Indigo Girl Amy Ray Gives Voice to Her ‘Country Soul’

Solo album ‘Goodnight Tender’ a welcome down-home detour

“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

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.”

They will.

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.


An honest ode to small-town life

My two-stoplight hometown

Where everyone knows your name—and your business

August 15, 2013

A while back, a conspiracy of kindness unfolded like an unassuming flower in my hometown.

The haircuts of a beloved barber in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s began to falter in their military precision. His clientele, unanimously concluding that his feelings trumped their vanity, made a pact to continue submitting to his clippers, while wincing imperceptibly into the mirror. Some of them slipped into a more feminine salon for damage control afterward, but one customer who was already shiny in the pate just shrugged and said, “What’s one hair out of place when it’s all I got?”

These gestures can happen anywhere, but I associate them more with small towns, where we know each other’s history and tender spots, for better and worse.

I grew up in Cleveland, population 3,410. The town has more than doubled in size since my childhood but still requires no more than two stoplights. For long stretches, I resided “away” and traipsed through urban grit, only to wash up here every few years like a dazed refugee after a job or relationship went apocalyptically bad. So here I am again, y’all, this time as rooted as an Irish tater—don’t bother with the fatted calf.

“In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our minority,” wrote W.B. Yeats. “In the little towns and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there, perforce.” Lord knows few “minorities” of any sort occupy this pocket of Appalachia, where diversity boils down to Baptist, Methodist, or Holiness, but the intimacy of scale appeals to the idle anthropologist in me. Cleveland remains obstinately mule-paced—part of its beauty and its bane, its comforts and its claustrophobia, and the reason it balms my nerves just slightly more than it irritates them.

To live as an adult in the small town where you grew up means you collide head-on with your past every day. I cannot dash into the grocery store without running into someone with whom I went to school, church, bed, or a family reunion—or some awkward configuration of all four. We may nod and speak or avoid eye contact altogether. No matter how we furiously erase
and revise our personas as we age, part of us remains frozen in time here. You may have starred in some Caligula-like adventures in the Big City, but to your old classmates, you will always be that bespectacled, bucktoothed wallflower.

For teenagers coming of age here, the only force stronger, deadlier, and more excruciating than hellzapoppin’ lust is boredom. Of all of the odes to small-town life, I prefer Hal Ketchum’s song with the line “gotta be bad just to have a good time.” You become resourceful with cow pastures, rivers, muscle cars, each other’s bodies. My pubescent landmarks start with the Dairy Queen; a cherry Mr. Misty float might as well be Proust’s madeleine. My first kiss was at Country Roads skating rink. That boy grew into a poker-faced deacon, and now when I see him I wonder if he flashes back to the rink’s rainbow-winking disco ball the way I do.

Government eavesdropping does not incense me personally because I never assumed any privacy to begin with; everybody knows your business here, a de facto policing of the social compact. You can flip off other drivers on I-285, but in Cleveland, you likely will encounter them in church, so don’t do it. Likewise, don’t cheat anyone or steal someone’s mate, and remember when you gossip that your listener has cousins—the gene pool is the size of a raindrop. Conversely, you also must develop a flinty disregard for what these people think of you, and that resilient, high-hat carriage is easy to spot in a crowd. The city-bred do not have to weather the lingering personal scandals of a small town.

While social conformity here rivals that of the Amish, people also make allowances. I shudder to check my credit rating, but my family’s “good name” usually floats me. I used to bristle when an outsider clucked that I must have been “sheltered.” My reflexive response was to self-immolate, to bring down that roof around me, but increasingly I respect the infrastructure—the sturdier the heart pine, the better. Just when I rail like George Bailey at crummy Bedford Falls, some freckle-faced good ol’ boy cheerfully submits to a bad haircut, and I know I am sheltered where I belong.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.

