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Amy Ray Rides Southbound on the ‘Joy Train’

By Christopher Treacy

Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither

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Amy Ray loves her old tube TV. She loves vinyl. She prefers recording to tape over digital recording. She enjoys the challenges of touring in a van when she travels with her band. She likes to work from scratch and lets her music build organically. She has reverence for old things, old customs. And that includes the South, which she still loves to call home, as well as the church she was raised in as a young, impressionable, southern girl.  

To some extent, the South is a character in everything Ray does. It’s certainly a large component of her new solo record, If It All Goes South, which came out in September on her independently run Daemon label. Mostly written during the political, professional, and personal tumult of 2020-21, Ray digs deep on this album, using history as an instructive mirror; in turn, she offers it up to us as an aid in navigating these tricky times.

Though she’d likely balk at the assertion, Ray has become a part of history in her own right—a queer person in the public eye that others will surely be learning from down the line. Hell, we’re learning from her even now. Thirty-five years ago, when Indigo Girls emerged from the Atlanta scene, they became the first unapologetically queer musical duo to penetrate mass consciousness. The pair’s queerness was so remarkable at the time, it eclipsed the other interesting detail: Ray and her musical partner, Emily Saliers, were from Georgia. Being queer women from the South made their struggle to show themselves to the world (and to Epic Records, the major label that brought them out of indie territory) seem that much more impressive. True, R.E.M. and The B-52’s had emerged from the same area, both with queer members. But having come along years earlier, with AIDS looming heavy in the public mind at the time, sexuality was left out of the conversation about those bands for many years to come.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

A whole discussion could ensue about queer women being less threatening to the masses, but that can’t be let to dilute the truth: Indigo Girls were brave. They continue to use the platform they’ve earned as a vehicle for their activism, which trickles down into their songwriting, merging the personal and political in songs that continue finding devoted fans to this day. Ray’s solo output follows a similar mission, though she goes about the work a bit differently when she’s on her own.

If It All Goes South is a compelling Americana record, largely focused on living in solutions rather than ruminating on problems. It’s a map to maintaining sanity and finding ways to move forward from lessons taught by those who’ve had it worse—learning from the past. Within this equation, Ray sees herself as a conduit.

Your new solo record sorta crashed the end of the Indigo Girls tour cycle for ‘Look Long.’ Your schedule seems unusually busy right now.

I mean, I always have to find a space and Indigos always tours. So there’s not really ever going to be a time when I’m not overlapping. But our touring is unusually congested right now, so, that’s true. We’ve been touring a lot more than usual, and gone for longer periods of time. And so there wasn’t really a space I could fit this in that didn’t have anything else around it. But I talked to Emily about it, and I think it all adds to the big puzzle in the end.

I could be wrong, but I imagine they must feel like two completely different things, touring with Emily versus with the Amy Ray Band.

You’re wrong. Totally wrong. (laughs). No, you’re right, they’re very different. But they’re different for reasons that aren’t totally musical, too. It’s like, I’m in a van with my band, and we’re driving around, and it’s just us, there’s no crew, and we’re making it work like that, which is a different challenge. And it’s a good challenge. It just wakes you up a little bit. And  that adds to the excitement. For us. It’s like, “We did it! We made it! We sound-checked! We’re on time!” You know, that kind of feeling. There’s an extra little kick in the butt, it’s a different set of challenges.

But it also helps me ultimately, with Indigos, because when I get back to Indigo world, I’m informed by what I’m doing in the solo world, in that there are things I understand better in a technical sense, because I do them myself when I’m doing solo stuff. And so it helps me solve problems, technically, in Indigo world and maybe think of ways to improve… adding stuff to our gear that might sound better, because I heard it somewhere, or some band I saw playing sounded good using it. It’s just more knowledge, which adds more resources.

