Ashley Ray’s Pauline is both autobiography and tribute, a family scrapbook of heartache and hope that fearlessly shares natural tears of joy and sadness. The album marks a return to recording for the 36-year-old Jayhawker who’s spent the last few years as a staff writer in Nashville penning for a variety of artists like Little Big Town, Lori McKenna, and Caroline Spence. But circumstances were not always thus… In fact, for Ray, Music City nearly became a purgatory of bad deals and broken dreams. She went from touring with the likes of Eric Church and Miranda Lambert to waiting tables and very nearly giving up and heading home to the Kansas prairie. Ashley wouldn’t have been the first aspiring performer to pack it in and shut the trunk without a look back. She does, however, get to join the elite few who have put knuckles to asphalt and risen again. Beginning with a single song then another and then another, Ashley Ray has written herself back into the narrative.
AI- It’s been about two weeks since I’ve spoken to anybody in Nashville. How are things lookin’ there currently?
AR- Well, they were spiking quite a bit, and then there was… We made national news! This house in East Nashville had like over a hundred people, a party with no one wearing masks. So that was quite infuriating, but I think yesterday we were down in our daily cases. Hopefully better. Hopefully, everyone’s staying home.
I’ve had a good time listening to your album. At its heart, it’s about family– and obviously about your mother and your grandmother. On the inside of the cover is this great mosaic of photographs. Were you conscious of the family album concept when you were putting it all together?
When we were writing the record, I was just kind of putting memories to music. I was just talking to Sean McConnell, he’s a really great friend of mine and he produced the record and we were just putting memories to music. And then when it came to choosing the artwork and the photos, it was semi-easy ’cause I have, thankfully, people in my family who have documented and been proud to take photos. My grandfather carried around a camcorder that was like 25 pounds back in the day. As far as content and pictures and rolling it out visually, I’ve just been able to be myself and that’s been awesome.
Is that something that you feel you’ve been able to explore better with this album? I went back and kind of dug into your back catalog– an EP, a previous album… Pauline has a much different sound to it. Though I would say that the power has been there throughout your entire recording career. Why so long in between albums?
‘Cause I almost gave up! (Laughs)
Tell me about that. I mean, it is not an easy thing to write and to make music. So tell me about that experience of almost giving up.
I got to the point where I’d lost my publishing deal, I was stuck in a record deal… It was a bad deal. I should have never signed. And you know, a lot of people do that, but I wasn’t getting paid. I was stuck in the contract for I think it was like two more years. And so it was like, “Well, I mean, I don’t really know what to do at this point. I can’t go get another publishing deal and get paid for it.” So I went and waited tables… Again. And honestly, I thought it was the worst thing for me, but it was actually the best thing for my art. I come from people who were blue collar workers. If your lights get shut off, you go to work, you get a job, and you pay your bills. For me, it was a step down, it felt like. But also it was a step up for my art. ‘Cause I could just go back to myself, and I think this album never would have happened if I didn’t fall on my face and get super emotional and vulnerable and want to give up… And get back up.
The album’s genesis began with the song “Rock ‘N’ Roll”. As I understand, you had sent that one to your writin’ partner, Sean McConnell, who you mentioned earlier. Initially, did you have a grander scheme in mind or was it just the song? At that point in time, had you considered a full-length album?
It was just a song at that point, but Sean had put a bug in my ear about a year before that. He said, “Ash, I don’t think that you realize that there is a part of you that people haven’t heard. There’s that part of you that sits around the campfire and makes people cry with these songs.” I worked a lot with a producer, Jay Joyce, who produces Eric Church and just did the last Miranda Lambert album and he’s worked with everybody. I loved our time together, but it was really produced. Sean was like, “That stripped-down part of you? I don’t think a lot of people know that side of you.”
I kept that in the forefront of my brain for about a year and then some shit happened at home. I was going into these meetings all the time… They would say, you know, “We’ll call you! We love this! Ohmygod, I listen to it all the time at home in my car! We just don’t know what to do with it.” And I just got so fed up because I’m here– and these people don’t care about me and they don’t care about my art. Meanwhile, I’m away from my family who have sacrificed and would do anything for me and for my art. It just was a real eyeopening experience. And so starting with the chorus of “Rock ‘N’ Roll”, I was just really pissed off.