Cue the banjos, and deliver us from developers

The Legacy of Deliverance

James Dickey’s wild Appalachia has been tamed

December 1, 2010

Forty years after its publication, Deliverance leaves most of us native Appalachian readers feeling—much like that quartet of luckless river voyagers—conflicted and sore. Its legacy of comedic shorthand spawned in the backwoods of northeast Georgia functions as a regional guilty pleasure. Most of us do not know whether to bow up at the story’s gamy iconography or wear the gag-gift T-shirt that reads “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music!”
However, many of the toothless-sodomizer jokes I have cracked over the years taste brackish in my purty mouth now that I finally have read the book, which does not contain the “purty mouth” or “squeal like a pig” lines made famous in the movie’s harrowing man-on-man rape. I grew up just down a curvy road from where the story’s action takes place, but I shied away from the novel for years, leery of what I might discover about “my people,” and possibly myself.
Certainly, for home-folk, some passages prove excruciating to read, but the writing swept me like a current into an exalted awareness of the primeval and our part in it, reinforcing a perverse pride in our queer—or quarr, as old-timers say—otherness. Appalachian Studies majors usually sputter when their turf is described as “the country of nine-fingered people,” defined in one brutal stroke by sawmilling mishaps. However, poet James Dickey’s novel, which was published as the leaves changed colors in 1970, struck some notes of cultural and geographic chauvinism in me that are, like a twangy, claw-hammer mountain ballad, more complicated and less guileless than they sound at first. Could it be that I am that odd hillbilly who read Deliverance and felt . . . proud?
Its lessons on nature, rendered with such lyrical precision, have been overshadowed by the so-called “love scene.” Dickey wrote with a pupil-dilating rapture for wilderness, for wildness. The river is “blank and mindless with beauty . . . its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence . . . the more wonderful for being unbearable.” Just his description of feeling an owl’s talon through tent canvas is worth the price of the book, which could make a vegan dream of bow-hunting. Humans—the orthodontically challenged and ultimately the Atlanta bidniss-men—are just more feral players in this darkling landscape.
Lately, some critics have pronounced this “man vs. nature” theme dead, but its seeming decline in relevance is really a matter of mud-spattered supply and demand, with nature on the dwindling end of things. I am scanning the lumpy silhouette of the mountain behind my childhood home, where I used to poke around junked 1968 pickups rusting in the weeds, unearth old Mason jars half-full of moonshine, and look in vain for the legendary buzzard roost. Now it, like most of America, is a subdivision, “blank and mindless,” but not, as it turns out, with beauty. The rivers, too, have been “neutered,” as my outdoorsman friend Joe says, meaning dammed for electricity and exclusive, seasonal colonies of the lake house peerage. If you think those peckerwood psycho-rapists were clannish and hostile to outsiders, lug a cooler and a fishing pole around Lake Seed looking for recreational public access. The torrents of Tallulah Gorge, where parts of the movie were filmed, are timed with sluice gates for “aesthetic” releases—a show for tourists. A few wild stretches of rapids still exist here and there, but the shale-bed shoals increasingly conduct guided, inflatable rafts or neon-pink inner tubes that Lewis Medlock, the buff survivalist of Deliverance, would use for target practice with his bow and arrow. “Every ten feet, there’s a house, most of the time,” Joe says.
Atlanta, too, has changed. At the time, it was a preening boomtown dominated by ruddy, smooth-talking Southerners who were just a generation or so removed from dirt farming—men like James Dickey, a Buckhead native who was revered in literary circles for his exquisitely euphoric poetry but was better known around the city for obstreperous drinking and ass-grabbing (everyone who encountered him has a story). He had been a hotshot copywriter for Coca-Cola, and the book is narrated by the similarly employed Ed Gentry—think Mad Men in breathable seersucker. That “back to the land” theme hit much closer to home then than it does now, in the coffee shops of Kirkwood.
Fittingly, the book starts with Lewis observing, “We really ought to go up there before the real estate people get hold of it and make it over into one of their heavens.” Well, those “gray affable men” finally have taken over. And they always were more predatory than the mountaineers, who tend to depend on each other in the social compact—if, at times, truculently—in lieu of Realtors and stock dividends. For all of their resourcefulness, Appalachian people historically have lacked the resources to block the developers and the vintners and the retirees migrating here from New Jersey by way of Tampa.
Some of those settlers are my friends. I do not, as a cousin once did, greet them with a shotgun, and I am not suggesting that Bobby Trippe was “asking for it,” though the literary character—a disdainful and dull man—is noticeably less sympathetic than Ned Beatty’s portrayal on film. My senses, however, tell me that a certain amount of savagery remains essential to the ecosystem, that we need Tennyson’s “nature, red of tooth and claw” to keep our pulse from growing faint. I miss the haintlike skirl of the panther that used to stalk the mountain laurel behind my house. I always imagined this muscled cat in the moonlight with a shiver, similar to the exhilarating fear, the awe, that Dickey anatomizes.
“I had never lived sheerly on nerves before,” muses Ed Gentry, “and a gigantic steadiness took me over, a constant trembling of awareness in a hundred places that added up to a kind of equilibrium, that made my arms move in long steady motions and showed me where the rocks were by the differences in the swirling of the water.” That strange ecstasy of survival and endurance illuminates the nightshade of this story like foxfire. Deliverance, like the river that runs through it, is all the more “wonderful for being unbearable,” even if its players, with or without banjos, are now extinct.
Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

