Almost every year one album sneaks up, slaps me in the face, and causes me to reconsider everything I was considering for the top spots on my annual ‘favourite’ roots albums of the year.
2022: It just may be Amy Ray.
Notwithstanding marginal and diminishing mainstream success, with her Indigo Girls partner Emily Saliers Amy Ray has established a legacy of Americana-defining folk-country-rock across decades, tours, and albums complete with an unwavering, acute vision.
This continues with If It All Goes South, a title that could be taken in a pair of directions, each with its own story related to current events and Ray’s career-long penchant for examining and addressing societal challenges. Recorded last winter to analogue tape, If It All Goes South finds Ray and her band continuing to examine the highs and lows of Southern life, experience, and culture.
So significant have been Ray and Saliers’ remarkable advocacy and artistry, the Americana Music Association this week recognized the duo with their Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music recognition.
In mood and execution, If It All Goes South fits comfortably within Ray’s most recent solo offerings Goodnight Tender and Holler. But it is even better than either of those very strong, impacting albums.
The enthusiastically presented “Joy Train” kicks off the album with a deep, swampy groove enlivened by Hammond B3 and Alison Brown’s decidedly non-bluegrass 5-string. Several songs, as Ray’s always will, are replete with Southern allusions and touch on social justice with “Tear It Down” and “North Star” focused on the spectre of slavery.
Featuring Allison Russell, “Tear It Down” is simply beautiful, a jazzy elegy to all things awful about Southern history: “The epitaph I long to read is: ‘Here Lies Slavery.’” In a song that minces no words, the opening line, sung by Ray, resonates: “You say I miss the old ways, but not like that.”
Closing the ten-track album is “North Star,” a soulful, gospel-infused masterpiece featuring vocalists Michelle Prater, Courtney Campbell, and Ashley Cherisse Mackay. Ray’s commitment to social and racial healing is communicated in the final verse:
Everyone before me, those that come after
May we help each other through
To a land that knows no suffering.
A fresh and timely interpretation of an Indigo Girls song from Despite Our Differences, “They Won’t Have Me,” provides a justifiable second life to a song whose message is even more timely today; the song transitions musical worlds, from pensive, acoustic reflection to a rock ‘n’ roll blaster.
The loping “Chuck Will’s Widow” (featuring I’m With Her and the hard truth: “even a sad song is better than no song”), “Subway” (a NYC tour of remembrance featuring Brandi Carlile), and “From This Room” (a true duet with Natalie Hemby) bring additional highlights to an album replete with challenging and—as importantly—enjoyable songs.
Sarah Jarosz is featured vocally and on mandolin within the complex and impacting “A Mighty Thing.” This banjo-infused number covers so much ground, including the fundamentalism many of us had to escape: “taught me how to hate myself,” Ray sings, reminding us of the fallacy of the basic tenet, “don’t hate the sinner, hate the sin.”
The band consists of Ray’s frequent collaborators Jeff Fielder (guitars), Daniel Walker (keyboards), Matt Smith (pedal steel), Adrian Carter (fiddle, guitar), Kerry Brook (bass), Jim Brock (drums), and Brown (banjo).
Tonight, as I listen and write, I wonder when I first heard Amy Ray’s still powerful voice and compelling approach to songs. It was at least thirty years ago when a friend started lending me the earliest Indigo Girl cassettes. I know I was buying my own tapes and discs by the time Swamp Ophelia and Shaming of the Sun arrived, and I haven’t missed many since. In that time, I don’t recall being disappointed by their albums, nor the many solo releases I’ve heard from Ray.
There aren’t many I can say that about across thirty-some years. If It All Goes South: another incredible album of Americana-defining roots music from the focused genius of Amy Ray.