanee, highlighted by Friday night’s performance by country singer Amanda Shires. Shires’ music was fitting for such a celebration, as the “mama [who] wants to change that Nashville sound” as her husband says. 

Shires told a story of driving around the country listening to country radio, counting 22 songs before the first female voice received air time. Disappointed by the lack of female voices on the radio, she thought, “What would Waylon Jennings do?” and began calling the radio stations requesting a change in the sound. 

Since then, Shires has been a pioneer in injecting a bit of feminism into the good-old-boys Nashville country scene. She is a founding member of The Highwomen, consisting of Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris. The name of this county supergroup comes from one of Nashville’s original supergroups, The Highwaymen, formed of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson in 1985. 

The most memorable song of Shires’ short performance came from her work with the group, entitled “Highwomen.” The song details various women at points of history who have endured tremendous struggles and overcame them. From a Hondoran mother escaping the violence of the Nicaraguan revolution, to a freedom rider on a bus, to a woman being persecuted in the Salem Witch Trials, the characters’ resistance is continually highlighted, with the refrain “And we’ll come back again and again and again.”

Shires was joined on stage by her husband, an incredibly successful musician in his own right. Jason Isbell, a singer-songwriter and guitarist, and former member of the country-rock band Drive-by Truckers, proposed to Shires on the shores of Sewanee’s Lake Cheston on July 10, 2012. Sewanee performances continue to impress with big names, as renowned organist Shin-Young Lee performs in All Saints’ Chapel on Monday, November 11 at 7:30 p.m.