Amy Ray is well known for her collaborations with Emily Saliers in the Indigo Girls, the folk/rock duo they formed almost 30 years ago. But ever since the release of her 2001 solo album Stag, Ray has carved out a separate music identity for herself while continuing to perform and tour with Saliers. In contrast to the Indigo Girls’ distinctive sound, Ray’s solo albums have always been more rock and punk influenced. Yet on her new album, Goodnight Tender, the North Georgia–based musician pays homage to Southern roots music in a country-western vein.
Featuring 11 original compositions and one cover song, the album — which will be released on January 28 on Ray’s own label, Daemon Records — is a rich blend of bluegrass, gospel, honky-tonk and ballads. The music is recorded in a style that recalls the purist approach of record producer Owen Bradley ,whose work with Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline and many others came to define the “Nashville sound.”
Although Ray produced Goodnight Tender at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville, North Carolina, the songs have a timeless quality that could have been recorded by George Jones or Loretta Lynn during country music’s golden era. “Hunter’s Prayer” has a smoky barroom ambience, while the title track is served up as a dreamy country waltz. There is an austere beauty in the gospel-influenced “Let the Spirit Take Hold,” and “The Gig That Matters” captures the flavor of a backwoods hoedown. Heartbreak and sadness mingle with joy and hope in songs as diverse as the plaintive love song “Time Zone” or the country rock rave-up “Duane Allman.” The album is clearly a labor of love for Ray and one that is bound to win her new fans.
Equally impressive is the talent Ray has assembled for Goodnight Tender, which includes guest appearances by Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Susan Tedeschi (the Tedeschi Trucks Band), Heather McEntire (Mount Moriah) and former Atlantan Kelly Hogan, who launched a successful solo career after leaving local indie band Rock*A*Teens in 1997.
In the following phone interview with Ray, she discussed the making of Goodnight Tender and her upcoming tour. Ray will be performing songs from the new album at the Variety Playhouse on Sunday, January 26.
Amy Ray: I’ve been wanting to make this record for about 12 years. It’s definitely a natural place for my voice to go — the lower range — being a tenor. I can’t sing like Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton but as far as country music people, I’ve always been able to relate to that range, the phrasing.
ArtsATL: Did you have a certain sound in your head of what you wanted before you went into the studio to record Goodnight Tender?
Ray: Actually, I did this time. Sometimes I don’t know but I pretty much knew for every song which direction I wanted to go in and picked players fitting into that vision that I had. Then I just let them do their thing. I knew Jim Brock [drummer], and I knew his style, and I’ve played with him a lot. I told him the kind of songs I was going for — this one’s gonna be bluegrass or this one’s more gospel or this is sort of a honky-tonk song. We did everything live with a lot of really good players.
ArtsATL: Some of the musicians on the new album you hadn’t played with before. How did you select them?
Ray: The pedal steel player Matt Smith — I got his name from a friend of mine, Alison Brown, who plays banjo. She’s a great bluegrass player. I’d call [her] sometimes for ideas of players because she has impeccable taste and she gave me a list of people. I just went on Google and searched them and watched a bunch of YouTubes of different people playing and he was one that I liked.
Adrian Carter, the fiddle player, I knew. He’s only about 19. He had sat in with us a few times. I know where he goes with his playing and he doubles as a punk rock musician, so I wanted to have that extra little edge in there. Then the other team of people — Phil and Brad Cook and Justin Vernon — friends had suggested them, and Phil and I had jammed together a little bit. It’s like I had two bands, one band that I created and another one that Phil Cook was the leader of.
ArtsATL: What led you to choose Asheville’s Echo Mountain recording studio for the album as opposed to one in Nashville?
Ray: I really like working in North Carolina. A lot of people I play with live up there so it was a good central location. I used players from Durham, Charlotte, Asheville, Atlanta and one guy from Seattle. Echo Mountain for me, in this region of the United States, has the best tape machines and they have a [technician] on duty that’s constantly fine tuning everything. When you’re doing analog recording, you don’t want to sit there and wait for the tape machine to be fixed all the time. That can be a big time sucker. So I went somewhere that I knew was going to be top notch. We did 12 songs in seven days. And the mix took a week so the total would be 14 days. The mixer is Trina Shoemaker. She’s a great engineer and a great mixer. She has a studio down in Fairhope, Alabama, but I’ve worked with her on Indigo Girls. She worked a lot with Daniel Lanois in New Orleans and has worked with a lot of different kinds of music, everything from Sheryl Crow to Queens of the Stone Age.
ArtsATL: Tell me about the song “Duane Allman.” You couldn’t have been more than seven when he died in 1971. When did you become aware of his music?
Ray: When I was in late elementary school, probably around sixth or seventh grade, my sister, who was five years older than me, listened to the Allman Brothers a lot. I got ahold of Eat A Peach and Live at Fillmore East from her LP collection, and just played them over and over. And I didn’t realize when I first started listening that Duane wasn’t there anymore. When I found out, it was like this big moment of “Oh my god, he’s gone. What’s there left to listen to?” I went out and bought every collector’s item, early edition LPs like the Allman Joys and Hour Glass. He’s a metaphor for the god-sized hole in your heart that you can never fill with anything. I think an Allman Brothers fan would definitely relate to that. There’s that sacredness about Duane, that reverence for him.
ArtsATL: On Goodnight Tender you capture so many facets of authentic country and mountain music.
Ray: It all stems from the Carter Family of course, the original country band from the ’30s. I was writing in a lot of different styles that were all tied together by this thread, trying to stay true to an earlier incarnation of it, the way it was recorded and everything. I said, I’m just gonna have fun and do whatever I want and not worry about anything. So that’s what I did.
ArtsATL: Did you listen to country music growing up?
Ray: No. I didn’t really listen to country music until after college, probably in the ’90s. I knew Dolly Parton pretty well — she was kind of a crossover — and Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson. So those people. But going deep into Hank and Lefty and Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard and Porter Wagoner, who I love. I was actually introduced to that music more by punk musicians. When that label Bloodshot Records started, I really got turned on to what they were really tipping their hat to. Honky-tonk and Johnny Cash. All that stuff. There’s a lot to discover still.
ArtsATL: For your upcoming tour, will you be using the same musicians from the Goodnight Tender album?
Ray: For the show at the Variety, it’s Jim Brock on drums, Jake Hopping on stand-up bass, Jeff Fielder will interchange between instruments [dobro, banjo, guitar, piano, baritone guitar, electric bass]. Phil Cook’s going to come play and Adrian’s going to play fiddle. And Heather McEntire is opening the show with Mount Moriah and she’ll be up there singing harmonies with me, so that will be the band. I’m so excited to play with them.
ArtsATL: Currently your website only lists the first three dates of your tour. Where else do you plan to tour and for how long?
Ray: I’m doing little pockets because I have a six-week-old — my partner just had a baby — and the Indigo Girls are still working. I’m trying to figure out how to be a parent — which is amazing, I love it — and try to do this too. So I do three or four shows at a time. Now I’m working on booking a little section of New England and then I’ll book Nashville and that area. I’ll probably go to the Northwest at some point. So just four show runs throughout the whole year.
ArtsATL: Goodnight Tender is being released on your own record label Daemon, which you founded in 1990. Is it difficult to manage both a record label and your music career?
Ray: I’ve just been putting my own stuff out for the past five years on Daemon and the rest is just catalog. So we maintain the catalog and sell the records that we put out. It’s not hard right now but it will be hard if I start taking on new artists, which I want to do at some point. I like to work the record myself. If it’s somebody else, I don’t want to have too much to do and not be able to put my energy into it.