I think I was aware that it was out there, but I hadn’t listened to it yet– Christone Ingram’s version of the song. Both versions are tremendous, but each of them have a different pathos to ’em. How did that come about?
His version… I wept when I heard it. It was like writing that all over again. It hurt. It hurt all over again. Personally for me, because obviously that song is my story, but it hurt because I was hurt for him. He lost his mom.
One of my managers and the head of my label, Stephanie [Hudacek], is friends with Christone’s manager. She was playing him my record and she played him “Rock ‘N’ Roll. He said, “Oh yeah, we gotta have that song!” And she was like, “No, no, no, I’m just playing it for you.” And he’s like, “This is insane!” This is Christone’s story too. They both talked about it and we went back and forth and finally came around to inviting him in on the song and to change the things that he needed to change to make it his story. So two stories were birthed out of my story. And if that’s what going through hardship, if that comes out of going through terrible times and wanting to give up? I love that. I love that we can both share that story. He’s incredible. God, he’s so good!
But having that experience, realizing that someone else could understand that story and share that story– did that make you feel more confident in the songs? ‘Cause I read a quote where you said, “Why are we doing this? I’m not going to be able to sing these again.” Did that make you feel better knowing that people actually could have the potential to relate and share these emotions? These feelings?
It does. It’s everything. Honestly, when we went in to write, I was just writing for me and trying to just get it all out on paper. I wasn’t thinking about if it would relate to other people, I really was just making a record. And then when we started first playing it for people– friends and strangers– I just noticed there was this common thread. People would automatically start…They would be like, “I heard ‘Pauline’! Ohmygod, that part, that line? My grandma did this! She went to work and she packed ammunition. She did this and she worked in a factory…” And it just gave people permission, I guess, for lack of a better word to completely remember their stories and their people and talk about it. That’s like the greatest gift as a writer. I can’t think of anything greater than people seeing, wanting to share their stories and listen to yours as well.
You bring up the album’s opening track “Pauline”. It’s always been amazing to me when someone, a family member, passes away and how everybody will begin to assume certain parts of that family member’s life. Whether it’s things– land, houses, cars, things that you do talk about in the song. But it’s the things that we don’t often realize or acknowledge– traits, physical aspects, emotions that we inherit. And rarely do we understand them when somebody else sees them in us. And one of the things that hit me when I was listenin’ to it was how much it was like The Highwaymen, you know, that song about living many different lives. And then of course The Highwomen and their song living many different lives. Is that how it feels for you sometimes? That you’re inhabiting all of this again?
Gosh, wow. I hadn’t even thought about that. I grew up always asking about my grandma. You know, her name’s Pauline and my middle name is Pauline. So I always just asked about her. My grandfather, he never remarried. She was his one true love and he’s 88. We still talk about her every time we’re together. He came up one time and I remember it was Thanksgiving and I was doing dishes after dinner and he said, “Teri, come here!” And my mom came in. They called Pauline ‘Peggy’ for short, and he said, “She’s standing just like Peggy! That’s exactly how Peggy would stand when she’d do the dishes!” And it’s the weirdest way to stand! It almost looks like a…I don’t know! If we were in person, I’d show you. It’s crazy! But to just be able to talk with her… To me, if you keep telling stories of these people that you love, in a way, you keep them here and you keep them alive and with you. I do believe that they are here. They’re just in a different form. But that’s just kinda how it all started.
And speaking of the Highwomen, you did some co-writing with Natalie Hemby on the song “Just A House”. One of the many emotional tracks on the album. I mean that one has to be a real-life, lived-in story.
Oh yeah. That’s the hardest to sing right now ’cause it’s the most current. It’s not necessarily a memory. It’s something that’s happening right now. My mom, when my dad passed away, she stayed at the house and she has land and there’s a lot to keep up with out there. It’s hard for her because she doesn’t have any help except for my sister and my grandfather. And so her not wanting to let go… And I’ve talked to her a million times and I tell her, “Mom, I know it’s not just a house to you. I say that and I write about it because Dad’s here with us and he’ll be happy wherever you go. But I know that this is your dream home that you bought with him. I know that it’s not just a house for you.” So yeah, that’s the one that’s still very hard to sing sometimes.
