By Melissa Ruggieri
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The whining fiddle and woozy tempo that anchor “Hunter’s Prayer,” the first song on Amy Ray’s new solo record, declare, unquestionably, that Ray hasn’t just made a country album. She’s gone and crafted a country album. The longtime Indigo Girl has wandered down the solo path four times before, but always to take a punkier, grittier track than what worked with her collaborations with Emily Saliers.
More than a decade ago, Ray started squirrelling away country-leaning tunes. Some of them, such as “My Dog” and “Broken Record,” were resurrected for “Goodnight Tender,” her fifth solo studio effort released on her Daemon Records label that arrives digitally on Jan. 21 and on CD and vinyl Jan. 28. Others, such as the banjo and mandolin-inflected “The Gig That Matters” and “Duane Allman,” which features the harmonizing of Susan Tedeschi, wife of Derek Trucks — who is often called the second coming of Allman — sprang from Ray’s myriad influences, including her surroundings.
“Before I moved [to the north Georgia mountains], which was 20 years ago, my exposure to country was probably limited to Willie (Nelson) and Dolly (Parton) and Kris Kristofferson, which is all great. But when I got up here, that was the same time I was listening to a lot of stuff on (alt-country focused) Bloodshot Records out of Chicago, and that made me delve deeper. Of course, there’s the bluegrass thing and mountain music and a lot of festivals up here, too,” Ray said recently from “up here,” her home near Dahlonega.
Ray, 49, admits she was petrified to play live with many of the old-timers rooted in the mountains, and it wasn’t until last year’s Bear on the Square festival near her home that she felt brave enough to accept an invitation to share a stage in the gospel tent with some local musicians.
“If I go jam with people in Dahlonega who are great musicians, I can’t play those guitar runs, but I can play the rhythms and sing,” she said. “I love storytelling and I love that music. That’s country that’s old-school and traditional.”
Once Ray was suitably inspired, she compiled her wish list of songs, headed to Asheville, N.C., and holed up at Echo Mountain Studio with a core group of musicians – who will also join her onstage Jan. 26 for her Variety Playhouse show – for a week of recording. There, in the mountains, in a studio that used to be a church and still offers the atmospheric lighting from stained-glass windows, Ray and the band utilized vintage equipment to commit the songs live to tape. She did, however, have to travel north to Chicago to hook up with old pal Kelly Hogan, the soulful singer from Atlanta who currently works with Neko Case and Iron and Wine, among other acts. Hogan, whom Ray calls, “one of those people who always has a lot of great things to say,” sings harmonies on the title track and the song “Time Zone.” Hogan now lives in Wisconsin but fondly recalls the “long, crazy day” she spent recording her vocals with her friend at the Wilco Loft, the cozy Chicago studio run by the indie rock band. “The songs are beautiful,” Hogan said. “I think it’s amazing that Amy is doing country songs. I saw this picture for the album where she’s wearing a Western shirt and was like, ‘You go, girl!’ At one point, the Indigo Girls were covering Patty Loveless and other country artists so, you know, (country) is in your groundwater when you’re from Georgia.”
Heritage is important to Ray, too. Her mother and siblings still live in her native Decatur – where she usually visits a couple of times a week – and she specifically sought out the Variety Playhouse, where she’s performed solo and with the Indigo Girls, for her show. “It’s hometown for me. Little Five Points is where I started. I always just feel comfortable there,” Ray said. Opening for Ray is Heather McEntire, the honey-voiced singer from the North Carolina trio Mount Moriah. McEntire also sings on “Goodnight Tender” and contributed the one song not penned by Ray, “When You Come for Me,” the striking ballad that closes the album. McEntire said that when Ray sent her demos of the songs that would eventually become “Goodnight Tender,” she felt creatively aligned with her. “One day I knocked off my nerves and got bold and just asked if she wanted to use ‘When You Come for Me’ for her record. It just seemed to fit nicely, had a similar character,” McEntire said. That Ray accepted her offer is “extremely flattering and a bit surreal,” she said. “The Indigo Girls were very formative for me.”
McEntire also cites the feel of the songs on Ray’s album as proof that her foray into country is authentic. “There’s always sincerity and passion and raw emotion with all of Amy’s songs, but this batch feels to me like a bit of a homecoming for her, like peeling back the layers in a soulful, fluid way,” McEntire said. “Honestly, I think this album is a lot like her as a person: Warm, Southern, curious, open, brave and earnest.”
The modest Ray would probably wince at such praise. She loves her life as a hermit in the mountains, even though she recently was given reason to want to shout from the mountaintops: She became a mom. Ray’s partner of 12 years, Carrie Schrader, a teacher at North Georgia College and a screenwriter/director, gave birth to their daughter, Ozilline Graydon, in November. “I’ve wanted motherhood for a long, long time, so it was time,” Ray said of the couple’s new addition, named after her grandmother. (Ozilline is also her mother’s middle name. As she learns to balance motherhood with the vagabond life of a musician, Ray is only doing three or four shows at a time and likely won’t bring the baby on the road until summer.
Her upcoming year doesn’t account for many breaks, as she and Saliers plan to return to the studio in August for a new Indigo Girls record, their first since 2011’s “Beauty Queen Sister.” When asked if there will be any shift in their trademark sound, Ray laughs. “Well, I wish we could make the next Fleetwood Mac ‘Rumours’! But really, it’s just fun to make a record. We really try to challenge ourselves and write different harmonies and arrangements, but it’s not going to be a disco album.”
Considering Ray’s urge to branch out musically, who knows? That day may come, too.
Friday, Jan. 10, 2014
Reprinted with permission