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Hang up your ‘Gone fishin’!’ shingle and pick with the best musicians at Bass & Grass festival

From a couple of years ago in Georgia Music Magazine:

This place dangles some irresistible lures to reel in creatures known for their gloriously big mouths — from bass lunkers to bass players.

The Green Bell Guest House, a sixth-generation, hundred-acre spread in Middle Georgia, features a storied “party barn” and fire pit; sleeping quarters in a magnolia-shaded farmhouse and cabins; and the well-stocked, 100-acre Goose Lake. All of it makes for a rambling and hospitable venue for the Bass and Grass festival, four days of tuneful, distinctly Southern leisure and enrichment. “As in big bass and bluegrass,” clarifies proprietor Jennie Hart Robinson, “with lots of fishing and good eating scheduled around picking and jam sessions, which sometimes greet the dawn.”

The annual event, usually slated for late October, also offers two workshops a day for mid-level musicians to refine their technique with professionals such as Jeff Mosier; autoharp legend and “colorful character” Gove Scrivenor; fiddler Caroline Pond of Snake Oil Medicine Show, and Steve “Big Daddy” McMurray from Acoustic Syndicate.

bass and grass2 “We sit around in a circle and make music together,” says flat-picking guitarist Larry Keel. “There are unspoken rules to that sort of thing that take practice, such as getting the courage to solo and expanding your musical vocabulary. I see progress every year in our students.”

These lessons and all of the late-night noodling and riffing culminate in a round-robin showcase that is recorded on keepsake compact discs. This year, Keel also plans to videotape the performance for a television pilot in the works.

“The artists are not shuttled off somewhere else, separate from the students,” Robinson says, explaining that she also rolls out cots in the barn for this informal fish-camp setting. “We have big, family-style breakfasts, and go out in boats for some phenomenal fishing, capped off with a big fish fry. So, in addition to the formal lessons, you get plenty of intimate, coffee-drinking time with Rev. Jeff and the other big names, who are happy to give helpful pointers during your picking on the porch.”

The festival started in 2008 when Keel, who owns a Virginia-based company called Fishin’ and Pickin’, met Robinson at the Magnolia Festival in north Florida. “I sing a lot of songs about fishing, and we got this idea to combine these two loves we shared and get other like-minded people together for it,” Keel says. “When I visited Green Bell, I was struck by this family atmosphere that just felt special and right, and it always seems to bring out the best in everybody. Plus, even the smallest fish in that lake feels like a whale!” (His largest catch so far? A 9-pound, two-ounce large-mouthed bass. “But I know there are bigger ones swimming out there.”)

Besides, adds Robinson, “I live in the middle of nowhere, so I have to bring the party to me,” joking that she resides in a midstate “Bermuda Triangle” with a Fort Valley address and a Perry phone number, just over the line in Macon County — a leafy, isolated complex among the peach and pecan orchards with red-dirt roads that thwart even the most fine-tuned GPS.

