“I’m just a Southern gar, no spar left to be had
drifting on a current in the rain in a riverbed
I been so long in this world
What I got left is all I need now…”
—Oyster and Pearl
Amy Ray’s home sits in one of those pockets of Appalachia that defy the most sophisticated GPS system.
Getting to her 80-acre, Etowah River spread requires the proper gear and close attention to topography—switchback loops, steep grades, sudden dips—instead of signage, which is practically nonexistent in the Lumpkin County backcountry. Many of the roads in her brambly, unmanicured neck of the woods are unpaved and cross-hatched with deer tracks and old logging and mining ruts from the area’s gold-rush past, and odds are that somewhere nearby, half-buried in a creek-bank, are some Mason jars that still reek of moonshine. The terrain is both rugged and feminine, its horizon curvy and sloped like the earth’s own odalisques. To navigate this landscape without getting lost, you have to know it by heart.
Ray’s most recent solo project, Goodnight Tender, her first country album, proves that she has studied every pig trail, outcropping and fallen log, down to the last striated lichen.
“It would be hard to live here and not have banjos influence what you do,” she says from her northeast Georgia living room, a few miles from where Fiddlin’ John Carson, the first country artist to make a record, jammed on the square in Dahlonega, and about an hour away, depending on Atlanta traffic, from where she grew up in Decatur.
‘Three Chords and the Truth’
Amy Ray smooths the jagged edges in her voice for new country album
Older, more mainstream audiences know the singer/songwriter as half of The Indigo Girls, the Grammy-winning duo who shot to fame in the 1980s, with Ray providing the tenor scaffolding for spiraling harmonies with Emily Saliers. They still write, tour and record together, consistently impressing critics and fans with their eloquent lyrics and gravel-and-silk sound. Ray, meanwhile, has long enjoyed a successful career on her own, releasing five other solo projects, served up in varied badass trappings of rock and punk. She growls, she shouts, she whips her heavy curtain of bangs, and her socially conscious audiences do a gentle, considerate form of slam-dancing. Joan Jett and The Butchies accompanied her on Stag, her debut outside The Indigos, and those influences helped set the gritty tone.
So Ray’s newest release, which is country in its purest, and purist, sense, took some listeners by surprise.
“Think Merle Haggard in the 1960s,” she says. “I want people to cry in their beer.”
Harlan Howard famously summed up country music as “three chords and the truth,” and Goodnight Tender, released in January by her indie label, Daemon Records, offers the kind of stripped-down melodies, honest, hat-in-hand emotions and keening pedal steel and old-time strings that once emanated from tear-stained, honky-tonk jukeboxes. “This material is more visceral than intellectual, with a wistful sense of the creek and the dirt, as well as unrequited love,” she says.
Hitting all the notes of Saturday night and Sunday morning in the hard-partying, churchgoing South, she sings movingly about self-medicating (“More Pills”) and heaven (“The Gig That Matters”), while a sense of down-and-out fatalism lingers like barroom cigarette smoke over the entire album. Some love songs about dogs were inevitable. “Tender” is the real-life name of a beloved pet in her mix of rescues, and that word connotes both adjective and noun in the lullaby-like title track: “Goodnight, sweet Tender, the veil is on the loom…”
“I like to think of my dog watching over the people and land I love, guarding and ‘tending’ them, when I’m away from home,” she says.
Ray recorded these 11 originals, with one cover penned by Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville rather than Nashville, where she has not, so far, courted the genre’s establishment. “I’m old, gay and political, which are not qualities Nashville typically embraces,” she says bluntly, “but I had these songs pouring out of me, in a rush of feeling, that didn’t fit any catalog but country. I was tempted to slip a political song in here, but I wanted this album free of anything that defines identity in any way.”
To achieve that achy sound, she convened artists she trusts with fiddle, banjo, dobro, pedal steel, Wurlitzer piano, bass, and percussion.
“This project felt and sounds so spontaneous because Amy has an uncanny ability to latch on to the energy in a room and encourage its flow,” says Phil Cook, who played keys and banjo. “She recognizes the spark in every situation and every artist and knows exactly how to fan it. I think Amy went back to the land and found she has a country soul. She was singing from her core, as if she were born to this style of music.”
