Chatting with Amy Ray about God, Hunting, and Good Country Music

[No Depression]

By Kim Ruehl

Amy Ray was backstage at the Isis in Asheville, NC, last week, listening to the soundcheck of her opener, a local artist named Lyric. As we got to talking about her new album Goodnight Tender, which dropped on her own Daemon label on Jan. 21, Ray periodically paused mid-sentence to enjoy the muffled funk happening on the other side of the wall.

To most people, it might seem odd to pair a funk and soul band as opener for a sizable country outfit. But, the spirit implicit in what both these bands do – country, folk, soul, gospel – are the bedrocks that have supported Amy Ray’s life in music since the beginning. Besides, beyond her stage time with the Indigo Girls, Ray has built Daemon Records from the ground up – almost a sort of collective of independent songwriters who, though their music all sounds different, each amplify Ray’s impulse toward soulful music. Which is to say music that is intimately tied to the soul. Whether the style it expresses can be categorized as funk or punk, country or folk, is just a matter of semantics.

Speaking of sometimes arbitrary-seeming genres, while Ray has made much of her living from the Indigos’ counterpoint harmonies that straddle the line between folk and pop, her solo career has, until now, always been an outlet for the atypical weaving of classic soul and punk-rock on which she was raised. In the past, her solo tours have seen her supported by queercore band the Butchies, who have backed her thoughtful, muscular rock songs with their ripping electric guitar and thumping drumrolls.

But this time out, she decided to explore another area of her upbringing: country music. It might seem like a bit of a cliche for someone who’s been in the business this long, but Ray lives out in the middle of the actual country, in rural North Georgia. Musicians in her hometown get together for gospel and bluegrass jams. The pantheon of rural music is no exotic thing in her world, it’s just not somewhere she’s allowed herself to wander publically, at least not completely, until now.

The result is excellent, of course. Goodnight Tender wrestles with all manner of metaphor, from hunting to religion, dogs, and lullabies, pointing always toward the basic necessity of finding safe spaces and recognizing what actually matters. Like any good country album, there’s also the requisite country song about country music – in this case an incredibly catchy, Southern rock-ing tribute to the great Duane Allman. The songs are catchy and haunting, never sacrificing substance for the sake of memorability. In other words, they do everything right, in my opinion.

Whatever “country music” means to mainstream America, whatever it means to Music Row or the songwriter crowd in East Nashville, Goodnight Tender is, thankfully, Amy Ray’s country music. So, that is where our interview began:

Kim Ruehl: I want to talk about country music.

Amy Ray: [laughs] It’s so dominant right now, it’s insane.

I know, but it’s not the same thing as what you did, in terms of… this is not Faith Hill country music.

No, no. I couldn’t do country-pop even if I wanted to. First of all, I’m too old and too gay, too political, too masculine. Some of those pop-country artists like Faith Hill, the really good ones, they have voices that are crazy good. I’m in the Americana category – more of a singer-songwriter, the gospel thing, the mountain thing… your voice is a different kind of instrument in that case.

But a lot of [the style on this album] predates Americana. It’s more 1970s stuff. Maybe where Gram Parsons came from.

Yeah, I like that stuff. I like country from the Carter Family through probably 1978, or something. I like new country, I just don’t relate to it. Actually, I do relate to it in some way. It’s manufactured in a way that’s amazing and the songwriting has a certain craft in it that’s really great. I would never make a record like that, but I went to a Reba MacEntire show. I’d go to a show. I’d go see Brad Paisley any day. It’s fun. I’d go see Sugarland. It’s fun, but it’s not my bag.

Do you think it’s…that music is more suburban than out in the middle of the country?

Is it? I can’t tell because where I live, which is in the country, the kids listen to more hip-hop and pop, rave, dance music.

The adults listen to country-pop, though. They’d go see Brad Paisley and stuff like that. Zac Brown is big. The people who are in the area that I live that are players, they listen to bluegrass and stuff like that. All the people who come out to the gospel jams and the bluegrass jams, anybody that lives around the area… they all love it.

But to me, it’s not… I can’t tell if the new country is suburban or if it’s just everywhere. It’s just big. It’s like Christian music. It sells the most records, it’s the biggest arena shows, the biggest tours. The tours are ten trucks and five tour buses. It’s on a whole other level. It’s like arena rock. I feel like it’s really big right now in America. Then there’s the Americana movement, then there’s the Avett Brothers and all those country, bluegrass-tinged [bands].

When I was a kid, country was what redneck, closed-minded, “backwards” people listened to. But now people are starting to look back and realize that the older country was not… like, Merle Haggard is not a closed-minded guy.

No. Neither is Johnny Cash. Some of those people were pretty serious…the outlaw guys were more open minded. What’s that book that’s so great about country music. It’s written by a guy who wrote for Entertainment Weekly. It came out about ten years ago, and it’s about the songwriters and the artists, and the difference between them. The politics of country music, starting at a certain point – Johnny Cash and some of the songwriters who were behind the scenes were typically a lot more progressive. They could be gay or could be this or that – or black – all those things that Nashville was weird about. I wish I could remember the name of it. It’s a great book. It talks about Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, Loretta, Dolly…some of the people who made statements that were more open-minded, and why they were allowed to do that. What happened between that period of time – the late 1960s or ’70s – it was a hippy time too. Then there was this period when what happened to the Dixie Chicks could happen. And now we’re kind of back around to the good time, I think.

We’re getting there.

I think we’re getting there. I think Nashville’s a lot more tolerant than it was. Look at the TV show. There’s a gay character on there. I mean, he’s in the closet and he’s trying to commit suicide, but he’s still gay.

And Brandy Clark [is openly gay]. And then Kacey Musgraves has that song that Brandy Clark co-wrote.