So I’m always thinking about that, and I’m also always thinking about what happens with Indigo Girls, and how that informs what Amy Ray Band does. It might be, like, spaces that I know that I played with Indigo Girls like old clubs that we used to play—and still do sometimes—that I particularly like or that seem really suitable. It’s all kind of one big, sort of… weaving, I guess. But they’re very different, yes, and I don’t mind going back and forth between the two. Because for me, it’s totally entertaining. I never get tired of it on either side.

The Amy Ray Band, 2022

The title ‘If It All Goes South’ is so… sinewy. There’s a lot to unpack there, and I think maybe some implied optimism? Because it’s not called ‘When It All Goes South’ or ‘As It All Goes South.’ But I think for a large chunk of your fans, it indeed feels as if it has already gone south… in a big way.

Well, yeah, there’s optimism in it, but maybe not quite that way. I didn’t mean like, if it does, like, implying that it may not. I meant, if it all goes south, this is what you need to know: you’re not alone. There are people out there on your side. Appreciate where you are when you’re there. Like, if it all goes south, count it as a blessing. But it’s a double entendre. Because at the time that I wrote the song it’s taken from [“Chuck Will’s Widow”], Georgia politics were just heating up in this way, where we were finally making some progress. And I was like, God, sometimes it feels good to be in Georgia! So, it was also referring to ‘it’s all going south’ in a way of, like, everything’s being focused on The South,  and for once, not just like, it’s all going bad.

So it means both things. And it also means, if it all goes south, make the best of where you are. You might think that it’s this really negative picture, but you’re there for a reason, so try to figure that out and take advantage of it. Of course, that’s also coming from a privileged white person, saying that.

So it wasn’t, like, maybe it’s not gonna go south, because at the time, it was definitely going south, like, in every way. The South was in the focus, politically, in a good way, but also, things were really shitty. And so I was thinking that if it all goes to hell, we need to remember these things: be where you are, try to make the best of it, be the change that you see or want to see. And also… consider that you might be in the best place you could possibly be right now. You know, because all the good things were happening as far as people speaking up and marches and making change, and Georgia elected two incredible Democratic senators. Stacey Abrams was gaining ground and the Black Lives Matter movement was impactful, and the voter advocacy movement in the black community was really kicking. And so there was a feeling of ‘oh okay, it pays off to be where you are sometimes, and to try to make change there.’ Because it doesn’t work if everybody runs away.

The album seems very specific to your ongoing struggle as a queer southerner, which has always been a component of your writing, but it feels as if it’s front and center here.

Maybe because I was at home and not touring, you know, I was forced to look at things and be more focused in that way.

During the time when I was writing some of this material, I did go march in downtown Atlanta, and I did try to be supportive of people that were doing really good work, like a group called Project Say Something, who I wrote “Tear it Down” for. I also had time to go back through journals and read things that I had written while traveling through the South, previously. So I think it became something I was thinking about more and more.

But the truth is that I don’t always know what’s coming across or what emerges thematically, because at the time, I’m just writing. And then, all of a sudden, I realize I have a set of songs that seem to work together, and I decide I want to start sending them to the band and kind of seeing how everybody’s feeling, get some feedback, and it goes from there.

Sonically, it’s a mellow record. But there’s rage in there too. The rage seems tempered, though, which I think is something that happens as artists get older. They articulate it differently. Do you connect with that?

I totally connect with that. I mean, there’s rage on “A Mighty Thing,” on “Tear It Down,” and “They Won’t Have Me.” A lot of it. It’s definitely there. I don’t think of the record as being mellow, really, but there are some songs that definitely have a mellow vibe, in some way. “Cowboys and Pirates” is a total activist song, “From This Room” is a love song… and “Joy Train” is just joyful.

There’s a lot of joy in the record and a lot of stuff about healing, and being there for each other. And that might, in some ways, balance all the rage I feel. I’m looking at it from the perspective that the important thing right now is for people to understand that they’re not alone, and that there are allies out there for them. We need that right now, because everything is so crappy. And disasters keep happening, one after another. And there are so many people that are in some kind of need.

So the last thing I need to be doing is just railing on about my own personal shit, you know?

Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither

“Joy Train,” in particular, is interesting to me because, initially, I found it hard to ascertain whose viewpoint it was written from. And so I actually thought that it might have been written from an assassins point of view, feeling guilty about what they’d done to an activist and being confronted by haunting memories of historical figures. Since then, it’s come much clearer.

The intention is saying not to spend your life dwelling on all the things that are holding you back. And dwelling on the cage—so to speak—of your life. It’s saying, look at these people that have fought against incredible things… physical beatings, emotional and spiritual brutality from other people, and yet they’re still able to have joy in their hearts and sing songs and celebrate. And the power of the civil rights movement was so much about the spirituality of carrying on and having joy in the face of so much danger and oppression. So, I think about Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman… and present day people like Stacey Abrams, you know. And people that take so much shit for the color of their skin, I think about that a lot. And then I think, like, how can I be complaining about my life, or the things that hold me back? I need to get on the joy train and celebrate, and just strive to be effective, and do the work that I want to do, but do it with joy, and positivity, and try to make change.

The song is full of striking images

First, I’m in the car, driving my kid around  trying to get her to fall asleep, she’s screaming, it’s hot outside… I’m driving around for 30 minutes, committing major pollution crimes. And I’m stuck behind a truck full of chickens that are dying in their little cages and their feathers are blowing past us. That’s how it starts out. Then I’m talking to a sheriff in some town outside of Memphis after a show. And he’s talking about all the things he’s done with the people I’m with, these two older folks, and they’re discussing things about their lives and stuff. And I’m thinking about how they seem so friendly on the front, but there’s something underneath it, because of all I know about the brutality of the criminal justice system.

And then I’m thinking about my kid, saying ‘you’re so innocent right now, just have the best dreams you can possibly have and enjoy yourself’  the same way that I want to say that to everybody else. Don’t dwell on the cage while life flies by. Your life is happening right now. If you spend time complaining and bitching, and talking about things that you’re not even trying to change, then you’re wasting it. And wasting your life, when you have all these people around you that have done so much with their lives in the face of so much crap… to me, that’s a terrible thing to do.

In my head, I’m always looking at all the people that have fought against such bad circumstances. And they still try! Whenever I’m feeling depressed or really down, I just get inspired by other people and their willingness to have joy. I saw a revival outside in Jackson, Mississippi, there were literally people riding horses around the perimeter, guarding it. And it was beautiful thing, the singing and praying… And I was just struck by it, and it reminded me of the fact that you can still have joy even when you’re going through really bad things.

You became a mom right around turning 50 and now you’re 58. Looking back, do you think motherhood has informed your viewpoint as a songwriter?

It just sort of informs everything. Because you think about things in a slightly different way. Kids ask all kinds of questions all the time, constantly, and it makes you think about things that maybe you haven’t thought about in a while. So then you’re thinking about how to simplify certain answers to those questions, like, Why do we protest? Why did that bad person shoot all those people? Why do we do this? Why do we do that? The things that kids ask you can be so deep, and you have to stop and consider how to answer their questions in appropriate ways. And then, with a song like, “From This Room,” you know, I started writing that song…  and then I definitely slipped into another place in my head where I was thinking about my child. I was thinking about what I would say to her if I wasn’t around anymore, like, what I would want her to know. I guess, that’s why I say it informs everything, because surely it does, but  I don’t think about it in a deliberate way. It’s definitely in there, though.

Was there a reason you waited to have a child until later in your life?

I’ve always wanted to have a child. So it was really more that it just finally worked out. I had a partner that I’ve now been with for a long time. And she always wanted to have children too. And she’s younger than me by nine years. So, we both wanted it and we had a friend who wanted to be a dad. And we’d known him for a long time as well. And so it just felt like the right time for us to do it. And we tried, you know, it took a couple years for it to happen. I was younger when we started (laughs). I don’t know why I’ve always wanted to have a kid, it’s just one of those where I’ve just always known it… in my soul.

