Never one to rest, Amy Ray is preparing to hit the road in support of her latest album, Holler. The singer-songwriter and Indigo Girl is once again in troubadour mode, channeling the roots rock that’s nearly always existed in her work while not bothering to knock the trail dust off her boots from her previous effort, 2014’s excellent Goodnight Tender. Like its predecessor, Holler can be labeled a “country music” album– but that’s almost a disservice. There’s no flag-waving, no litany of branding that proclaims country-ness (as it seems that most identified country songs today apparently require the repetition of certain tropes to prove their singer’s authenticity), and no blind, blanket affirmations. Instead, Amy Ray and her band have enlisted a who’s who of unbelievable talent from multiple genres to create a fully realized story that has a bit of a Georgia twang to it. But why wouldn’t it?
You got your new record, Holler. It’s absolutely packed with guest stars and special appearances. How did you get any actual work done with all those folks around? Brandi Carlile, Derek Trucks, the Wood Brothers… Seems like you’d just been hanging out– or did you just turn the tape on and just let it go the way it did?
Well, with the guests like those guys! I recorded the record with the band, and the core band was my folks that I’ve toured with for a long time, along with Kofi Burbridge and Alison Brown on banjo, and then to get Brandi and the Wood Brothers and Derek… Actually, they had to do it remotely in their own place and so I wasn’t hanging with them. They’re all pretty busy. I’d call Brandi up and say, “I want to do this, I want to get this vocal track. Can you do it?” And she’s like, “I’ve got a studio I can go to and do that.” And then with Derek, they were working down in his studio in Florida, and so he did it down there, and Vince [Gill] did it in his own city, and the Wood Brothers did the same thing. All the guest vocals are like that. Now, all the music and the horns and the strings and Alison Brown playing banjo and Kofi on keys and then my core band, which is Jeff Fielder on guitar, Adrian Carter on fiddle, Matt Smith on pedal steel, Jim Brock on drums and Kerry Brooks on bass, those guys, we all met together in Asheville, North Carolina at Echo Mountain Studio, and we recorded straight to tape. And just did it in like eight days and then got everything else collected after that.
One of the things I liked about the record is that analog recording. Nothing sounds like it. I mean, digital is great for preservation and all, but analog just sounds so hot and nice. I never would have considered an Amy Ray, Vince Gill collaboration.Is that him singing on “Last Taxi Fare”?
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s him!
How did that all come together?
Well, it was a fantasy of mine (laughs)! I love Vince Gill so much, and I love his voice. He’s classic. He’s just got the greatest voice! I wrote that song and then really wanted Brandi on it and I was like, “It would be amazing if I could get Vince Gill to sing with Brandi and with me on that song!” So I was just kinda talking about it with my friend Alison Brown, who plays banjo on the record, and she’s like, “Oh, I’m friends with him. You want me to ask him?” And I was like, “Yes! Of course, I do!” He’s a gentleman and such a sweet guy. I asked him, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it!” And it was a dream come true for me– for that song, just to have them on there. Because when I was writing, when I was finishing it, I was thinking about his voice and Brandi’s voice– and it just happened to come true! It was really good.
I think that’s the third time you’ve mentioned Alison Brown. I have so many notes about her– and that banjo, which is not natural! It’s absolutely amazing, what she does! Is it as much fun to watch her do it as it is to listen?
Yeah, it actually is. I mean, she’s like a quiet storm. When she plays, she’s very precise and laid back at the same time. She’s super focused, and her fingers are doing things you shouldn’t be able to do really (laughs)! It’s hard to even take apart how she does it. But to watch her do it, you can kind of get a glimpse into the miracle of it. It’s like Bela Fleck and all the great bluegrass players. It’s almost like jazz, you know? She was great to be in the studio with. She recorded a lot of stuff live with us, and it was super inspiring to have her come up with these wild parts that were like, “Where did that come from? Where’s that inspiration coming from?” I was really, really happy to be with her in the studio. She’s amazing.
You’ve been kind of immersing yourself in a more bluegrass, Appalachian, honky tonk style for the last couple of years. What started you down that path? Or was it just kinda like a natural progression? Like an “as we get older, our accents get thicker” kind of deal?
