.Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray Explores Racism and Privilege in New Album

Southern music influences Grammy-winning musician's latest solo effort

Although she’s best known for being a member of the Indigo Girls, the Grammy Award-winning duo she founded with her friend Emily Saliers, Amy Ray has also maintained a solo career. Her latest effort, If It All Goes South, is a collection of songs that explores the complexities of privilege and the realities of racism. She said the album’s ironic title references her own struggles, and those of the people she knows in her home state of Georgia.

“The music I make with my band is influenced by Southern music,” Ray said. “I have so much appreciation for the South and all the great things that are here, as well as the healing that needs to be done. There’s been a huge dialogue going on for a long time, about race, civil rights and gender inequities. Even people that don’t understand BLM are still trying to work it out. They want to understand their own fears.”

She continued, “I live in a community that struggles with race, but we’re not gonna start dealing with it until we start to listen to each other and have a real conversation, without preconceptions, and learn to see the humanity in each other.”

That said, slavery’s legacy still looms large in the South.

“I come from a family that had ancestors that owned humans,” Ray said. “There are a lot of people here that have that legacy, and we know we have a lot to do to make reparations. When Southerners work on civil rights, we know we’re coming from a place that’s gained from other people’s oppression.

“I think the reason the South feels more complicit is ’cause we fought a war to protect that industry,” she added, “but everyone was profiting off other people’s labor. Lots of slave traders lived up North and owned the ships that were involved in all of that. You can be a Northerner and look down on the South, but we’ve all done things that we’re not proud of.”

COVID-19 changed the Southern landscape in more ways than one. 

“During the pandemic, the South became the epicenter of a lot of political conversations and activism,” Ray said. “Some of that was the media focusing on the South, some of it was the reality of this being an area that’s in flux, full of activists trying to make big strides and big changes. It’s inspiring.

“Most of this album was written during the pandemic,” she said. “My wife and I stayed home and sheltered. I’d saved up some money and took out a loan to get by. I was going to protests, wearing my mask and watching what was happening in the world. All that went into the music, too.”

Yet each song on the album involved input from everyone in the band.

“When I’m almost done writing a song, I send it to [producer] Brian [Speiser] and Jeff [lead guitarist and co-producer],” Ray said. “They give me suggestions on what I need to work on. The whole band hears it over email and we do a pre-production version and a rough arrangement. Jeff sends around basic ideas for the solos and the best key, best tempo. In the studio, we practice the songs we’re gonna record, fine-tune them, then play it live on analog tape.”

The band recorded the album last September, with everyone testing daily to maintain safety. “Joy Train” opens the album with a gospel-flavored organ and a bluegrass banjo deepening a stomping country beat. Ray sings simply, backed by a trio of gospel singers, juxtaposing images of the civil rights struggle of the ’60s with hopeful visions of the future.

The arrangement of “A Mighty Thing” blends traditional banjo picking with a propulsive rock beat. Ray belts out a lyric that describes the inner conflict between self-acceptance and religious training.

“North Star,” a tune Ray co-wrote with pianist Phil Cook, suggests the traditional standard “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” A B3 organ and the gospel trio add ornamentations to Ray’s vocals, lifting the song up as she describes people fleeing slavery for a better life in the North. It’s a fitting close to a stirring record.

Ray and her band will play the songs from If It All Goes South at the Fillmore next week. She said she still enjoys playing live, but life on the road gets more complicated as the years roll on.

“Everyone goes through things as you get older,” she said. “Friends, family and your child need you more, and you need them, and that’s hard. The music doesn’t age at all. I would say it’s easier musically, so I try to make sure it’s more challenging. We don’t just do the hits. We play more demanding solos.

“My band is like family,” she added. “They make music joyful and fun, no matter how serious the song is. I treasure the relationships I have playing with them and Emily. We all know life is short and music is sacred, in a way that’s not self-important. I don’t take it for granted.”  

The Amy Ray Band will play with Dar Williams at 8pm next Thursday, Jan. 19, at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary St., San Francisco. More info: concerts.livenation.com.

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