Amy Ray’s latest release is pure country, and it’s been a long time a-comin’

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Amy Ray. – Photo: Ryan Russell

Indigo Girl Amy Ray’s fifth solo studio album Goodnight Tender is a country record through and through. The traditional sounds on Goodnight Tender have a history of surfacing on the Georgia native’s recordings, both her solos and those she’s made with fellow Indigo Girl Emily Saliers.

But Goodnight Tender features a dozen unabashed country songs. On this album, Ray is “shining like a national guitar,” to quote Paul Simon. She’s backed by an all-star band playing pedal steel, dobro, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and stand-up bass.

Ray remains one-half of the legendary queer duo Indigo Girls. While she’s toured solo throughout the spring, she continues to regularly perform concerts with Saliers. In fact, Indigo Girls performs at The Pabst on June 5, paving the way for PrideFest’s opening the next evening.

How long have you wanted to record a country album?

About 10 years, maybe a little longer. I started writing songs and putting them in a pile and filing them away in my mind, (thinking) “When I get enough songs and when I’m ready to do this, I’m going to make a traditional country record.” Over the years, as I’ve made my other solo records, sometimes I’ve thrown the more rockabilly/mandolin/fast songs on the punk or rock records. I didn’t have the amount of songs or content that I wanted. 

Did any of these songs start out in a different musical genre?

“Hunter’s Prayer” is the main one. It changed drastically. It was more of a folk song. Even the chord arrangement was different. I tried it that way, I even tried suggesting it for Indigo Girls, but it just wasn’t working. So I bagged it for a few years. I was working on something, some other song, and I just started singing the lyrics to “Hunter’s Prayer” to a different chord progression and I was like, “Ah! This is supposed to be a country song” (laughs). Other than that, the other stuff I pretty much knew as I was writing it what the genre was. 

Who would you cite as your greatest influences in country music?

From the earliest time, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Even for songs I was writing for Indigo Girls. As far as strictly traditional country artists, Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. All the greats. I like that era from the Carter Family, gospel mountain music, a whole lot. To me, they’re the parents of folk music. (Ethnomusicologist) Alan Lomax’s recordings played a big part when I was writing a song such as “Johnny Rottentail” and more of the storytelling kinds of songs. As far as production goes, the earlier 1950s stuff, (such as) Lefty Frizzell. I like (it) heavy on the pedal steel, and the drums to not be the center focus of the project, but still have the groove.

Where does Duane Allman, who is feted in the song “Duane Allman” on Goodnight Tender, figure into your influences?

(Laughs.) Southern rock was the earliest thing I listened to as a kid. It had its roots in some country. That’s something I was brought up on — the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd — that was in my house. Allman Brothers were one of my favorite bands from second-grade on. The Allman Brothers have stayed a favorite for me. There are some old records that I go back to and listen to all the time for pleasure. Not for songwriting tips or anything like that. To me, their music is more about the melodic sense between the instruments and the vibe — the passion of it. 

Heather McEntire, the out lead singer of Mount Moriah, can be heard singing on “When You Come for Me.” How did that come about?

Maybe seven years ago, she was in a punk band from Durham, North Carolina, called Bellafea, and she wrote me an email as I was getting ready to go on the road with The Butchies. She asked if she could come out and open for some shows. That’s how I originally met her. She started Mount Moriah, and they had a lot of country influences. I think they’re a cross between Björk and Americana. They have a weird pollination going on.

Would you describe it as insurgent country?

Yes. I loved that project and we kept in touch. She said she was starting to write some songs that were country songs and sent me some demos. She asked me if I wanted to put any of them on the record. I said (about “When You Come for Me”), “Maybe you should just sing lead on it and I’ll sing harmony and it will be like a duet.” That’s how we ended up doing it. She’s opened for Indigo Girls. She’s been in my life a lot.

The inimitable Kelly Hogan, who has also toured with Indigo Girls, can be heard on “Time Zone” and the title cut. Why did you want her to sing on the album?

I’ve always wanted have her (laughs) on this record, actually. As I was writing, (the song) “Goodnight Tender” especially, I was thinking that I wanted it to have those close, Everly Brothers harmonies, and she’s the person I had in mind. I made sure I had a time when I could capture her when she was off from (touring with) Neko Case. I got lucky! I was in Chicago with Indigos. It was sheer luck. We went to Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco loft and we recorded those vocals. I would have waited and flown to her wherever she was, but it was lucky that it was so convenient. She’s one of my favorite vocalists and an amazing person. We have a long history. She’s an ally in the music business for me.

Attitudes (on equality) continue to evolve in Nashville, albeit slowly. What would it mean to have this album embraced by the Nashville music community? It would be huge. But that would mean something bigger than me. (Lesbian country artist) Brandy Clark is being embraced. Kacey Musgraves has that “Follow Your Arrow” song that was embraced. It might be slightly different for someone such as me to be embraced, because I’m so obviously left-of-center and gay and out and political and masculine and all that. It’d be a pretty big deal (laughs). But I don’t have any expectations in that arena whatsoever. I spend more time in Nashville than I used to. I have a lot of friends there. I would say that over the years I’ve noticed discernible changes in the culture there. It used to be, 12 years ago, if I played in Nashville, there were always derogatory remarks from the bartenders and even the club owners. It was hard. The last time I played there, people and the club-owner were super-friendly and I had a big crowd. I didn’t expect to have a crowd at all. And I was with The Butchies. It wasn’t like I had toned it down at all or anything (laughs). I would at least like to make inroads in the Americana scene. I have a lot of friends in that scene. To break into any scene at this age is very hard. I just have to put the music out there and hope that it finds its way.

Over the course of your four solo albums, you have touched on genres ranging from punk rock to riot grrrl to R&B. Are there other musical genres you’d like to work in?

Nothing radical. I probably wouldn’t try to do a soul or hip-hop record. I didn’t have it in me for this record. I just wanted to do something with an easy feeling to it. You could drive down the road to it and nothing was going to shake you up too much.