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Sure feels good anyway: A conversation with Amy Ray

Amy Ray will play Asheville May 18. Sandlin Gaither photo Amy Ray will play Asheville May 18. Sandlin Gaither photo

A true mark of an artist is how well they age. 

Not simply by the passing years on the calendar, for that’s a privilege in itself to experience.

But, to age gracefully within your craft, always evolving, peeling back layer after layer, mining the depths of your soul, one filled with a never-ending curiosity — this childlike wonder forever residing at the core of all things beautiful and true. 

Co-founder of the enormously successful Indigo Girls, singer-songwriter Amy Ray has been a fixture in the music industry for the better part of the last 40 years. And whenever the duo, which includes Emily Saliers, isn’t touring or recording, Ray launched and continues to pursue a bountiful solo career, releasing several albums to much critical acclaim.

Aside from the intricate talents of Ray’s voice, musicianship and stage presence, what remains is a single human being searching for deeper truths and meanings in daily life amid endless interactions with others.

Ray’s latest album, “If It All Goes South,” is a culmination of all her influences and interests. The songs run the gamut of genres, where lines are blurred between Americana, indie rock, bluegrass and folk music. It’s a “kitchen sink” kind of thing, something that encompasses the wild and wondrous nature of Ray herself — one of those beautiful and true souls.

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Smoky Mountain News: I was curious about your mindset as you’ve gotten old, where you might start reflecting on “what it all means”.

Amy Ray: Geez, I’ve been doing that since I was 30. (Laughs). I don’t mind aging, but I definitely have an existentialist sort of dilemma all the time of “What does it all mean?” 

I feel like I’m a pretty optimistic person. I’m not cynical. And I still believe in engaging and working hard and all those things. But, I don’t like the idea of mortality. So, heading that way is hard because I love life so much — that’s the bottom line really for me.

SMN: Well, getting older is a privilege, too.

AR: Yeah. No doubt about it.

SMN: Sometimes when a musician’s starting out, they get frustrated about trying to fit some formula. But, there comes a point where a song could be whatever you want it to be, because whatever way you present it, that’s actually your voice. Was there a moment like that for you?

AR: I think I’ve always known that to a certain degree. But, I’ve also come to a place where I really like to have the producer be a strong voice in it. I’m not always successful, but I try to stay open to that.

And that kind of gives me even more options, where I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t even think of that.” So, I try to do that. Then, if that doesn’t work, it can be what you want it to be. It’s kind of having that confidence that makes it so you can take a risk in the studio and have to produce — you’re not holding on so tightly.

SMN: You’ve had a lot of success, but, at the same time, it feels like you’re always peeling back new layers, constantly evolving.

AR: Well, there’s always a lot to learn. I guess I’m a student in some ways. It’s not exciting if I just do what I’ve done before — to me, that’s boring. So, that’s why that happens. 

And it’s purely for my own short attention span. I grew up with Neil Young doing a different kind of record every year. It’s that “catch me if you can” attitude. I’ve always loved that with certain artists. David Bowie did that, too. I’m going to be who I want to be, you know?

SMN: How do you measure success these days?

AR: Just by happiness, really. Feeling like I’m learning something artistically and not stagnating. That’s success. And to Emily [Saliers], too. That’s the thing that kind of keeps us hanging together — we both agree about that.

SMN: You’ve always been a politically and socially active person. And it feels like a lot of the causes you’ve championed over the years are currently under attack. How do you stay optimistic?

AR: I stay optimistic because a lot of people that I see around me are doing a lot of great work in the community. It gives me hope because activists are just blossoming in the face of really hard stuff.

I think people feel shut down and dismantled, because if you’re an activist, pretty much everything you’ve worked for just got blown out of the water. So, that’s hard. And I felt that way for a while. I was like, “Well, there is another thing we worked on for a long time and now that’s changed.” 

But, the thing that gives me hope is that when you see people doing work, on a community level and in small towns, they’re not really letting that stop them from living the way they want to live and creating better circumstances for people, working for the betterment of society. People are still doing that and there’s still great things happening. If the system is not going to be there for us, we’re going to create our own.

SMN: It can be a very daunting thing to think about what one person can do in this world. But, if I can make my own backyard a better place, the hope is that others are doing it in their own place and it all adds up to something.

AR: I agree. That’s the only thing we can do. A long time ago, when Emily and I were working down in Mexico visiting the Zapatistas and Honor The Earth was funding some stuff for them. That was the whole thing that they talked about. They didn’t need everybody to come there and help. They wanted our help financially, but they didn’t need us to give them a map of how to make their place better.

They were like, “You take care of your own backyard and it’s going make the whole world a better place. Go back to where you’re from and make where you’re from a better place and that ultimately serves what we’re trying to do.”

Want to go?

A celebration of live music and fellowship, the 30th anniversary of The Grey Eagle will take place on Saturday, May 18, at The Outpost, located at 521 Amboy Road in Asheville.

Featuring The Budos Band, Amy Ray Band, Electro Lust and The Greenliners, the all-day gathering will also have food and beverage options available onsite.

Doors open at 2 p.m. Music starts at 3 p.m. All ages. Standing room only. Admission is $45 per person, with VIP tickets also available.

For more information and/or to purchase tickets, go to thegreyeagle.com.


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