Amanda Shaw, who turned 18 last week, has spent the past decade building a rep as a first-rate fiddler, singer and songwriter. She performed with the Baton Rouge Symphony at age 7 and has been passionate about the violin since seeing an orchestra perform on television when she was "3 or 4." Sounds like being a serious musician has been her route all along.
But had the precocious artist made a different decision, she could've become Hannah Montana. Shaw also acts; she costarred in two Disney Channel movies, Stuck in the Suburbs (2004) and Now You See It... (2005). Around that time, Disney was developing a TV show about the life of a young pop star.
"Well, if you wanna know the truth, Disney did ask me to audition for Hannah Montana," Shaw says, her voice rich with Louisiana flair. "They sent me a script and said, 'You play music and stuff.' They thought I would fit. But I really just didn't get into it."
Shaw turned down the opportunity. (Disney did not return a call asking to verify the audition offer.)
Shaw giggles before explaining why she didn't jump at the opportunity to become a prefab Team Rodent singing star. "It's one thing acting," she says. "I'm really good at putting myself in someone else's shoes. But with music, for me, it's about self-expression and writing lyrics that you really enjoy."
As everyone now knows, Miley Cyrus won the role and has become the biggest concert draw in the world. But Amanda Shaw has no regrets; a budding star in roots-music circles, she's having a breakout year.
The New Orleans-based artist started 2008 with her most high-profile release to date, Pretty Runs Out. The album is a diverse collection of mostly Cajun-flavored folk-rock. It ranges from plucky, pop-oriented ditties (the title track) to Big Easy funk ("Brick Wall") to country ("Wishing Me Away") to Bayou instrumentals like "French Jig," which displays Shaw's considerable violin chops. She cowrote five of the 13 songs, including the title track. As a vocalist, Shaw struggles a bit to sell the swagger of "Brick Wall" but excels on the Cajun-pop and country numbers. The disc dropped Jan. 8 on the venerable independent label Rounder (Alison Krauss, Nanci Griffith, George Thorogood) and was met with mostly positive reviews. The release made Shaw a full-fledged celebrity in her roots-music-savvy hometown, where she stole a little thunder from one of the city's most renowned acts this spring.
On Sun., May 4, Shaw, still 17, and her ace three-piece backing band the Cute Guys returned to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the ninth year in a row. But this occasion stood out: The teen fiddler was chosen to be one of the fest's closing acts. It's an honor, but one that made Shaw nervous. Turns out, she was competing for audience attention against the much-ballyhooed return of The Neville Brothers, those favorite sons of Crescent City funk, plus simultaneous sets by NOLA faves The Radiators and The Derek Trucks Band.
Shaw held her own, though. "It was me closing Jazz Fest for the first time," she says during a break from watching I Love Lucy and The Office reruns at her home on the outskirts of the Big Easy. "I was against the Nevilles and Radiators and thought, 'No one is going to come see me.' And then I looked out from the stage."
It was packed.
I happened to be there. In between running back and forth (literally) between sets by the Nevilles and Trucks, I spotted this tiny little thing — "I'm 5-foot-nothing," Shaw says — sprinting across the stage and sawing away on her fiddle to the delight of more than 1,000 dancing spectators. Nearly that many gathered a couple weeks later to see Shaw perform at the WMNF Tropical Heatwave in Ybor City.
Shaw played songs from Pretty Runs Out and covered Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Workin,'" the trad zydeco number "Hot Tamale Baby" and a spicy reworking of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" According to WMNF-conducted exit surveys, she was Heatwave '08's most popular act.
Shaw might be petite and fresh-faced, which makes her appear even younger than she is, but within moments of picking up her violin it's clear that there's nothing gimmicky about her act. She celebrated her 18th birthday with a Big Easy bash that included performances by her band and numerous Crescent City luminaries, among them bluesman Tab Benoit. Shaw and Benoit were the principal narrators of the critically acclaimed documentary Hurricane on the Bayou (2006), about Hurricane Katrina and the erosion of Louisiana's wetlands. Shaw's participation earned her much greater respect, particularly around her native state, than anything she did with Disney. But you do have to wonder: When Shaw reads about Miley Cyrus selling out arenas in mere minutes, does she ever second-guess her decision?
"Not at all. I told Disney no," Shaw says. "I wanna do music for the sake of music. I think that things like that would have ended up making me a product thing: 'Let's sell X amount and make whatever dollar amount goal we have for this year.' That's just not for me. With Disney it's really about selling a product."
The lyrics to "Pretty Runs Out" seem to address the Hannah Montana issue. Shaw admits that the title came from co-writer Jim McCormick and that he had originally envisioned fleshing it out for an aging female performer. Shaw convinced him otherwise.
"It says what I felt. I never wanted anyone to ever buy my record because they liked the picture on front," she says. "I want people to buy my records because they like the music. ... I put hard work into making music. I'm a musician. I'm not selling anything else."