You could be forgiven for assuming that Amy Ray must have already made a country-folk album somewhere along the way. As one-half of the Indigo Girls, she’s trafficked in heartfelt sentiments and honeyed harmonies perched above strenuously strummed or delicately fingerpicked acoustic guitar for the past quarter-century.
But as a general rule, folk-rock with ‘90s alternative undertones has been about as rootsy as she and her singing and songwriting partner Emily Saliers have gotten. Ray has made several solo albums, as well, but on those, her DIY punk attack has camouflaged the touches of twang.
And that brings us to Goodnight Tender, the scrappy, storytelling, string band album that Ray recorded in Asheville, N.C., with a cast of musicians she sought out for their knowledge of tradition and their openness to tweaking it.
CMT Edge: Since you’ve been including downhome numbers like “Johnny Rottentail” and “The Rock Is My Foundation” on your punk-leaning solo albums all along, why do you think it took until now for you to go all in and record an album like this?
Ray: I’ve been writing songs for a while in that vein, like, slower songs that I hadn’t put on a record. I felt like I needed to save them up, to get to the place where I had enough of ‘em. And I think I needed to meet some of the right players to feel ready to do it. Country music, I have so much reverence for it that it’s kind of intimidating to make a record that you’re gonna say, “It’s country.”
The essay you wrote to go along with the album explains how you eventually got into music that you didn’t appreciate growing up — in other words, the roots of your roots music.
Some of it’s not even a matter of appreciation but just exposure. When I was real young, I just wasn’t exposed. … Once I started really being exposed to it, I was like, “Oh, my god!”
You must’ve gotten at least a little exposure to television. I read that your grandmother wrote a letter trying to get you a spot on Hee Haw. Was that your idea or hers?
It was definitely her idea to write the letter. … We used to watch it together, and I think that she just felt like I needed to be on it. (laughs)
A number of the singers and players who contributed to this album have, like you, moved between punk and country. What did that common ground do for your collaboration?
I wanted to start with people that I knew could play in a real traditional country vein. So I started with the drummer Jim Brock, who’d played on a lot of country records, as kind of an anchor, and then Jeff Fielder, who had played with different country songwriters out in Seattle and has really a good command of the Telecaster and the Dobro and banjo. I wanted a pedal steel player that was more traditional, too.
If I had those people, I could round it out with other people who had walked that line between different styles of music. I mean, Brad and Phil [Cook] had been in Megafaun, but they also can play a lot of really good roots music. They studied that stuff and played it their whole lives. So it wasn’t a stretch for them. Heather [McEntire of Mount Moriah], even though I met her in a punk band, she’s a country singer. [Kelly] Hogan is, too, really. And Justin Vernon, I know people know him from Bon Iver, but it’s crazy how good he is at country music. I mean, for a boy from Wisconsin, that’s pretty cool.
Between your Indigo Girls and solo catalogs, you’ve made close to two dozen albums. What was the biggest departure for you in this recording experience?
Probably vocals. On a lot of songs, like “Goodnight Tender,” it’s very soft. You don’t want to have an edge on it. And I might do that when I sing harmony with Emily, in order to create a blend, but I don’t do that when I sing by myself. So that was a departure — and a challenge — to sing in that way but also keep my pitch. Everything we recorded was live, so there was a lot of practice and stuff that went into it.
Do you have any country vocal influences? I don’t usually hear women singing country in such a low, visceral range. It’s striking.
I love Dolly Parton’s voice and I love Loretta Lynn’s voice and I love Tammy Wynette’s voice, and Kitty Wells. … But I could never sing like them. They’re so far out of my range, you know?
If I’m listening to singers that are in my range, it’d be Merle Haggard and George Jones.
I’m not trying to emulate them because I could never sing like that. But someone like Hank Williams, I could sing along with that, and it’s in the same range as me and the voice makes sense to me. I think a lot of my singing is just naturally gonna be more masculine because of my range. I’m a tenor, you know?
There’s something subversive about the way your singing crosses the lines of gendered country vocal expression. On the other hand, you took a less explicitly political approach to songwriting on this album than you typically do in your solo work. What do you think all those elements add up to?
I guess I didn’t want to make, like, the country Stag [her deliberately provocative solo debut]. I wanted to write storytelling songs and songs about love that weren’t identifiable queer or straight or anything. You could sort of put yourself in there, and they were universal things — like dogs, that we all love, and religion, that we can relate to even if we’re not a person of faith.
I didn’t have that many intentions, but that was definitely one of them, because I just figure it’s not like I’m shying away from who I am as a queer, masculine woman. You’re gonna hear it in my delivery, in my persona, in my clothing, in the way I walk, in the things that I relate to. There’s no avoiding it.