Amy Ray Embraces Country and Draws From Her Punk-ish Past for Her New Solo Album

click to enlarge Amy Ray Embraces Country and Draws From Her Punk-ish Past for Her New Solo Album
Carrie Schrader
For more than 30 years, the Indigo Girls have been examining differences. “What separates me from you,” asks singer-guitarist Amy Ray in “Tried to Be True,” a track from the group’s 1989 self-titled major label debut. The pair have been longtime advocates, using their songwriting as a platform to explore a variety of topics and shine a light on different perspectives and important commentary.

Holler, the recently released solo album from Ray, finds the veteran artist continuing to dissect the world around her. “Sure Feels Good Anyway,” which leads off the record, grapples with the divide that sometimes exists right outside of the front door for Ray in her hometown of Dahlonega, GA.

“I have a certain sympathy with the people who are good people, but they still have a Confederate flag on their house. …My neighbors may have been racist and homophobic at one time, but I believe that people can change,” Ray says via phone. She performs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron. “I also appreciate the fact that when I’m stuck in my driveway and don’t have enough horsepower to clear all the trees that have come down in an ice storm, those people come and help me.”

She says one lesson she’s learned is that you truly can’t judge a book by its cover.

“[I’ve learned to] not have everything based on politics and all of that,” she says. “Even though it’s hard not to personalize that, because when the battles become about things like whether you’re gay or not or what your race is or what your socioeconomic level is, you feel like you do personalize it, because they’re basing it on that. But those kind of family value politics — that’s just this thing that we’re all fooled by it. I know that a lot of these people are good people, and I know that when it comes down to it, one on one, they may vote in ways that are against me, but they can’t be mean to me one on one. Like, when I’m playing a benefit at their church for homeless people, they’re not going to be mean to me. [Laughs] And maybe one day, they’re going to even embrace it.”

Ray continues to take advantage of her platform to hopefully do some good, recognizing the many challenges that still exist.

“It would be harder if I was Hispanic or black or even Asian in my community, it would be a lot harder,” she says. “Racism is sort of the last thing to fall, so that’s the thing that I’m most dedicated to work on is, really issues around race because I feel like that’s the last thing standing that we’re going to have to [change]. I think we can get to a place with queer issues where we are in a more tolerant arena, and I think even with some feminist issues, but I think when it comes to race, that’s the hardest thing.”

Though there are areas topically on Holler that are serious in tone in terms of the subject matter, on the whole, the album itself captures the joy that Ray experienced working on the songs with her band, with which she spent the past four years touring after the release of Goodnight Tender, her 2014 solo album which found her dipping a foot into the waters of country and Americana. Holler continues that excursion, while also wrapping in some of her previous punk-ish solo roots. Ray and the members of her solo band spent 10 days tracking the material for the album in Asheville, NC, playing live, straight to tape.

The fact that the resulting album has the sound of a band playing like they might have been at a gig just running through the songs is no accident — Ray and the band had the opportunity to road test a number of the songs in front of select audiences prior to recording them, which she says offered up valuable perspective.

“It helps me tweak the song. I can tell if something doesn’t work. It’s not all just reaction; it’s just that there’s something about when you stand in front of people to play something, you hear it differently,” she explains. “There might be things that I thought might be not right, but it verifies it to play it in front of people. So I can go back to the drawing board and be like, ‘This doesn’t work, or this chorus is too long, or the song’s too long, or I need to cut this, or the arrangement’s wrong, and we need to have the drums enter here instead of there.’ Things like that. There’s a lot of information just out of one time doing that that you can get. I mean, a lot. So for me, I always try to do something like that.”

“Tonight, I’m Paying the Rent” documents the spirit of being a working musician, just out playing that regular gig, with harmonies from the Wood Brothers adding to the loose good time feel of the song. “They can make a party out of anything,” Ray laughs. Meanwhile, “Last Taxi Fare” has a gloriously old-school late-night country vibe to it and came out of a real experience that she had in Sheboygan, WI.

“I was at this bowling alley, and I was just over it, and everybody was drunk, and I was just having trouble with drinkers in my life generally. It’s kind of an Al-Anon song,” she chuckles. “I needed to leave, and I couldn’t find a cab. I found one, and then the guy was like, ‘Can I go pick somebody else up?’ It literally was a drunk person to sit in the back seat with me for 20 minutes, and he tried to talk to me the whole time.”

Ray points to the end of the song, which captures the message that she got from the experience.

“It was just a vision of me, when I was sitting there — it was what I was I thinking about to get myself…..I was just like, ‘You know, this is meant to be and I’m supposed to learn something from this,” she says now. “What if this guy was the [driver’s] father or something? And he’s just helping him out. I tried to go through those scenarios. I ended up writing a song where that was the story because it helped me get over it and be a better human being that night and not be a jerk, basically. [Laughs] Because I felt like everything that happens, that kind of stuff, where you’re put in these compromising situations, you know that’s where you really learn your life skills and how to be a better person.”

A variety of special guests who lent their vocal talents on the album, including Vince Gill and Brandi Carlile, who helped Ray form a dream “vocal trio” for “Last Taxi Fare.” The songs on Holler were further elevated with some additional instrumentation.

“We brought in a horn section and a string section from Asheville and had arrangements that were worked on by a couple of members of the band who did arrangements for the record. That was fun too, because we had the songs down, so we could just sit there and listen to what the horns and strings were playing,” she says. “It was a little treat, like, what are they going to do? How’s it going to sound and how’s it going to feel on the song? It was a good surprise for us to hear that kind of thing, because we haven’t worked with that before, so it made it fun for everybody and everybody wanted to be there. You know, people were done with their gigs, but they didn’t want to go home. They just wanted to hear what was happening!”

The Holler tour will find Ray and her band playing the entire album through the course of the set. They’ll also play other material. Listening to the songs on the record, it’s not hard to hear that they’re easily road-ready.

“This one we can do, which is good. I always like that when that happens. Sometimes, with Indigo Girls, I mean, we can play them all live, but if we record with a band on the record, we don’t feel as strong about doing it solo because it doesn’t work as well,” she says. “But I just have the band all of the time with me when I do solo stuff, so it works that way.”

She wears a lot of hats with her solo touring and says that she wouldn’t have it any other way. “We tour in a van; we don’t have any crew; it’s just us. I’m sort of the tour manager, den mother person,” Ray laughs. “I drive a lot of the time, and they share the driving with me too. We’re just a tight operation. I book all of the hotels and do all of the advancing and then we go and do it all and that’s just it. It’s easy. Everybody else is playing in different bands and has other jobs, so we just figure out a time when we can all go, and we do it.”

Ray terms the whole experience as being something that’s so much fun, even though she says that carrying a full band on her solo tours makes the dates ones that are not “economically viable.” But she also sees a positive evolution happening with the commitment that she’s made.

“I sort of decided that was less important to me, obviously, than just going out and representing the record the way I want to represent it. I don’t want to go out and play a bunch of stuff solo by myself, just so I don’t lose money or something,” she says. “I don’t want to do that. I made a conscious choice, to have this be my labor of love. If it one day gets to a place, which it almost is at, where I can break even on tours, I’ll be really happy and everybody will be well-paid and I’ll be able to feel like I can get to the next level then, which is to actually pay some bills from touring, but it’s the least important part of it to me.”

Amy Ray and Her Band, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, E.J. Thomas Hall, 198 Hill St., Akron, 330-972-7596. Tickets: $33,