Amy Ray Goes Country

Jim Herrington
by Allison Glock - Georgia - October/November 2013

Best known as one-half of the folk duo Indigo Girls, the Georgia native is reaching back to her Southern roots

>Listen to the song, "Hunter's Prayer" from Ray's new album, Goodnight Tender

Amy Ray wants to use the busted piano. “Just for the hell of it.” She likes the sound of age and damage. She is suspicious of perfection. Besides, she argues, “the pedal steel will make everything sound in pitch.” 

The engineers at Asheville, North Carolina’s famed Echo Mountain recording studio (aka the Church) waste no time complying. They are accustomed to Ray’s peculiarities. And to being wrong when they doubt her instincts will pan out. Jeff Fielder takes a seat at the vintage piano and starts to play. Ray, who 

is forty-nine, lifts her chin to the ceiling, eyes
in a discerning squint. “That’s more like it,” she says. “Only a little less Bruce Hornsby, a little more Dusty Springfield.”

Fielder, sweating slightly through his T-shirt, adjusts immediately, pulling the notes like taffy. Ray starts to giggle.

“That’s the other side of the Oreo cookie!” she shouts, delighted.

She begins to sing one of the tracks from Goodnight Tender, which will be her first country album, and the Church is instantly in session, Ray’s voice blooming into the space like the Holy Spirit itself.

This life, it ain’t long
This life, it ain’t even long,
But it sure is strong.
Come on and take a ride with me
And you will see.

No one sounds like Amy Ray. You are swept away by her singularity every time you listen to her, which is ironic, given that most of her popular success has been as half of a pair. 

Indigo Girls, the Grammy-winning folk duo (with Ray’s friend from grade school Emily Saliers), defined the late eighties and early nineties, providing a sound track not only to latent feminists not buying what Madonna was selling, but also to a generation of burgeoning songwriters who had no idea you could talk about politics and love in the same verse. Theirs was not dreary, soporific folk music. Ray and Saliers leavened the coffeehouse genre with self-deprecating humor, their harmonies soaring over deceptively tricky arrangements, buoyed by the sort of old-school musicianship one only gets from decades of daily practice. The band has sold twelve million records (and counting).

Though Ray is reflexively deferential to Saliers, crediting her as “the better writer, the better singer,” when you listen to Indigo Girls, it is the freight train of Ray’s voice that punches
through to your heart, her full-bore intention that sweeps you away. She is Janis Joplin without the tragedy, her voice brimming and bottomless at the same time. Even when Ray thunders, there is no strain, no intimation of cracking, just authority, a resonance without end, timeless and realized, like a river. And you could do worse than to let it run through you and be cleansed.

Come on and take a ride with me
And you will see.

Ray draws five syllables out of the last word see. Turns it into a ladder of meaning.

“I think I can do it better,” she says eagerly, swaying on her heels behind her mandolin, her heavy bangs a curtain over her eyes. She looks through the glass at her producer, offers an impish grin. The band starts again.

“I’m a workaholic,” Ray confides two hours later during a rare respite. “I think there is a thing where writers and poets are more creative later in life, and women too, as a function of having had to spend their early years raising kids.”

She leans back in her chair, drains a can of diet soda.

“I really do feel like a late bloomer. I didn’t figure out how to put everything together that is inside of me until my late thirties.”

Her producer rolls back the tape, and Ray ponders over her own voice.

“I guess I feel grown up. But I don’t feel old or done. There is a myth in the music industry about productivity eroding with age. But I think Emmylou and Patti Smith are disproving all that.” She smiles wryly. Over the speakers, she sings:

Half of my life is gone for sure
The other half—God willing—occurs
With just enough left to hope and hurt
And just enough sense to know
There are some things that I can’t save now
But I thank the Lord anyhow.

“Makes you sad, doesn’t it?” she muses, eyes lit with joy.