Are those wind chimes that I hear on that track? Like porch wind chimes?
Yeah, they are! I’m so glad that you asked about those!
That makes it sound more lived in.
My mom has wind chimes on her front porch. The year that they moved into the house, my cousin, Carrie bought her a set of wind chimes for Christmas. They’re always there and I almost forget, you know? ‘Cause I get home as often as I can, but I’m not there every month. So every time I step on the porch, it doesn’t matter if it’s spring, summer, winter, fall, the wind chimes are there and instead of bringing you back to reality, they take me back to all of the years. There’s just this longing in a wind chime, I think, and there’s also foreshadowing in a wind chime. And I asked Sean if he would put wind chimes [in], ’cause the entire time we were writing the song, he and Natalie and I were out on his porch– and I heard my mom’s wind chimes the entire time we were writing it. So when we got done, I asked him and he was like, “Yeah, that’d be cool.” I came home and he ended up sending the track later on that night… And they had wind chimes. It just broke me.
I’m glad you left those in. I think it’s an elegant and a sweet touch to the song. Another song on the album, one that I really appreciated, “St. Patrick’s Day”… I have a 3-year-old daughter, and music is something that, already at this age, we share daily. We have a record collection. She has her own small collection that she listens to. And that feeling that you describe– about the apple not falling far from the tree– is what I feel every single time she asks to hear Chris Knight or anytime she has to hear Iggy pop. And I’ll go ahead and tell you this now that her absolute favorite record this last year and a half has been Caroline Spence, Mint Condition. Which you also have a co-write on!
Your little girl has really good taste! (Laughs)
I think so. But I know that feeling and so that was something that I truly appreciated about the album as well. I feel all those emotions, so I know they’ve got to be swirlin’ in you.
Yeah. “St. Patrick’s Day” is… You know, it’s not a full song. I can’t remember, but it’s two minutes or less. And it was almost like a moment in time. I wanted to write that and not make it a full song. They’re all memories, but it’s a memory of my dad and I. That’s the biggest thing that we share is like you and your daughter– music. It’s so important because, without that and him, I never would be even doing this. I’m glad you really liked that one. I’m so glad you and your daughter have that! That’s so great!
Like you, like so many other musicians and writers, I too spent the majority of my adult life waitin’ tables and bartending and wondering the exact same thing that you do in [the song] “Waiting”. How long does it take to make a dream come true? Do you feel like you have turned a point as a writer and a performer? Do you think you have a clearer idea of where you’re going?
I do. Yeah. That’s the most incredible question. Thank you for reminding me to think about that. (Laughs) Yeah, I do. There’s been quite a bit of things that have happened with this music before the release date, which is August 14th. I played the [Grand Ole] Opry. I got invited to play the Opry from my friends Little Big Town and it was just such a special night. Sean got to join, and I got the sing about my family in the circle and my grandfather got to be there… I’m getting tender thinkin’ about it! But that felt like a break. That felt, to me, better than a record deal. That felt, to me, better than in my dreams. I guess my definition of dreams has changed a little bit, and that has to happen when you spend this long chasing them. Things happen and pivot, and to be able to write songs about my family and such personal songs– and people to want to listen to them and react and ask questions? That’s a dream come true.
At the bottom on the back of the album, there is a line that says, “Turn the music back on.” What’s that in reference to?
(Laughs) You can go to my Instagram, there is a video… “Turn the music back on” is something we still say in my family. It’s a joke. My dad, we would be outside listening to music and he would turn the record player down. He used to have these big speakers and he’d open the windows. I grew up in a farmhouse built in 1905. He’d put the speakers out the window, so we were outside and listening to music. Or the car stereo was on, and we were listening to music. So if he would turn it off, we would always say, “Hey! Turn the music back on!” There’s a video of my little sister– I think I’m six and she’s like one or two– and you can just see us, we’re like two little cheese balls. That came full circle because coming back and making this record that really might’ve never been made if I hadn’t given up? Or if I hadn’t fallen down another time and gotten back up? That’s another way of turning the music back on. This whole record.