By Rey Roldan
Amy Ray’s in a tough spot. In so many ways, it seems like the world is on fire. The American South, which can certainly seem like a hotbed of hate, stokes those flames. But it’s also where she’s from. And, tellingly, where she chooses to make her home. The cultural tensions at the root of that scenario, as a queer activist who obviously has big love for her deeply troubled homeland, fuels her mission. In that regard, she will always have her work cut out for her.
Despite the dramatic double entendre in it’s title, Amy Ray’s new album seems understated… at least, on the surface. But dig a little farther and you’ll find it’s rife with deep-seated thoughts that seem like they’ve fallen out of a diary. The truth is that If It All Goes South carries a weighty emotional heft, but it’s tempered by gospel-infused joy and Ray’s unwavering faith in humanity.
As usual, she believably inhabits characters outside of her own experience with Oscar-worthy empathy and grace. She may be a singer-songwriter, but her biggest strength both as half of Indigo Girls and leader of the Amy Ray Band is the way she makes her points (or, in some cases, remains ambiguous) from deep within the fray. She doesn’t tell stories so much as she acts them out in song; the listener tunes in and the scene is already in progress. We need to do our homework or we’ll be lost.
But musically, the album feels effortless—remarkable, in part, because Ray’s band is cooking with the sort of rich, instinctive chemistry here that less seasoned players only dream about… that, and the album was recorded live to tape in fairly short order with a minimum of after-fussing. Nevertheless, it’s a red carpet affair with appearances by all three members of I’m With Her, Allison Russell, Brandi Carlile, The Highwomen’s Natalie Hemby, and Phil Cook.
A cautionary call-to-arms told with a mocking gospel spin, Ray plays devil’s advocate with Christianity’s ‘good news’ in “A Mighty Thing,” inspired by the contagious energy of a sermon at a friend’s funeral. The swampy, slinky opener “Joy Train” struts with confidence through some civil rights history, observing the moral corruption that settled in its deep-southern gutters en route. But instead of getting mired in the those racist, homophobic traditions, she calls on the civil rights leaders who ignited the struggle and adopts their rallying cry as her own mantra: “Action Jackson all the way to that Tennessee town / Where Martin Luther haunts me, I swear he follows me around / Singing, “Death where is thy sting to be found!”
Originally written for some friends but also inspired by Ray’s young daughter, the lyrics of “From This Room” offer reassurance and understanding in the midst of strife, augmented by Jeff Fielder’s wailing slide guitar as it weaves in and around the lonesome strains of Matt Smith’s ubiquitous pedal steel. A duet with Natalie Hemby, the pair’s hair-raising harmonies cross into hymn-like territory while maintaining the album’s country gospel leanings.
Penned in tribute for influential, beloved WFUV DJ Rita Houston—a tireless champion of Ray’s music who passed away in 2020 from cancer—the lilting and sepia-toned “Subway” is steeped in loving, soulful reverence, upholding the impact that her late friend had on her life and career. Featuring Brandi Carlile on backing vocals, Ray serves up vivid memories of New York City and the pair’s shared passion for activism, singing, “So we took it to the streets, crying ‘No justice, no peace!’ / All for one, one for all, here comes the show, turn on your radio!“
The closing track “North Star,” is a gospel celebration that provides a buoyant endcap. Ray envisions the world hitting reboot as her soul departs from, “Creek bed to the river, where I drink my water / Rest for my journey on the banks of the Etowah,” while Daniel Walker’s Hammond B3 injects bits of bliss.
Largely written during the pandemic, If It All Goes South is a profoundly personal record whose clever title points to the blanket uncertainty of 2020 and 2021. Throughout, Ray wears a brave face as she calls out the devolving nature of the world around her and unflinchingly centers her stories on the southland which she calls home. It’s a far cry from the punky feel of 2001’s Stag and it’s follow up, Prom (2005), but the results are fiery in more subtle ways. Ray’s plenty worried, but at 58, she’s placating herself with gratitude. In doing so, she infuses a potentially stormy set of songs with contagious calm; it permeates the whole set. All the while, she uses the traditionally churchy sounds of the south as her delivery system, turning the tables on the bigoted naysayers who’d have her head. It’s a neat trick. We could all learn a few things from Amy Ray.
It’s embarrassing to say that Rey Roldan has been writing about music since 1988. He’s written for dozens of publications such as American Songwriter, The Aquarian Weekly, MeanStreet, Cake, Boston Rock, Synthesis, and was editor of a handful more, like The Improper Bostonian, Fromage: Not for the Lactose Intolerant, Honey, and Tempest. These days, he makes his dosh being a publicist by day and a music writer by night. He resides in Weehawken, NJ with his dog.