Blueswoman Susan Tedeschi contributed vocals to “Duane Allman,” a tribute to one of Ray’s early music heroes, who left a “god-sized hole.”
“There’s always sincerity and passion and raw emotion with all of Amy’s songs,” McEntire says, “but this batch feels to me like a bit of a homecoming for her, like peeling back the layers in a soulful, fluid way,” she says. “I think this album is a lot like her as a person: warm, Southern, curious, open, brave and earnest.”
New Sound, Same Authenticity
Ray also took pains to keep the technical end of the project as authentically retro as possible.
“We tried to stay true to old recording styles, using old microphones, old reverb plates, and sometimes all of us gathered around one microphone if the song called for it,” she says. “I didn’t want the laborious arrangement process—I wanted recordings I didn’t have to mess with too much.”
All in all, the result is more paleo-country than anything Music Row has (over)produced lately, and Ray is eager to explain, with characteristic modesty, how this scenic detour, from folkie to folksy, was not quite as out of the way for her as it seems.
Ray, who just turned 50, was born in Decatur. Her mother went to Emory on scholarship, and her father was a radiologist at Georgia Baptist Hospital. She has two sisters (all gay, she notes) and a brother —a happy, close Methodist family that gardened and kept bees together.
“Although Southern Rock was standard fare at my high school, I didn’t really grow up with the country music I love now,” she says. “My grandmother campaigned to get me on Hee Haw to clog, though. She watched it religiously.”
Instead, Ray and Saliers—a bohemian pair of friends who shared the same intense gaze, bookworm intelligence and empathy for underdogs—would sneak into Atlanta bars with fake IDs and perform Patti Smith covers. After graduating, Saliers attended Tulane and Ray went to Vanderbilt, but, feeling homesick, they both eventually transferred to Emory University, where Ray double-majored in English and religion.
In 1987, during the ascendancy of folk femmes, an A&R rep who was visiting Atlanta to see R.E.M caught the women’s act at the Little Five Points Pub. Epic Records signed the act, and their self-titled, major-label debut yielded the hit “Closer to Fine” and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. From then on, The Indigo Girls established themselves as platinum-selling fixtures in the music industry, as well as vocal political and environmental activists and out-and-proud icons in the LGBT rights movement.
It was her solo projects that roped Ray into country in the 1990s, when she fell in with Austin’s South by Southwest scene, where punks “mixed it up in the bars on Sixth Street with the cowpunks and the best of Texas swing.” The two disparate-seeming genres, she decided, were kissing cousins. “The Southern punks I knew listened to and got their swagger from classic country as much as anything else,” she says. “Simple country tunes sounds held the same populism and rebellion that I loved about punk rock. Neko Case and Loretta Lynn were cut from the same cloth. The Clash and Hank Williams were the heartbeat of populist songwriting. George Jones and Paul Westerberg had the same demons. There was hillbilly rock running through the veins of The Cramps.”
She immersed herself in Alan Lomax. “I pulled out the old field recording LPs my grandma gave me and listened to them with a whole different ear,” Ray says. “The sounds of an old woman singing Applachian murder ballads in her kitchen, the chain gangs working the fields, songs from the mountains to the coast reflecting a beauty that was rough and honest.”
Restless yet rooted
Her creative curiosity has always been boundless, says her old friend and musical partner. “One of the many things that is inspiring about Amy is her combination of talent and work ethic,” Saliers says. “She also always wants to grow, so along the way she has learned to play harmonica, mandolin and electric guitar in addition to acoustic guitar, practicing as hard as anyone I’ve ever met. She can rock hard, write a beautiful ballad, or even a pop song, and she has expanded the use of her voice, starting to sing in falsetto as well as her deep, resonant tenor.”
Ray’s versatility is almost as pronounced as her humility. Despite her musical achievements, it was only last year that she first sat in with the locals who regularly gather, in un-ironic overalls, to play bluegrass and mountain music on the Dahlonega square. Why? Ray felt “intimidated” by the twangy chops on those laconic old-timers.
