Most artists, who are part of bands, make a clean break before striking out on their own to explore other musical terrains. They might reunite every now and again for a good reason or a good cause, but that’s about it. It’s rare to find someone working within their band while pursuing solo projects on the side, playing a both/and binary rather than an either/or. But Amy Ray is a rare someone, in numerous ways.
With Indigo Girls, Ray and Emily Saliers planted their flag in the folk world more than 30 years ago, using albums like Swamp Ophelia and Shaming of the Sun to stretch their musical wings beyond those acoustic roots. But Ray needed even more space, as she had punk and country urges that deserved both examination and exultation, and thus began her solo career with 2001’s Stag.
Over the course of six more solo sets, culminating with her new release, Holler, Ray has wandered her way into a sound that fits nicely under the big Americana umbrella. Melding the urgency of punk with the earthiness of country and the vaunt of Southern soul, Holler embraces more aspects of Ray’s influences than any of her past efforts. Because of that, it feels like a more fully formed reflection of her, both as a person and an artist.
Americana radio agrees, making the lead single, “Sure Feels Good Anyhow,” the most-added on the week of its release. And rightfully so. It’s a rollicking, pitch-perfect snapshot of the conflicting emotions felt by a queer Southerner who travels the world, only to long for a homeland still riddled with the familiar tension of good people holding onto misguided mythologies. “I’m gonna tell them boys, ‘Don’t be a drag. Ain’t ya tired of fightin’ ‘bout the damned ol’ flag?’ Well, it ain’t Southern pride. It’s just Southern hate,” she sings, thinking of her neighbors in north Georgia. “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.”
On the next track, “Dadgum Down,” Alison Brown lays down some of the most mesmerizing banjo runs you’ll likely ever hear. She does so against a backdrop of a fuzzy baritone guitar and a funky Fender Rhodes to create a thoroughly captivating cut, replete with harmonies from Lucy Wainwright Roche. “Last Taxi Fare,” the next tune, turns right into a slow-rolling country waltz lifted by strains of gospel courtesy of background vocals by Brandi Carlile and Vince Gill. (Other notable guests sprinkled throughout the album include Derek Trucks, Justin Vernon, Phil Cook, the Wood Brothers, and Freedom Singer Rutha Mae Harris.)
Holler winds its way through ballads and boogies, sing-along stomps and subdued anthems, but it never takes its heart off its sleeve, as evidenced most clearly in the title track and the closer, “Didn’t Know a Damn Thing.” Even as she surveys the world around her with a kinder, clearer eye than most, Ray has also never shied away from turning her gaze inward in an effort to hold herself more accountable than anyone. While she may find faults in her humanity, it’s hard to find any in her Holler. And that is rare, indeed.