Amy Ray photo by Sandlin Gaither
Amy Ray Joins The Joy Train For If It All Goes South
Amy Ray and her band soft-released their new album, If It All Goes South, in the autumn, and have physical copies shipping early this year for a tenth album release, fittingly featuring ten tracks. To add to the symmetry, Ray and her band have also been playing and record together for ten years. This is an album that arose gradually at first as Ray worked on singles that spoke to the times we were living in, like “Tear It Down,” referencing work for social justice in the South and a call for the removal of Confederate statues. But as the album came together, many songs seemed to take a clear-eyed look at Ray’s experience of Georgia, being Southern, and the quest for hard-won positivity in the face of struggle.
Guests on the album contribute to this groundswell of celebration, including Brandi Carlile, Allison Russell, Sarah Jarosz, The Highwomen’s Natalie Hemby, Phil Cook, and the band I’m With Her. They join Amy Ray’s longtime bandmates guitarist Jeff Fielder (Mark Lanegan, Duff McKagan), keyboardist Daniel Walker (Heart, Ann Wilson, John Fullbright), pedal-steel player Matt Smith (The Honeycutters), banjo player Alison Brown, fiddle player/guitarist Adrian Carter, bassist Kerry Brooks, and drummer Jim Brock. Working with detailed demos ahead of time, contributors were largely able to record together live to tape, adding to the atmosphere of earnest reflection and mutual encouragement so evident on the tracks. We spoke with Amy Ray shortly after Indigo Girls won the Americana Music Association’s Spirit Award in 2022 about the soul-searching, but ultimately triumphant new album.
Americana Highways: How do you feel about the experience of Indigo Girls receiving the Americana Music Association’s Spirit Award in 2022?
Amy Ray: Awards can have kind of a broad meaning sometimes, but when you have someone present it to you and narrow the focus in, that’s important. People in the crowd or people who hear about it can really understand it when someone who’s presenting it can explain it in a way that drives it home. Brandi [Carlile] could say a lot that Emily [Saliers] and I couldn’t even say. It would be kind of weird to say that stuff about ourselves. She made it more graceful, explaining the political activism behind things, so it was really cool.
AH: Part of it that seemed even more significant was the close connection that you all have with Brandi and how much she personally knows about your work.
AR: Yes, she’s definitely been on the journey with us in her earlier days, and of late. In 2007 to 2010, we did a lot of playing together, and we talked a lot. We talked about the strategies activism, the music business, and the interplay between the two. How you could achieve with music the things you wanted to achieve on the level of social justice, how that could be a tool sometimes to get things done. She was very ambitious in that realm and for me, at that time, it would have been easy to be cynical and say, “No way you can get that done!” But she wouldn’t let me do that. It was useful for me to have that person sitting on my shoulder, saying, “Nothing’s too big. Keep at it.” It’s good to have an ally who’s even more energetic and idealistic than you are. Hopefully everyone’s got that friend in life! You need it!
AH: It’s really hard for me to imagine you being cynical after listening to this new album, If It All Goes South. There is a driving positivity there, though it’s a very nuanced one that takes into account a lot of detail rather than simply being naïve about it.
AR: My cynicism is something that I have to turn into energy and action, really. I think, with this record, part of it was the point of “Joy Train,” to get on the right foot, look at what people have done, and try to keep your head up. You can do that on a personal level, or you can do that on the level of being in front of people and trying to show positivity in your music. Obviously, there’s a dose of what’s really going on and asking how we connect with that and navigate. The nuance in it is because I do have cynicism that probably tempers it! [Laughs] Because I’m not naïve about it. I never have been, really.
I’ve always had my eye on all the ways that the system in our world, and I guess in the US and the South, for this record, needs improvement and healing. But I also have to look at where we are, and what we have, and have a measure of respect for the South and the people who have worked so hard to keep their place in it. The bottom line is, for me, that I deserve to be here and you can’t run me off my land. The same for people who have worked so hard, all the Black folks down south, and their amazing resilience maintaining generations and generations of family. I’m always in awe of it when I talk to people who have lived in Georgia forever and have made that a safer space over time, although it’s far from perfect. The joy in so many people I respect, who do all this work, is something that reminds me to be that way, too. It reminds me how lucky I am to have gotten where I’ve gotten and to use it for the good, right?
AH: Absolutely. And by the way, congratulations on the election results in Georgia.
AR: Yes! Raphael Warnock is such a great guy. What an amazing man! He’s so loving and incredible. I can’t believe it was so close, honestly.
AH: He’s good to think about in the context of this song, “Joy Train,” that you were talking about.
AR: He’s perfect! He’s a shining example of it.