Envy whoever gets lost here, though, in the state’s sweaty navel. This earthy  conservatory preserves the landscape — in camellias and communion — of Old Georgia.

“My father was in the textile business, and he used to bring clients here to do business the old-fashioned way: over hunting, fishing, and fried chicken and biscuits, all sealed with a handshake,” Robinson says. “For 60-plus years, the name was Malatchie Farms — many people still know it as that — but we wanted a fresh start, so I chose ‘Green Bell’ because of the big camp bell and also because of a wonderful family tradition from my husband’s family of ‘giving someone a bell,’ which means you ring a bell as your friends and family drive away after a visit to ensure peace and love ’til you meet again.”

bass and grass1 City folks will realize they are far from Buckhead when they see the walls and shelves of the comfortable accommodations that are dubbed — with down-home irony — “the shack” and the “dog-trot,” which showcase portraits of prized retrievers and coon dogs; a  homemade pecan exhibit; faded photos of Governor Herman Talmadge; caricatures of “Lint Head Shoots” from the 1960s and ’70s; and displays of antlers and other taxidermy trophies, including the head of a growling bear in a bunk room (skittish types might want to sleep elsewhere). The sign over the entrance to the farmhouse directs visitors to “Unload Guns,” and its bar offers the similarly practical advice, “Danger: Men Drinking.” The bookshelves hold musky titles such as  Deliverance and yellowed hunting and field guides along with a few, incongruous copies of The New Yorker, which, I suspect, are a flourish from Robinson, who holds a degree in studio art from Kenyon.

Along with their musical instruments and fishing gear, visitors can bring their dogs to Green Bell, which boasts several chickens and a donkey named Delilah. “A whole repertoire of jokes has accumulated among the musicians about my ‘fine ass,’” Robinson says, rolling her eyes.

Even though Bass and Grass is in its third year, music is hardly new to the farm. In addition to his textile “bidniss,” Robinson’s father, Walter Forbes, was also an R.C.A. recording artist who would bring his Nashville buddies home for song-filled retreats.

“He called them ‘music swarms,’” Robinson says, name-checking accomplished guests such as Cowboy Jack Clement; Fletcher Bright; pianist and arranger Charles Cochran; and Roger Cook, who wrote “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

Keel still hears their happy echoes.

“Green Bell is truly magical,” he says. “It’s a place where the years of good times and great experiences have left their mark so deeply you can feel them. That’s why I feel so comfortable and inspired every time I come here. We want to share that with other people who love music … and fishin’.”

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Nothing weeps as exquisitely as pedal steel

          Whenever Harold “Shot” Jackson was tinkering in his workshop, he did not fret — in any sense of that word.

          He clearly reveled in playing his steel guitar and dobro on stage at the Grand Ole Opry with artists such as Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells, and, noodling around, envisioned all kinds of sonic innovation, installing string pullers with pedals on Fenders and Rickenbackers to bend a note in sly, unconventional ways.

         Image In 1955,  Jackson, who grew up in Blackshear, Georgia, teamed up with his musician friend, Buddy Emmons, to develop a fretless instrument  that you almost have to see — and then hear — to fathom its honky-tonk physics. It relies on a metal bar to fret, or shorten, the length of the strings, along with pedals for the feet and knees to change the pitch, enabling what composers call portamento or glissando. As if country music were not plaintive enough, suddenly even the guitar could weep. Jackson and Emmons christened this newfangled ax the “Sho-Bud,” a combination of their nicknames, and the pedal steel guitar helped usher in the historic era that became known as the “Nashville Sound.”

          “You might not know exactly what a pedal steel is, but you certainly recognize that sound when you hear it,” says David Jackson, the son of the “King of Pedal Steel.”  “It opened up new possibilities for musicians because if they wanted a note to waver, they could do it on pedal steel in ways they couldn’t on a regular guitar. They used this steel bar to express their inward self, to make a soulful, crying kind of sound.”