Ray moved to her current home in 1993 because of fond childhood memories of nearby Camp Glisson, a Methodist summer camp. “The rich, Appalachian culture started seeping in,” she says, noting that the first country song she penned around 2001 was a hanging ditty titled “Johnny Rottentail.”
Just after Ray started experimenting with more high-lonesome sounds, she encountered someone who made her feel less lonely.
“We met at Lilith Fair,” says Carrie Schrader, Ray’s partner of 12 years,an instructor at the University of North Georgia, and a screenwriter/filmmaker. “That was how I knew I was gay, actually— my reaction when I first saw her.”
Schrader, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, still puzzles affectionately over Ray’s deep-seated “devotion to Jesus” and pride in a conservative region that traditionally has resisted many of her sociopolitical ideals and causes.
“Amy is so incredibly loyal to her roots,” Schrader says, shaking her head. “She is unusual because she is so very liberal, yet, if anyone talks negatively about the South she will defend it like a rabid dog! I think Amy is very opinionated and very outspoken in some ways, and to some, she can seem rough. But I have watched her nurse a broken baby bird back to health, staying up for five nights in a row, willing it to live. I have seen her cry over a deer that strangled itself on our fence and gently bury it. I have watched her wrangle a copperhead away from our dog—in order to save the copperhead.”
That last incident inspired “Anyhow,” one of Goodnight Tender’s strongest tracks, haunting in its imagery despite a tempo faster than her weepers:
“That ol’ copperhead, he’s hung for sure
with half of its being in the jaw of my cur
The other half waving its head in the dirt
With just enough venom to do some hurt.
I can’t save it now, so I watch it die
And I thank the Lord for better times…”
A New Orientation
Given the entertainer/activist’s soft spot for animals, the song that stunned a few dinner companions was “Hunter’s Prayer.” Ray has been a vegetarian for 27 years. “I do eat cheese,” she says sheepishly, and explains the song: “One night this huge buck appeared in the fog—his antlers still hadn’t shed their fuzz—and stopped and looked at me in this long moment, in the way animals have of seeming to see right into you,” she recalls. “I thought of the Native activists I know, and some of my neighbors here in North Georgia, the ones who know how to treat the land and are much more connected to the chain of life than some of us are. So I wrote ‘The Hunter’s Prayer,’ initially as a folk song, then as a barroom sing-along, and then it went into another place. It’s about not only wanting a good dog and a good love, but also wanting to find your bearings in life.”
Ray always has one ear cocked to the cosmic tuning fork, and last year reverberated with pivotal events that prompt all of the Big Questions. Her beloved father died a week before Schrader gave birth to their daughter. “The happiness of new life doesn’t take away the grief, but it helps us cope,” she says. “It also gives me something big to worry about, in terms of the future. I notice children in a way I didn’t before. Parenthood reorients all of your thinking about humanity.” (As if her social conscience were not ardent enough already.)
Ozilline Graydon Schrader-Ray was born in November, with a thick thatch of dark hair and merry eyes. “Ozilline,” pronounced oze-leen, was the name of Ray’s grandmother who loved “Hee Haw.”
“I love trying out my new material on her because she’s so responsive,” Ray says, putting the baby down for a brief nap and singing “Folsom Prison Blues” as a lullaby. “She also likes ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.’ I want her to be part of my creative process, not separate from it. I don’t think of parenting as ‘giving away a piece of myself.’ I was sick of myself anyway!”
A friend drops by bearing veggie burgers from the Yonah Burger, and the two catch up and reminisce.
“The bloodlines and kinships in music feel pretty powerful and infinite to me these days,” Ray says. “I’ve heard some folks say that country is where punks go to die. I don’t know about all that, but I imagine the last mile is the most lonesome, and there’s nothing like the sound of a pedal steel to keep you company.”
Then she scoops up Oziline in a infant sling and takes her family’s three dogs for a walk, crunching through the leaves on the forest floor and pointing out the funny-looking knotholes in trees to her daughter.