AH: In “Joy Train” as well as a few of the other songs, I feel like I can hear a bit of a conversation with oneself, since there are multiple ways of looking at any situation. I often talk myself into trying a different, more positive perspective. “Muscadine” has a little bit of that towards the end.
AR: I definitely do a lot of that in song-form, litigating with myself. Part of it is that I find, just naturally, I’m one of those people who is constantly trying different perspectives. That’s a way of also trying to see other peoples’ perspectives, and it’s my way of figuring out where I am in relationship to others and to issues. It relates to who my best self is and who I know I’m being right now. I take myself to task a bit. We all do it, but this just comes out in a song.
AH: Of course, the whole pandemic period has been characterized by so much of that internal dialog because of spending so much time alone and also having to rethink so many things. It feels familiar!
AR: Totally. That’s the whole thing, isn’t it? Everybody had that reflection time, and a lot of people went through a lot of stuff. It changed perspectives on human relations, time, love, and all that.
AH: Some of these songs came out early on as singles, even with videos, speaking to the times that we were going through. Did you work on each song one by one early-on, and later began to think towards a full album?
AR: As a band, we’ve been together now for ten years. When the pandemic was going on, we just wanted a thread to keep us together. We are emotionally and spiritually close as a band and this was a way to stay in touch and work on something. I was writing songs that I just wanted to do together and get out there so we did a few singles. We worked from home in our spaces. But I also wanted to do a record, too. There was a time when I really just wanted to go and record to tape. I said that we could include these three songs on the record and rework whatever we needed to but also transfer them to tape so everything would have a similar vibe.
“Muscadine” was one that was pretty much intact, so we just transferred it over to tape. But “Chuck Will’s Widow” was one that I felt needed a different angle for the context of the record. That one went to the woodshed again and got really reworked by the band I’m With Her. I broke it down to a vocal track and asked them to do their thing. They ended up being the main force behind the song. We added a few things to make it more of an acoustic song.
For me, what “Tear It Down” was missing was a singer like Allison Russell, a woman of color, someone who has the gravity to deliver that other side of that conversation. I’m the white Southerner fighting the entrenched racism of how I was brought up. My parents are politically conservative but there was a surface of loving everyone, so the true questions of racism did not come to the forefront of my mind until I did it on my own.
That song is a way to look at all that, and it’s really similar for a lot people who grew up in the South of my age. If you were born in 1964, you were born into a very Jim Crow time, still. I was born in a segregated hospital. You don’t think that affects everything you do, but it does unless you are willing to look at it. I wanted Allison to be in that space. I had seen her at a show and was inspired by it, so I asked if she’d do the song.
We also did a lot of arranging in the digital realm, over e-mail, so that everyone would get into the studio and be prepared. So every song had a demo that we worked on in the same way that we worked on those singles. It was a great process to learn together as a band. Everyone had their own way of contributing.
AH: Given how much you had missed each other, being able to record to tape in the studio must have been a very positive thing.
AR: A lot of it was done together, like with Allison Russell, and other vocalists were there. The Gospel choir was live with us. The string section was there. There were a lot of really fun things doing it live that were super-challenging and built on teamwork. Everyone has to listen to each other and really be mindful, and it’s an interesting way to work these days when everything could be done in other ways.
AH: The story of this album is an interesting hybrid of the approaches that many bands took during this time. Some people did everything remotely, some counted on a short period of time together to write and record at once. Very few I’ve spoken to did both things as you all did here.
AR: We streamlined it so we had eight days in the studio, were testing for Covid every day, and were super-careful while we were there. We tried to limit the time since not everyone can be crazy-careful for a longer period.
AH: I can see that there was a goal towards positivity with these songs, but having so many collaborators coming in and supporting that goal really adds to that message. It feels like a whole crowd of people getting behind that. It almost makes it more effective.
AR: You’re totally right. That’s exactly what it does. On the first day, we thought it was going to be super-hard doing the most different sounding song on the record, “North Star,” which has a Gospel sound. It was actually a great way to start because these Gospel singers who Phil Cook brought in were really funny, energetic, lively, and irreverent. They were disarming and broke the ice in a way that was just beautiful and was the perfect way to start the whole session. That’s kind of what carried through. They set the pace and they set the tone. I don’t think they even knew they were doing it.
Phil Cook is also such a loving and special human, and his talents are just immense, so it was super-special to have them on the first day. He has music flowing out of him all the time, so having him there on the first day also set the tone. We said, “We’re just going to be spontaneous and we’re going to be musical. Now we’ve done the work, so we can be spontaneous and musical.”
Thanks so much for talking with us Amy Ray. Find more about her music and tour dates here: https://www.amy-ray.com
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Show Review: The Magic of Amy Ray at OKC’s Blue Door with Chastity Brown