          So high-lonesome went high-tech as the pedal steel enhanced the music’s range of expressiveness while smoothing and polishing its rougher “hillbilly” barbs to a tear-stained gleam. Porter Waggoner became the first spangled headliner to use a Sho-Bud, and then Webb Pierce went wild with it. Soon enough, Shot Jackson was crafting, customizing, and refitting instruments for Roy Clark, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, and anyone else who drifted into the Sho-Bud music store on Broadway, trailing sequins from the Ryman Auditorium next door.

          “It was a full music store, but it also had kind of lounge, where stars sat around and told stories, pounding a lot of whiskey,” David Jackson recalls, explaining somewhat apologetically that “it was just the lifestyle most of those singers had back then.”

          Shot Jackson’s sons expanded the business, adding coveted features and gadgets. In the late 1960s, David patented a new pedal device that would become the most replicated string-pulling mechanism in the guitar industry. He operated Music City Manufacturing Company, where his older brother, Harry, built most Sho-Bud steel guitars, while their dad transformed the dobro into the “Sho-Bro” and worked on other nifty projects upstairs in the shop. Today, Willie Nelson still plays “Trigger,” which the elder Jackson repaired and customized for him, and, in Branson, Buck Trent dazzles tourists with the pedal banjo that he acquired in the early ’60s. Shot Jackson’s instruments not only made history; they have endured it “on the road” and everywhere else.

          “My dad was a mechanical genius who absolutely loved — lived and breathed — music,” David says.

          Pedal steel eventually infiltrated rock ‘n’ roll — Eric Clapton and the Eagles took up Sho-Buds — and found a jubilant home in the Sacred Steel tradition of gospel music, an African-American Pentecostal movement that originated in the House of God Which Is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy.

          In 1981, Gretsch-Baldwin bought Sho-Bud, and, later, Shot Jackson sold his repair shop. A couple of months after retiring, he suffered a stroke that impaired his speech and left him unable to play music until his death in 1991. The master inventor — whose handle was a truncated version of his childhood nickname in South Georgia, “Buckshot” — was inducted into the Steel Hall of Fame in 1986.

          “I’m not 100 percent sure about this, but I believe the Jackson family claims more patents in the business than any other,” David says.

          And they are not finished.

          After a long hiatus, the music-loving clan — now with the David’s daughter, Dawn — recently revived the family business and based it in Dahlonega, with the motto “Pulling Strings since 1955.”

          “We relaunched it for reasons of heritage,” David says, “but also because I get down on my knees to pray, and God just keeps sending ideas. I’m 67 now, but if the good Lord lets me work, I’m going to keep doing it. We’ve applied for three patents, and I have six or seven more in the works, all related to pedal steel and string pullers, to standardize the tuning to simplify the playing. We’re planning a pedal-slide.”

          Before these developments, David had worked on touring vehicles for musicians. During a bus repair, he met his current wife, Susan Peck, who sings with her sister in the award-winning gospel act, Karen Peck and New River, based in north Georgia. In 2005, he unveiled the next generation of instruments, a Jackson Steel guitar, at the band’s annual homecoming celebration in Dahlonega.

          Along with his prayer-driven creativity, he was inspired by his daughter’s growing interest in music. Another Jackson with a dual flair for science and the arts, Dawn had studied biology at Mercer University and then worked in the health-care industry, but in 2002, she founded Sho-Bud Music Inc., an indie record label and publishing company. (Its first single, “Beer on the Table” recorded by Josh Thompson,  went to No. 17 on the Billboard charts.) She handles sales and marketing while writing songs and working on a documentary about the Sho-Bud dynasty. Her uncle Harry who still lives in Nashville, does metal fabrications, manufacturing, and development for the company.

          “Word is out that the Jacksons are back in business!” David says.

          One of their hippest exponents is Robert Randolph, who grew up in Sacred Steel and now plays R&B. “In my church, the pedal steel guitar substituted for the organ,” he says. “I wanted to do with it what Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix did.” Randolph was working with T Bone Burnett on last year’s much-praised release, “We Walk This Road,” a jukin’ celebration of black roots music, when he called up the Jacksons to request more instruments.