I remember Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac talking about having children later in his life, saying he waited until he felt like it was a fair thing to do, because he had peers in the music industry that had children at the height of their careers… essentially at a time when they were too busy—or maybe even living too recklessly—to raise a child properly, which he felt was selfish and unfair.

I think in our case, part of it was making sure our relationship was in a good place. And for me, it took a long time to get to that place. I’m in a great relationship that’s had a lot of twists and turns, and not been a very typical relationship… then again, none of them are when we really look at them deep, you know?

So, I think that was a lot of it. When we initially talked about it, we weren’t ready yet. We didn’t feel like we were stable. And then came a time when we felt like we’re committed, we’re stable, and we can do this. It just was a certain moment.

I was listening to your album ‘Didn’t It Feel Kinder’ recently and was reminded that there’s always been soul and elements of gospel woven into your music. The first two records had a punkier feel to them, but ‘If It All Goes South’ has a lot of country-gospel textures and some hymn-like moments that make it seem more prominent this time out. It’s coming in louder that it has before. It seems as if you’re using a different musical delivery system for the ideas on this album.

The song “North Star,” is the one that’s really specifically gospel, and part of the reason for that is because I enlisted Phil Cook to help me, and that’s just in his bones—knowing the chord progressions for gospel, and not white gospel, but more like black gospel, which is a different set of chord progressions. He really knows a lot about gospel music, and I just wanted it to have a certain flavor.

I get to a place where I’m just unapologetic about it in some ways. I’m not really sure what makes it present differently on this record. But I totally know what you’re saying.

Well, it almost seems like a way of taking this type of music that’s held sacred and presenting it as a queer white person… firing it back at the naysayers. It seems like activism, in a way.

It’s a language that I understand. I grew up in the church, going to a youth group all the time and spent a lot of time there and sang there a lot. The images of the gospel…  it’s easy for me. Because they’re just  in me, in a way that’s, like, part of my very being. And so when I really let myself just be free and write, those images are going to come out, because it’s part of my vocabulary. And so the fact that I’m using it from the perspective of putting it back out there, I’m also saying that nobody owns your religious experience. You can sing the gospel regardless of whatever color you are, whatever gender, sexuality—it doesn’t matter. That’s the whole point.

And they miss the point, those people that are so strict, and so isolated from the world because of their fear, you know. They really miss the point. And it’s sad to me, too, because it’s like, man, they’re missing out… what I learned about the gospel was really different from what they’re talking about. And so, what I took from what I learned—because I was also taught some really heavy, bad things too that I don’t agree with— what I took away from that is similar, in many ways, to how I feel about the South. It’s like, No, No, No, this is not your place. No. We all live here. You don’t own it, and we all have to work together to make it better. I’m saying it in “Cowboys and Pirates” but it might be kind of hard to catch. At the very end, when I’m saying, ‘I can see that we’re in the weeds,’ what I mean is, after we’ve gotten rid of all the immigrants, and we’ve gotten rid of all the Indians, you know, who is there to help get the work done that we needed to get done? We can’t do it alone. So, now we’re literally in the weeds, you know, because we have such bad policies.

And so I’m saying you cannot have a healthy South, and a prosperous South, without all the people that live here that you’re trying to get rid of. And it’s the same with religion. Churches are closing down, right and left, and you know why? Because they don’t have anything to offer people; because they’re turning people away based on their sexuality and their gender and their color. That’s what I’m trying to say… the whole time, really. We have just as much right to this as anybody else.

And we also have a responsibility to engage in it and make it better. And so, you know, when I’m singing gospel songs, or songs that somehow channel that vibe, I really mean it. I’m not just trying to riff off of something that I heard that I thought was cool sounding.  No, I really mean this. This is for real. So I think it’s in there just because it’s part of my cosmos. You know, as a southerner.

Well, I sincerely doubt anybody thought you were really just… posturing.

(Both laugh).

I will never lose hold of the positive things, and all the teachers that taught me about the true gospel of love in every aspect of my life. One thing I know for sure, fear is what keeps us apart…”

-Amy Ray, in reference to “A Mighty Thing