(Laughs) No doubt about it! Well, a couple things. When I started making solo records in 2001, I was making more punk rock records. This was with my friends that played punk, and that was kind of what I did on the side, you know? I moved up to North Georgia about 25 years ago, and I guess that kind of seeped into my blood because I live in a town called Dahlonega that’s got a lot of bluegrass and mountain players and traditional music around. They’re always playing on the Dahlonega Square. The gospel tent kinda goes during the festivals, and I went to camp up there when I was a kid, so it’s always kind of been part of my cosmos in a way. There’s a real strong tie, I think, between traditional country and punk rock and the Carter family and mountain music. That’s really simple in some ways but really complex in another way. It has kind of a populist sort of idea about it. Music for the people and all that. So I think it was. For me, it was a natural progression. Yeah. I think you get older and sometimes country music just… It’s fun to listen to and fun to play and I think it’s multigenerational in a way that some other music isn’t. In my band, I have a guy who’s only like 24 and then I think my drummer’s in his late sixties. We just run the gamut of ages and we have all that influence in different eras and stuff too. I just like the vibe of it. And I am a country music fan! I’ve always been. That’s a real craft, I think. A country song takes a certain amount of craft. It’s very hard to achieve. I worked for a long time, kind of under the radar, trying to figure out how to write what I heard in my head.
One of the things I’ve always admired about you, and I know I’m not alone, whether you were with Emily in the Indigo Girls or running your own band, you’ve always come across as an artist and a songwriter, that knows who you are and what you want to say. Whether that was punk music or now with a, I would say, Americana-country style or sound to it. You’ve always just seemed like, “I know what I’m doing.”
Well, I don’t know if I know what I’m doing, (laughs) but I know what I want to do. I’m always a student in some ways, trying to learn and be curious about how people play and how they write. When I wanted to become a better writer, I read a bunch of books about writing. One of them, Stephen King’s On Writing, was one of the best books I ever read about writing– which is weird because it’s coming from left field in a way. But it taught me about sitting down and writing. Then I would talk to Steve Earle about his process or sit down with different friends I have that are just songwriters in Nashville– Mary Gauthier, Kristen Hall, who wrote for Sugarland– and just talked to them about their process and learned from it. I’ve always just been compelled, and Emily too, to get better at what we do, not ever stop learning. Because I’m just not where I want to be yet, you know? And I feel like I probably never will be. But that’s the whole thing! That’s the journey of it, right?
So that’s what keeps you evolving? You haven’t reached that end yet. Constantly looking…
And I hear new people and discover music, even if it’s old music, that I hadn’t heard before. For instance, on this record, there’s a song called “Fine with the Dark”. I wrote that because I was trying to learn how to fingerpick in this way that Elizabeth Cotton kind of invented. She’s an African American woman who was in the middle of the century, [born in the] the 1900s, and then died when she was pretty old but wrote a lot of really cool songs. There’s a video of her playing that musicologists collected so you can watch her fingers. I saw this video of Colter Wall doing some tunes up in Canada and he was doing a similar thing, and I was like, “I got to learn how to do that!” It’s really hard to do it. You got to spend a lot of years to really get it. I mean, for him, it’s just part of him. He probably came out of the womb playin’ like that (laughs)! I’m a music fan, I think. is most of what it is. And I like to listen to new music and old music and figure out how it’s put together.
Well, I think when you play music, a lot of times you seem to tune out what’s going on around you. I never noticed that about you because you always seem to have someone that you’re mentoring or somebody that’s coming up and asking you, “What do I do next, and how I do this?” I’ve spoken to countless Georgia musicians, and your name always comes up as someone who’s always there ready to lend a helping hand.
Well, we’ve been mentored too, you know? By Georgia musicians, you know? Coming up on the Atlanta scene and playing in Athens a lot, we had all these bands that were just a little bit older than us that would give us slots opening for them– like Drivin N Cryin or Caroline Aiken– and we would get opportunities to play during their breaks, or they would tell us about gigs. So for us, it’s just doing it the other way, you know? It’s a community. You build community. That’s what you do because it makes it richer for everybody.
How’s being a mother challenged your songwriting? Or has it?
Well, you know, it’s like a time management issue mostly! (Laughs) I love being a mom so much, and so I have to compartmentalize and find my little times– and it’s shorter lengths of time to write when I’m at home. But when I’m on the road touring, I do a lot of my writing then because my kid is not with me. I try to spend all my time working when I’m not playing shows at night and doing work during the day so that when I get home, I’m just being Mom. My kid is pretty curious about music, so we go into my little studio together and play. I’ll write songs with her. There’s a song on this record called “Oh City Man” that I wrote while I was sitting there with her jamming on something. She liked the way it was going and told me that I should finish it. (Laughs) So I did! My kid’s kind of rocker! We got in the car the other day and she asked me to play “Back In Black” by ACDC for her. I was like, “Where is this coming from?” But I think it’s because her cousin– he’s seven and he’s learning all these hotshot guitar parts– he’s playing like Guns n’ Roses and ACDC and stuff. And I was like, “Let me play you some Joan Jett too!”