          “With so many others out there, you have to cut and paste parts together,” Randolph says, “but the Jacksons have figured out a way to nail it all down in a cohesive way that meets in the middle and consistently gives you a superior tone. You can plug one of their pedal steels into any amp and know you’ll get a great sound.”

          It is one of “pure emotion,” Dawn says.

          “It’s ironic to me that these guitars truly come from men of steel,” she muses, “in the sense that Papaw and Dad and Uncle Harry are men of few words who don’t show much emotion in talking. But these instruments say it all.”

That’s what friends are for: Letters between Flannery O’Connor and Betty Hester

This ran several years ago in Atlanta magazine.

Despite a title like “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” Flannery O’Connor did not write “chick lit,” unless you count her detailed observations on those cherished peacocks.

Not many female readers (or male ones) breeze through her books at the beach and think: “I wish I had a fun-loving girlfriend like her!” This is the acid-tongued, Southern Gothic curmudgeon who summed up her obsessions with virtue, suffering, and freaks in one famous sentence: “‘She would of (sic) been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ ”

Who wouldn’t be afraid to sip Chardonnay and go shoe-shopping with Flannery O’Connor? However, as her painstakingly typed, Milledgeville-postmarked letters reveal, she could be the best kind of friend – a compassionate confidante who honored her pal’s secret, which no doubt would have scandalized most of the “good country people” at the time.

This month, Emory University unveils a collection of about 270 letters that O’Connor wrote to her longtime friend Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, an intense, reclusive Atlanta woman who supported herself as a file clerk but lived and breathed philosophy — the more esoteric, the better. The two women bantered Big Ideas on heavy morality, usually “Romish” in tone, as O’Connor described her militant, blood-soaked Catholicism, and in search of the “Absolute.” They are leavened, though, by folksy, catty gossip; avian updates; and whimsical, out-of-the-blue pronouncements. “I feel lumpish,” she sighs at one point, and that seems a perfect adjective for a certain state of mind. She must have made her pensive correspondent, who suffered “up and down times of elation and depression,” laugh out loud with her dispatches from Andalusia, the family farm in Milledgeville, which, to any native Georgian, connotes the state’s storied mental institution: “I promise a trip to the asylum and the reformatory…can you wait?” It pains modern fans to be reminded, of course, that the author occasionally and offhandedly dropped the ugly racial epithet. Still, gathered together, these intimate writings make for some of the most revelatory, “Christ-haunted” epistles since the New Testament.


Flannery O’Connor

If you can look past the point-counterpoint on Wittgenstein and other high-minded dialogue, there is also fun girl-talk, like a pillow-fight among valedictorians in a very, very smart sorority house. O’Connor bristles when Hester calls her a “fascist,” and in turn accuses her of being a “Romantic.” Visualize them smirking, sighing, and rolling their eyes behind their hornrims. “You will probably find me tricked out in the personality of the GA Farm Girl or Good-Earth-Loving Author or something equally horrendous,” O’Connor writes about a newspaper profile. Then, later, referring to the photo: “There must have been something better than that one of me looking gimlet-eyed across the hog waller with the shack in the background.”

Some of these letters are published in partial, expurgated form in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, who then donated this archive to Emory in 1987 on the condition that it remain sealed for 20 years. Hester’s name was a fiercely kept secret, even among that most indiscreet of demographics – Southern literati. In The Habit of Being, her contributions – passionate, cerebral treatises on everything from modernism to virginity — are signed simply “A,” for anonymous. The identity of the mysterious “A” finally was revealed, tragically, in 1998, when Hester shot herself in the head, surrounded by 4,000 books and several cats, in her small, musty Peachtree Street apartment. She was 76.