The arrow song? Yeah.

There is a disconnect between the country you’re doing, and those people you talked about, and mainstream country now.

I feel like what I’m doing is just what I felt like doing. Americana might be the closest place that might play it – Americana radio might play it. I wanted to do a record that was more traditional, where at least the instrumentation would harken back to ‘50s and ‘60s Merle Haggad, George Jones, Patsy Cline, the Carter Family sort of bluegrass side of things, with that mountain music element in it. Then I’d combine that with maybe a southern rock thing and a honky tonk thing here and there. That was my idea. It wasn’t like I’m going to make a country record that’s gonna get played [on country radio]. It was more from a creative perspective, I think, of you know I’ve been writing songs for a while. They’re country songs. I have an affinity for that kind of music. I’ve always related to that kind of music but never felt confident or had the right players. And then it was just time.

Right, and there’s a lot of God on this album, and a lot of dogs and hunting.

You can’t escape it… the songs are autobiographical. I’ve lived where I’ve lived the last 20 years. It’s north Georgia, it’s rural north Georgia. I know a lot of hunters, and a lot of them I know through Native American work that I do. I know more Indian hunters than white hunters. I’ll just say that. Some of the people I know really do go out for two weeks, get a bunch of stuff, bring it home and fill the freezer, feed the family. It’s real.

“A Hunter’s Prayer” is very metaphorical, too. I was driving down my little dirt road driveway. A huge buck stepped out and was in font of my car and just looked at me. It wasn’t a moment like You’re in my crosshairs, it was a moment where… when you connect with an animal for some reason and you’re thinking about these heavy things in life. It made me feel like, for some reason, I’ve got to rise to the occasion of what’s going on in my life. There were a lot of troubles going on in my life and a lot of questions I had. Half of the questions were things I thought metaphorically could [fit with] a hunter who’s trying to live in a certain way, having reverence for the animal, having integrity about their kill. If they find a lame animal, knowing when to go ahead and put it out of its misery, just like a relationship, for instance. So, it wasn’t just about hunting, it became a metaphorical song. Then it became a song that was more of a honkytonk. Then I thought I’d call it “A Hunter’s Prayer.” To me, the best of the hunters I know, this is what they want from life.

Dogs are always a part of my life. That could be anywhere. They’re in there, everywhere. They’re very important to me. That relationhisp is important. Then God of course. I like to write gospel songs because that’s how I grew up.

But the God presence feels like a lot less Jesus and a lot more spirit.

When I write gospel stuff, it’s not anything measured or intentional. It’s something that comes out. I’m not thinking I need to be more subversive in this. It’s just that, my faith is a thing where you have to include your own accountability and you have to question what’s going on and then, to me, question the idea of there having to be a conduit of an institution to have to go through to get there. Then there are [questions like], Why does there have to be so much suffering? They’re the same questions that you ask if you’re a kid and you’re learning about church. I’m asking the same things now and I’m wanting to say the same things now. I haven’t changed much on that since I was 16. [laughs] I’ve pretty much stayed in the same place.

I bet that’s far more prevalent than we hear about. I’m speaking as a totally secular person… what we hear in terms of, back to country music, there’s this image of country people shoved down our throats, obsessed with God and country. But I think in reality [in the real country] it’s probably more along the lines of what you were saying… a little more vague and spiritual.

Yeah, because I think if a country artist feels that strongly about Jesus and is really evangelistic, they’d probably be doing Christian music. Even Amy Grant, she challenges people with her Christian music. A lot of Christian bands like Jars of Clay, that were more popular, they challenge things. But, I think songwriters challenge things.

If you’re a songwriter and you’re writing about God and Jesus, unless you’re doing super pop stuff… like the Louvin Brothers. They were so Christian but so challenging, if you really look at the depth of their thing. It’s simple but it’s deep. Hank Williams too. If you’re writing songs and you’re good like the Louvin Brothers were or like Hank Williams was, you’re always going to find the nuance. You’re never going to write about black-and-white stuff. You’re going to find the grey areas. You’re probably struggling with your own addicitons. You’re an artist. You’re writing and you’re suffering and you’re aching, and Jesus or God is not [just] these white-steepled buildings.

So how much of Echo Mountain is on there. When you record in a location like that, is it just to bring something out of you or does the place wind up on the record?

I picked Echo Mountain, first and foremost, for sonic reasons. Echo Mountain is a really vibey place, but I don’t really pick places for vibe because I’m more of a pragmatic person than that. I’m like, How do the mics work? Is the tape machine always working? And is the board always working? And is there a tech there to fix things if it breaks down? That’s pretty much what I look at.

Echo Mountain is one of the best studios in the country for that, if you want to record to tape. If [something] breaks, it’s fixed within an hour. You just don’t lose time. You may pay more money, but… you have it for seven days, and it’s working 90% of the time. As opposed to a studio that’s a little cheaper and they don’t have a tech there… You can lose five days. What’s the point if you lose half your time?

At Echo Mountain, you go in and everything’s set up and you can just work. [laughs] That’s why I pick it, not because it’s in North Carolina. I love North Carolina and most of the players I use are from around the region. But this studio rocks for every technical reason possible.

So you’re one of those people who can go into any room and get the vibe?

I believe that you should be able to, but I don’t know if it’s true. I’m not a person who goes into my little isolation booth and has to hang up a bunch of pictures and put candles in there. I’m all about work. It could be white walls with nothing happening, but if the microphone is good, that’s all I care about. I’m just like that. I’m picky about microphones so maybe I do need that for my vibe.

I respect people who need different settings to feel creative. For me that would be limiting, though, because you don’t always have that choice… I’m a pragmatic person at the heart.