Amy Ray on how her Southern roots informed the songs on her new album

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in elementary school in Decatur and formed a folk-rock duo called the Indigo Girls as students at Emory University, releasing their debut album, Strange Firein 1987. In the years since, the duo have become icons in the acoustic-music world, and recently performed a concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Ray has also been a prolific solo artist, exploring genres that don’t fit neatly into the Indigo Girls mode, primarily punk rock and country music.

She has released a new album, If It All Goes Southand performs with the Amy Ray Band Saturday night at the Variety Playhouse.

Ray recently spoke to ArtsATL about her latest album, the creative process, her Southern roots and healing through the community.

ArtsATL: What can the audience expect to hear at your show?

Amy Ray: First off, the person playing before us is Kevin Kinney from Drivin N Cryin. He is one of my songwriting mentors, and Drivin N Cryin is one of the bands that gave Emily and I some of our first breaks early on.

And then it’s my full band, which is seven of us. It’s a full-on country band: all the roots instruments and the fiddle and lots of harmony, keys, pedal steel guitar, dobro, mandolin, banjo, bass and upright bass drums. The players in my band are really, really good at what they do, so it’s super fun. It’s a really good time.

Amy Ray
The Indigo Girls (Ray and Emily Saliers) met at a Decatur elementary school. (Photo by Jeremy Cowart)

ArtsATL: What will the set list be like?

Ray: We split it up between all the records, but mostly gear toward the country stuff. We’ll probably play a lot from the new album, and we rotate songs in and out rather than having a choreographed show with a set list.

ArtsATL: Your new album focuses so heavily on issues of justice and equity. Is it different playing this music to a crowd in the South than in other places, given our history?

Ray: It is different. It’s kind of a weird juxtaposition of a style that’s very influenced by my Southern roots with topics that are often very left-of-center. I like to just bring that in and see what happens. Mostly it’s just nice, because sometimes you can reach into communities that want to talk about the things that we have to deal with and tackle in ourselves, the things we wrestle with, but in love and gratitude for everything — to just recognize what our issues are are and work on them. It’s just a different thing when you’re in the South talking about it, because it’s like your family, you know? It’s sensitive, I think, to some people, because for us, it feels confronting. But these are things that we need to confront in order to heal the divides in our region. So, it’s special in that way, you know?

ArtsATL: What are you hoping that the audience will come away with?

Ray: If nothing else, I hope that it’s transformative for people — even just a nudge to examine the ways they grew up or the things they might have been taught or their assumptions.

ArtsATL: Your music, to me, is kind of a gentle questioning, so more than just telling. And I think that approach works better for many people. They don’t put up the walls that they might otherwise.

Ray seeks an emotional center with the songs she writes.

Ray: Yeah. That’s the hope. The nudge is the hope. I also find that when you talk to people and with people and you’re in dialogue in a way, and you’re trying to understand where they’re coming from as well, the change that happens is deeper. It may be smaller and more incremental, but oftentimes it sticks.

Also, when we play, we just really want people to have a sense of joy about life and music. We all just love playing together because we don’t get to do it all the time. We want to transfer that joy to whoever’s listening to feel that same thing, so that they have a moment, you know, to maybe lighten their loads a little bit.

ArtsATL: Several songs on your album talk about the need for healing through the community.

Ray: Just because people disagree, it doesn’t mean you can’t build a community with them. I have really learned that over time, and I try to operate that way. I’ve tried to have the songs reflect that a little bit. I haven’t always been successful at that, but I’m trying to be understanding of all the gray areas that exist and all the fears that we have that hold us back from understanding each other. So that’s the hope, for sure.

ArtsATL: You’ve talked about how writer and activist Anne Lamott has influenced your songwriting. She’s all about imploring people to question their assumptions, but she’s also about the joy and the love and the community.

Ray: Yeah. I’m a huge Anne Lamott fan. She’s influenced my writing process. I firmly believe that her spirituality and approach to life is tied intrinsically to her process of writing. I think that the way she teaches you about the process contains that humility and attains that ability with joy and curiosity, which is very important. It’s like being in relationship to life instead of knocking it over the head or fighting or being so resistant all the time. I definitely have had a lot of issues with things like that in the past, and anger, and just trying to be too didactic, because I couldn’t just be curious enough, you know? So, I think, for me, her books helped me with my process because of just her spirit.

ArtsATL: What happens when you are created?

Ray: Mostly, it starts just stream of consciousness, like playing some music and glancing at my lyric journal and sort of seeing what pops off the page to me, then singing from that point. It’s really a back-and-forth. You know how writing is — you’ve just got to do it. You can’t be passive. The band has been working together for nine years now, and they work from a musical center but also an emotional center. When they play something that’s from their emotional center, it all just starts coming into fruition.

The Amy Ray Band
The Amy Ray Band helps create its sound by using traditional country instruments.

ArtsATL: You collaborate with so many talented people. Tell me about that.

Ray: For me that collaboration stuff is like the most fun thing, right? Because it’s like people are doing good stuff, and I’m a fan of all these people, so for them to offer themselves up is like big for me, you know?

ArtsATL:Tear it Down is a really powerful song. What compelled you to write that one, and how did you decide to collaborate with Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell on it?

Ray: I was brought up with the same prejudice as everyone in the South was brought up with. We had racism flowing in our blood without even knowing it, you know what I mean? So, for me, it’s like this idea of ​​healing racism is so important. I think it’s important to let go of some of these symbols. We cannot heal until we do that.

I wanted to put something out during Black Lives Matter, because it really resonated with me. This was a song I had worked on for a long time. I wanted to see Allison Russell play, because I’m a fan of hers, and I was listening to her sing, and I was like, Oh my God, I have to ask her to do this song for me! Just having her on it has meant a whole lot to me. It’s very powerful for me to sing with her. I feel it in my whole being, because I know her life, and I know what she thinks about and how important it is for us to heal as a country.

ArtsATL: The honesty and conviction in your music, as a whole, is something that is really striking.

Ray: I feel like with some of my solo music and the Indigo Girls, we get kind of more honest as we get older. There’s something about the world in a way you age as a female that makes you get more honest and more outspoken in some ways. I just don’t have any reason not to be. It’s kind of all I know. There’s going to be people who don’t like it and people who don’t relate, and there’s going to be people that really hate it, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m gonna come at you with love, honesty, understanding, compassion and anger, if I need to, like at the world or at the injustice or whatever. And I’m not going to hold anything back in. You may like it, or you may not. But the thing that you can relate to is that everyone’s got their own story, and they need to be honest about it, you know? And so, I’m not saying you need to believe what I need to believe. I’m saying this is what I think about, and I think it’s relatable in some ways. I do what I do. I am what I am.


Shannon Marie is a freelance music journalist and educator.

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