She left behind some unpublished stories and novels, along with her voluminous correspondence. Hester and her famous friend had written to each other almost every week for nine years, until 1964, when O’Connor, 39, died of lupus. (Ironically, in adolescence, both women lost parents to the forces that later would kill them – Hester’s mother committed suicide, and O’Connor’s father also succumbed to lupus.) These boxes stuffed with yellowed sheaves of O’Connor’s discursive observations remained unpublished and under lock and key — until now.

What, exactly, transpired between these unusual pen-pals, who seem to have reveled in some kind of sweet, mutual girl-crush, even if it was sublimely Platonic?

Curator Stephen Enniss hears this question often enough.

“Betty was a lesbian, and at one point in the correspondence, she appears to allude to her sexuality,” says Enniss, who is director of Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library. “At least, that is what you can infer from a close reading of Flannery’s response to Betty’s letter. I’m just guessing here…? It certainly doesn’t sound as if she’s talking about the weather.” He shrugs, pauses, and smiles sympathetically. “I assume it was at least partly because Betty was gay that she did not want the letters scrutinized at the time.”

Signs of Hester’s brave, anguished “coming out” can be detected in an oblique letter dated Halloween of 1956. The normally acerbic O’Connor, whose default mode admittedly was, in her words, “you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you,” crafted a response that is breathtaking in its tenderness:

“…I can’t write you fast enough and tell you that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in my opinion of you, which is the same as it was, and that is: based solidly on complete respect. … I have a tendency myself to dismiss other people’s torments out of hand, but this one, being yours, will have to be partly mine too. …You were right to tell me but I am glad you didn’t tell me until I knew you well. … But you wonder whether it makes any difference to me if you drop out of my existence. Yes it makes a difference. It would be impossible for me to let you. You have done me nothing but good… but the fact is, above and beyond this, that I have a spiritual relationship to you; I am your sponsor, self-appointed from the time you first wrote me and appointed by your afterwards, which means that I have a right to stay where I have been put.”

But, she adds with a sly hipness, don’t tell my mother why you “got out of the air force” because she “lives in a world Jane Austen would be comfortable in.” She closes with: “I can see now how very much grace you have really been given and that is all that is necessary for me to know in the matter. What is necessary for you to know is my very real love and admiration for you. Yours, Flannery.”

betty hester

Betty Hester

An eyebrow-raising passage in one letter alludes to a Milledgeville visit by Hester during which the guest bed clearly had not been slept in, notes Lynne Huffer, an Emory professor of women’s studies who specializes in feminist and queer theory.

“What are we to conclude from this? And why does it matter so much?” Huffer asks. “One of the great things about queer studies today is that it goes beyond sexuality as a question of acts—did they ‘do it’?—to other, more interesting questions. There are other aspects of a person’s life, including sensibility, emotional affinities, taste, and forms of relation, that are equally—even more—important to what we might call someone’s sexuality. I certainly wouldn’t call O’Connor a lesbian, but she has a sensibility that comes through in her letters and fiction that you might call ‘queer,’ although you have to be careful since that word can easily become so capacious that we can use it to apply to just about anyone.”

So was she or wasn’t she?

Grad students long have venerated O’Connor, with her querulously “queer” vibe – somehow ecstatic, doctrinaire, and subversive all at the same time — as a deep-fried Sappho. “Surely she was a lesbian, I told myself,” novelist Dorothy Allison mused, “and took comfort from her stubborn misfit’s life, the fact that she lived with her mama and never married. I did not need her to sleep with a woman to prove her important to me, though I would have been grateful to think of her with a great love comforting her as lupus robbed her of all she might have done.”

In fact, O’Connor’s work figured prominently in a conference titled “Queering the South” a few years ago at Emory.

“This does not ‘out’ Flannery O’Connor,” says Enniss, shifting in his tweed. “There has been a lot of reckless speculation over the years, but it’s pretty clear from these letters that Flannery’s interest in Betty was a spiritual interest. Betty became a Catholic at one point and then lapsed, and Flannery was concerned with bringing her back into the fold.”

Of course, some overactive imaginations might be tempted to read between the lines of O’Connor’s response to her friend and intuit the age-old rebuff of “I just want to be friends.” However, that interpretation also would cheapen the mystery – that vaunted, defining, and consuming force in O’Connor’s life, work, and legacy.

