ALBUM REVIEW: Amy Ray – ‘Holler’

Better known as one of the two Indigo Girls, Amy Ray also has a thriving solo career. In her recently released ninth solo album Holler, she reveals a fascinating insight into her own roots, both personal and political, backed by a group of superb musicians. The theme throughout is southern. Whether that’s the sound, the subject of her songs or the musicians, Holler is firmly rooted in Ray’s southern homeland. She couldn’t have chosen a more fitting title either, as she doesn’t hold back.

Artists regularly writing and performing with others often view solo projects as little more than a distraction from their main effort. Not Amy Ray. The Indigo Girls have built a deservedly high reputation since their first release in 1987 and still perform live as if they were striving to gain that reputation. However, Ray’s solo career runs in parallel to her work with Emily Saliers. She doesn’t rush but sees her own output as a separate channel. Holler is her ninth solo album that very definitely states exactly where she is right now, in her own life and what’s going on in her country. Her views are clear and made for shouting out, not in a petulant outburst but as a considered cry that exposes many of the iniquities and chasms that split her country.

Whether with Saliers or solo, Ray is a compelling performer. She has managed to convey some of that live spontaneity to Holler by recording it straight to analogue tape. To cement her country roots she admits her inspiration came from Jim Ford’s 1969 classic, Harlan County. Another foundation to Holler was Ray’s intention to bring out a more southern feel. Producer Brian Speiser (Tedeschi Trucks Band) can take some of the credit for that as can Derek Trucks himself. Ray’s band is not just a bunch a session musicians but a close knit group that she has toured with for five years. That’s how long Holler was in its gestation. Even with guests as varied as Vince Gill, Brandi Carlile, the Wood Brothers, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, Phil Cooke and Justin Vernon the feel remains tight reflecting the effort everyone’s put in.

A gentle intro, ‘Gracie’s Dawn’ sets the scene. Sounding like the background music before the lights go down, it fades away as a distinctly southern rock tempo takes over for ‘Sure Looks Good Anyway’. Immediately Ray sets her own liberal views against the more traditional southern identity. Based on experience from her home town of Dahlonega, Georgia, Ray condemns those “fightin’ ’bout the damned ol’ flag”. But being from the south she can still say, “I know from your mamas that you’re better than that, every time I call, well you have my back/ Some time for Muddy Buddies and a tall glass of sweet tea”. It must take guts to finish with “I know that you don’t like me/ But it sure feels good anyway”. Ultimately she believes people can change.

Ray draws on more personal experience in ‘Don’t Know A Damn Thing’. Here she admits as a kid not realising that a popular teenage hangout in an Alabama park, and a monument to the Confederacy, was also used by the KKK. The song is a confessional of this ignorance that explained “I didn’t know nothin’…about the black kids that were missing”.

Taking a broader view of today’s America, ‘Bondsman (Evening in Missouri)’ Ray highlights the abject poverty of those living in the Ozark Mountains. Ray sings with a passion and intensity straight from those peaks. The solo from Derek Trucks is equally lofty.

Ray doesn’t just project her own feelings. In ’Sparrow’s Boogie’, she places herself in the 1940s world of a rural Georgia poet, Byron Herbert Reece. Her depiction of country life is almost at odds with the musical frenzy; a combination of her punk days with some relentless banjo picking from Alison Brown with, for good measure, a blast of horns.

Basic human kindness lies behind ‘Last Taxi Fare’ where distinguished guests, Vince Gill and Brandi Carlile, join in on a song about a man who’d hit hard times.

‘Tonight I’m Paying the Rent’ is a tribute to all those musicians trying to make ends meet. Matching the venues there is a honky-tonk pace but its when the song quietens, when the drunks are being thrown out and it’s time to go, you can feel the sheer precariousness of music as a living. But you wouldn’t swap it for anything would you?

Alison Brown makes a huge contribution as her bluegrass playing runs throughout the record. She opens ’Dadgum Down’ with a menacing banjo line before duelling with Jeff Fielder in a string battle to match the song’s lyric about breaking up. Brown’s banjo drives  ‘Jesus Was a Walking Man’ a wonderfully uplifting gospel tune, culminating in a short sermon from Rutha Mae Harris of The Freedom Singers.

In no way disparaging the talents she surrounds herself with, a pleasure of this album is Amy Ray on her own. The title track is the best example of her expressive voice doing most of the work. But in the end this is record that demonstrates what can be achieved by understanding and collaboration. Amy Ray doesn’t quite shout from the rooftops but she does make herself perfectly clear with her straightforward lyrics from the heart. Putting that together with her diverse group of musicians she has made her best solo record…so far.

Lyndon Bolton