Album Review: Amy Ray, ‘If It All Goes South’
On her tenth solo album, Amy Ray traverses the musical landscape, traveling from funky gospel to Gypsy folk to a hoedown shouter, and beyond.
The opening track, “Joy Train,” is fueled with swampy, funky, chooglin’ guitars, infused by the strains of a B3. Ray rolls through a battered Southern landscape marred by racism, intolerance, and hopelessness. Nevertheless, she testifies to the hope and joy buried in the actions and testimony of those who came before.
At the end of alternating verses, she shouts the refrain of the old spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll,” to gather her community. The tune moves from minor chord lament to major chord acclamation. On the song’s instrumental bridge, Allison Brown’s snaking banjo riffs lead the song heavenward. In the final verse and chorus, Ray—along with backing vocalists Hannah West, Mary Bragg, and Becky Warren—modulates into a gospel-inflected revival of hope.
Ray and her band reimagine the already poignant, beautiful “Chuck Will’s Widow” from her 2018 Holler album. This time, Sara Watkins’s lonesome violin opens the track. Before long, Jeff Fielder’s unspooling Dobro, Sarah Jarosz’s sprightly mandolin, and Daniel Walker’s shimmering accordion weave around one another. I’m With Her—Jarosz, Watkins, and Aoife O’Donovan—sing call-and-response to Ray’s tender vocals, mimicking the cries of the title’s whippoorwill.
Cascading acoustic guitars flow beneath Ray’s remake of Indigo Girls’ “They Won’t Have Me” (originally from 2006’s Despite Our Differences). The song moves from its acoustic opening section to a more strident electric section, following the instrumental bridge of Brown’s rolling banjo.
“From This Room,” may be the best song on the album, with its intimate, lullaby blend of Fielder’s ululating slide guitar and Matt Smith’s ringing pedal steel, which converse beneath Ray’s meditative vocals. The arrangement is both sonically and lyrically reminiscent of Jackson Browne’s early songs.
“A Mighty Thing”—a bluegrass rambler with a gospel kick—takes on the hypocrisy of conventional Christianity. Its lyrics call out the ways religious teachers occasionally pass along messages that hurt and demean in the name of healing and righteousness. The gently rolling “Muscadine,” meanwhile, is a spaciously unfolding ode to love, with Ray using her wild-grape-loving dog as an image of acceptance. (“All he needs is a hand that is kind.”)
All told, If It All Goes South is an electrifying disc. It showcases Ray’s lyrical ingenuity, her acute moral sensibility, her unflagging desire change the world for the good, and her captivating way of expressing both the beauty and ugliness of humanity in a song.
If It All Goes South is available HERE.
Music & Merch
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