“Henry James said the young woman of the future would know nothing of mystery and manners,” the author grouses in one of the letters. “He had no business to limit it to sex.”

Now that the less-numinous, less-mannered future she envisioned is here, bumper stickers for sale in the gift shop at Andalusia announce, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Flannery O’Connor Said It Best.”

Fortunately, she found true friendship with at least one good woman.

You bring the tailgate; he’ll bring the party

An oldie for Georgia Music Magazine:

The stage name “Colt Ford” sounds like a blunt-force blow struck for the glory of certain totems in the singer’s back-road, four-wheel drive landscape.

“Nope, it has nothing to do with guns or trucks,” says the country rapper, born Jason Brown, in Athens. “My real name just didn’t sound that cool. My wife, Jessica, came up with it around 2006. We were driving in the car and it just popped up in her head.”

In any case, that handle sets the tone for his music and sends all of the right signals—as recognizably twangy as a hunter’s duck caller—to the Carhartt-and-camo crowd. Ford’s third album, from his label Average Joe, reached No. 3 on the country charts, and, this summer he is scheduled to release Declaration of Independence, packaged as the “Ultimate Trilogy” with projects from his label-mates and touring buddies, the Lacs and JB and the Moonshine Band, all of them busting propulsive rhymes about honky-tonkin’, hell-raisin’, kick-ass women, and other Rural Route delights.

Rapping, just like Hank(?)

An heir to Bubba Sparxxx, Colt Ford performs country rap (his debut featured guest appearances by Jermaine Dupri and Bone Crusher), a trending blend of genres that, to the uninitiated, fosters a sort of cognitive dissonance, with Rebel flags flapping to a hip-hop beat. However, Ford is quick to clarify the parameters: “Recitation and talking records were here long before me, and they’ll be here long after me,” he says, citing Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga” and Jerry Reed’s double-talk.  “I’m a country artist and I want people to know how much I genuinely respect this music and my fans.”

Besides, in the South, music always has functioned as a unifying catalyst of reconciliation, along with sports and food. “I reckon I’ve got all those bases covered,” says Ford, who lettered in several varsity sports before becoming a professional golfer, competing in national tournaments and working as instructor.

“That was 100 pounds ago,” he says, his woolly goatee widening into a grin. Nowadays he is, as one fan put it (alluding to bluesman Howlin’ Wolf) “a big ’un built for pleasure, not speed.” He has lent his name to a line of vodka and Georgia-distilled moonshine (“an 85-year-old recipe from some ol’ boys in the mountains I won’t name”), and he partnered with the Santa Fe Cattle Company to design the substantial, bacon-laden “Mr. Goodtime Burger,” billed as “hotter than Alabama asphalt.”

Heartfelt and Coronary

Victuals—preferably washed down with something high-test—and varsity sports turn up in his lyrics; his biggest hit, so far, is “Chicken and Biscuits.” “Boy, my mama makes the best cat-head biscuits,” he says, pushing back his cowboy hat with barbed-wire trim. (If you play his song “Waffle House” on the jukebox, don’t expect a syrupy ditty; it is the noirish dramatic monologue of a drunken cuckold plotting, over grits, to shoot his wife, who has been messin’ around with the sheriff, the preacher, and the judge, among others.)

Ford likes to say, “I didn’t get into music; music got into me.”

“The songs I was writing with the priority of being marketable just didn’t feel authentic,” he says. “Finally, I realized when I wrote from my heart and my experience, fans responded to the honesty,” he says, noting that after his first real gig in 2008—an outdoor, Fourth of July concert that drew a crowd of 5,000 in Valdosta—he stayed past midnight signing autographs. “I know exactly who I am. I believe in God, family, good times and America. I pray before I eat, and I take off my hat during the national anthem. I like a tailgate party in a pasture—gimme barbwire instead of some fancy velvet rope at a nightclub.”

And, he adds, “You can tell, I love to eat.”