A lot of artists defy categorization. Some do so because they are tirelessly searching for the place they fit, while others are constantly chasing trends. Some, though, are genuinely exploring and expressing their myriad influences. Amy Ray belongs in the latter group. Pulling from every direction — Patty Griffin to Patti Smith, Big Star to Bon Iver — Ray’s music might best be described as folk-rock, though even that would be a tough sell, depending on the song.
Ray’s musical beginnings trace back to her high school days in Atlanta, Georgia, when she and Emily Saliers formed the duo that would become the Indigo Girls. Their story started in 1981 with a basement tape called “Tuesday’s Children” and went on to include a deal with Epic Records in 1988, a Grammy in 1990, and nearly 20 albums over more than 30 years.
Rooted in shared passions for harmony and justice, the Indigo Girls have forged a career that combines artistry and activism to push against every boundary and box anyone tries to put them in. As activists, they have supported as many great causes as they can, from LGBTQ+ rights to voter registration, going so far as to co-found an environmental justice organization, Honor the Earth, with Winona LaDuke in 1993. As artists, they have dipped their toes into a similar multitude of waters — folk, rock, country, pop, and more — but the resulting releases are always pure Indigo.
Ray’s six solo sets — and three live albums — have charted even wider seas, from the political punk of 2001’s Stag to the feminist Americana of 2018’s Holler. Each effort seems to lean into her influences in different ways, whether it’s the Allman Brothers or the Carter Family. One album finds the Butchies on full blast, another features Alison Brown on bluegrass banjo.
Both Stag and its follow-up, Prom (2005), found Ray addressing societal woes, ranging from the dangers of homophobia to the machismo of rock & roll, all while channeling her inner Replacements into a Southern punk sound that she has called “subversiveness with a smile.” Ray softened her sonic stance a bit for her next two efforts, 2008’s Didn’t It Feel Kinder and 2012’s Lung of Love, both of which felt closer in tone to her work with Indigo Girls, confronting cultural issues alongside personal ones.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how songs like Lung of Love’s “Bird in the Hand” and “The Rock Is My Foundation” served as signposts of what was to come next for Ray. With Goodnight Tender in 2014, she recorded in Asheville, North Carolina, and stepped squarely into the country music that has been a part of everything she’s done. But it’s not the kind of country heard on the radio; it’s the country music culled from folk, bluegrass, gospel, and Southern rock, going so far as to title a tune after Duane Allman.
For 2018’s Holler, Ray recorded, once again, with her Carolina country kin, adding horns and strings to all but split the musical distance between Kinder and Tender to create a soulful, country-tinged, gospel-infused Americana sound. More cohesively than her prior releases, Holler encompasses and imparts all the disparate aspects of Ray’s influences in a singular offering.
Ray’s vast artistic inspirations are matched only by the deep peer admiration that is reflected in her albums’ guest appearances, which have included Vince Gill, Brandi Carlile, Justin Vernon, Jim James, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Phil Cook, and others. That kind of good will is something only built from a lifetime of good deeds and great music.
While she partnered with Compass Records to issue Holler, Ray’s home base is Daemon Records, the not-for-profit label she founded in 1990 to support grassroots artists, including Kristen Hall, Rose Polenzani, Girlyman, John Trudell, Gerard McHugh, the Rock-A-Teens, and others. With Daemon, as with everything, Ray aimed to give something back to the community from which she has gotten so much.
Solo or duo, with a band or an orchestra, together and apart, both Ray and Saliers pour themselves into every performance, and their audiences still soak up every ounce of that generosity, spilling their own hearts and souls out as they sing along to every song. Theirs isn’t a fanbase; it’s a family.