ALBUM REVIEW: Amy Ray Tells an American Story, Unvarnished, on ‘If It All Goes South’
There’s nothing quite like watching people do the thing they’ve spent a lifetime training to do: Winning Wimbledon, dancing lead in Giselle, breaking a 1,000-year-old Viking weightlifting record, cooking dinner in 8 minutes and 37 seconds. Listening to If It All Goes South, the latest solo outing from Indigo Girls co-founder Amy Ray, falls under that umbrella. Ray has been making music since she paired up with her friend Emily Sailers back in the 1980s. That’s a long time to ply a trade, and time, consequently, is the factor that drives If It All Goes South. It’s a record about experience and perspective.
But while the perspective is Ray’s, the experience is collective. In the event that the title isn’t a self-evident clue, If It All Goes South is an American story told in 10 songs. Like so much of Ray’s music, the album inhabits the southern US and see-saws between her love of and contempt for backward thinking red-state stubbornness. How can someone live in a place that fundamentally scorns them, and which they scorn right back? If It All Goes South explains with the casual ease only a master of their craft and a long-standing Southerner can offer.
Ray’s activism is part of her personality, which means it’s part of her art, too. Women’s rights, gay rights, Indigenous people’s rights, gun control, environmental protection: It’s baked into her music. Because these themes are ingrained in Ray on a molecular level, If It All Goes South reads with relaxed confidence instead of, say, pent-up didacticism. The messages are important. How they make it to Ray’s audience is more so. The album isn’t a lecture; it’s a narrative. When Ray sings about the havoc wreaked by climate change on “Cowboys and Pirates” (“All these fields are crawling with fools breaking Mama’s rules / If we don’t clean our shit up soon it’s all gonna go boom”), the song’s honky-tonk spirit still gives us a reason to dance; when she gently duets with Allison Russell about “that ragged cross of race” on the deliberately paced and bluesier “Tear it Down,” they give us a reason to weep.
There is no waste on If It All Goes South. Every track matters; every note has meaning. Ray chooses her sound well from “Joy Train,” the record’s strutting, gracious opener, to “North Star,” a gospel-soaked number encouraging all Americans, and white Americans especially, to do the hard work of pushing the country into a true post-racial state. These bookending songs are statements of purpose and self, even for listeners well-acquainted with Ray’s work, and they give If It All Goes South context to buttress its other eight songs: She’s a veteran folk musician, she’s genderqueer, she’s heartbroken and pissed about the way the world’s heading, and yet she has a heart full of hope that through unity we can steer things in a better direction.
Amy Ray’s If It All Goes South is out Sept. 16 on Daemon Records.