Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray Goes Country Soul With ‘Sure Feels Good Anyway,’ Talks Southern Liberal Frustrations
By Gary Graff
Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray has followed and built on the pleasurable experience of her last solo album, 2014’s Goodnight Tender, with the upcoming Holler — whose first single “Sure Feels Good Anyway” premieres exclusively below.
The 14-song set follows the rootsy, country-flavored path established by Goodnight Tender, but Holler — produced by Ray and Brian Speiser at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville, N.C. and featuring her regular band along with a wealth of guests — expands that sonic palette with more instrumentation, including horns. The touchstone, Ray tells Billboard, was country star Jim Ford’s 1969 album Harlan County.
“Someone turned me on to that record and it has that late ’60s country soul with horns thing to it,” Ray explains. “I can’t write like (Ford), but I wanted that to inform where I’m at on this (album) because I love it so much. And then I love Burt Bacharach, so those two things were in my brain and in Brian’s head. So we had horns and strings to bring in an extra dimension we’d never worked with before, which was super fun.”
But wait, there’s more… “I wanted to have maybe just a little bit more of the punk edge to it,” Ray says. “It’s not really punky, but it’s, like, a country punky kind of feel. On Goodnight Tender I was really conscious about doing a very traditional record, really playing off Hank Williams and George Jones and Dolly Parton and the Carter Family, but on this record I wanted to bring in a few more elements of the heavier side of what I listen to and love.”
As is Ray’s wont, there are more than a few lyrically heavy moments, too — particularly on the socio-political tip. Holler reflects the sensibilities of a self-proclaimed “radical left-wing dyke” living in a small town conservative town in northern Georgia, and its songs find her commenting on civil rights, poverty, religion, hypocrisy, inequity and other timely topics. And for the provocative “Sure Feels Good Anyway,” Ray grapples with her beliefs and her strong Southern identity.
“I’m happy to be a Southerner but sometimes…not bitter about it but frustrated by what’s around me,” explains Ray, whose four-year-old daughter’s father, who’s also gay, lives in the same town. “I feel very rooted in the South and very proud of it in a very deep way and I could never leave it. As a liberal and a Democrat and a lesbian I’m in a distinct minority here, but at the same time when I’m in trouble and I need some help with something, people help out and don’t worry about our differences. That’s part of the South, too, I think.
“So that’s what that song is about, a kind of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ kind of thing. Now, I’m sure if I was a black lesbian living down here I don’t know if the same thing would happen. So there’s a lot of different layers to this conversation.”
Besides her core band, Ray is joined on Holler by Derek Trucks, Vince Gill, Justin Vernon, Brandi Carlile, the Wood Brothers, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Phil Cook and SNCC Freedom Singer Rutha Mae Harris. “I have a lot of really awesome friends that are willing to do things for me sometimes, which is really nice — and then some who are new, like Rutha Mae and Vince Gill, who I’d never recorded with before,” Ray says. “And my band, they’re amazing. So to have these other people join in was fantastic. It was a privilege…I felt very lucky in this experience.”
Ray is going to take her band out to promote Holler after its Sept. 28 release, possibly adding horn and string sections for some dates. Meanwhile, she and Emily Saliers will be hitting the studio in January to record the next Indigo Girl album, and despite the fertile territory for protest songs Ray says she has something different in mind this time out.
“I kind of have almost this opposite reaction in some ways, where I just want to write dance songs,” Ray says with a laugh. “I want to write songs that make people happy; I know that’s impossible in some ways right now with what’s going on, but that’s what we need. We definitely need some feel-good, get out there and boogie kind of songs as well as we need songs that are bringing our attention to serious things. But I’d rather lift people up than bring them down, I think, so we’ll see what we come up with.”
TH Oct 23 – Macon, GA | Hargray Capitol Theatre
FR Oct 24 – Durham, NC | Motorco Music Hall
SU Oct 26 – Nashville, TN | Mercy Lounge
MO Oct 27 – Atlanta, GA | Variety Playhouse
TU Oct 28 – Asheville, NC | The Grey Eagle
TH Oct 30 – Winston-salem, NC | The Ramkat
WE Nov 7 – Tampa, FL | Crowbar
TH Nov 8 – Ponte Vedra Beach, FL | Ponte Vedra Concert Hall
FR Nov 9 – Statesboro, GA | Averitt Center for the Arts
SU Nov 11 – York, SC | Sylvia Theater
TU Nov 13 – Nelsonville, OH | Stuart’s Opera House
WE Nov 14 – Ann Arbor, MI | The Ark
TH Nov 15 – Chicago, IL | Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music