Goodnight Tender, the alternately rollicking and sweet-hearted new country album by Indigo Girl Amy Ray, taught her a lesson in trust.
Last year, Ray re-encountered a musician named Phil Cook, a Durham multi-instrumentalist she'd met on tour years before. His songs—and, in particular, the way he played them—stunned Ray. She asked him to get a band together and meet her in Asheville in a few months to record four songs. He said OK.
But then Cook never responded to Ray's emails. She kept sending them, and she kept worrying that he'd agreed only to be nice. So she asked a mutual friend why Cook had bailed on her; turns out, he'd been asking the same thing about her. Ray's emails had wandered into Cook's spam folder.
"When he said he wanted to play with me, he wasn't just being drunk or something," she says, laughing. "I was convinced that he was the guy to work on these songs, to teach me something."
Cook did arrive in Asheville, with a group that sported his brother, bassist Bradley, Hiss Golden Messenger drummer Terry Lonergan, Mount Moriah singer Heather McEntire and Bon Iver founder and multi-instrumentalist Justin Vernon. Together, they shape some of Goodnight Tender's most exquisite moments, from the harmony-swept, Band-like "Oyster and Pearl" to the upended spiritual "The Gig That Matters."
Just before leaving North Georgia for a short tour behind the fine Goodnight Tender, Ray spoke about her longstanding local connections and making young fans who become excellent musicians.
INDY Week: This year, you'll alternate between solo tours in small clubs and runs of larger rooms with the Indigo Girls. What motivates you to branch out from the bigger band?
AMY RAY: I love playing different styles of music than what Indigo Girls play. My first solo stuff, in 2001, was with The Butchies, the punk band from Durham. That was a type of music I liked and listened to a lot, but I didn't get to play it with the Indigo Girls. I wanted to start collaborating with other people just for fun, and then it turned into a thing. It's about having the chance to collaborate with other people and to play different types of music—really, to learn more.
I can tour solo in a different way, too—in a van, smaller clubs, loading my own gear. That kept me in "it" more, and it became a real necessity of my life. I can go play Motorco, which is a club I'd go to anyway for fun.
So much of your solo career connects to Durham, from the past with The Butchies to the members of Mount Moriah and Megafaun you're working with now. Why Durham?
I keep coming back. I find the area to be pretty rich with music and ideas, and there's a lot of good activism there, especially around immigrant issues. My oldest sister lived in Mebane. My other sister went to Duke. The Indigo Girls started playing at the Cat's Cradle a long time ago, and we played there all the time. We'd stay at my sister's house, out on an old tobacco farm.
Durham and Chapel Hill became areas I was familiar with, but The Butchies started me meeting other people. I met Heather McEntire because she wrote me and said, "Can I go out and open for you when you're touring with The Butchies again?" We just stayed close, and she hooked me up with Phil Cook. All of the other musicians that play on the record are people I met through others in Asheville. There's something about North Carolina. When you have one community of people, they lead you to other musicians.
Are you surprised to find that these young musicians are such fans of music you made, in some cases, two decades ago with the Indigo Girls?
I was such a huge Justin Vernon fan before I knew he knew who the Indigo Girls even were. Melissa York of The Butchies turned me on to For Emma, Forever Ago, and she said, "You know he's a fan, right?" I said that's impossible—nobody that cool would be a fan of the Indigo Girls. I got to know him, and his musicianship goes way beyond the scope of Bon Iver. That's why he's involved in so many other projects: He just bleeds music.
I didn't actually ask him to come do this record. I had one band ready to do eight songs, and I met Phil Cook at a songwriter's night in Durham. I asked him to produce four songs on this record and to put together whatever group he wanted. Justin wasn't part of that picture, but he emailed me and said, "Can I sit in in the studio?" I didn't have any idea what he was going to do, and then he started playing banjo and mandolin. I'm like, "How did this kid from Wisconsin learn to play like a guy from the South?"
I was so happy, because I'm a geeky fan. That's what it feels like when someone you look up to that much says you influenced them.
You've been saving up songs for Goodnight Tender for a decade. What took so long to make this record?
I have a lot of reverence for country. It's pretty hard to be good at. It needs to seem effortless, but it needs to have so much precision. If you really listen to Hank Williams, it's magical to write a song that's so simple and so profound. I had to get over that. I'm never going to be Hank Williams. I'm never going to be George Jones. But I can be who I am and make a record that's influenced by those people but doesn't have to meet those standards.
How do you balance that reverence with the need to make your own work last?
If you try too hard, either to have that balance or generally, you come off as not genuine. So maybe our infrastructure is what we have reverence about: We record to tape. We do everything live. We don't fix things. You have to play with the band and feel it. You use these microphones that have a certain sound. I set certain parameters to have a creative environment that was very analog and live and spontaneous. Other than that, you need to go in every day and have a good time playing. It's not every day you get to go into a studio for 14 hours with really great players and afford it. It's a luxury. I saved up for this. I put the rest of it on my credit card. And I had to make the best record I could.
How did Phil Cook play into that prospect? What about him made sense for this music?
Melissa York was taking piano lessons from Phil, and she talked about him all the time. I played a songwriters' night with him in Durham, and I couldn't contain myself. He exudes joy, and he has no barriers around race, gender or sexuality. Music is just music for him. Here is a guy who authentically studies the history of black music, the blues, civil rights music. It's in him. I don't know if he has a genetic memory for every person who's ever lived and played music. And he's so happy about it.
He's influenced a lot of musicians that have played with him, and he's influenced a lot of musicians that are pretty successful. But he's always in the trenches, doing this shit because he's the everyman of players. He's a populist, like Woody Guthrie. He's never moved into the limelight, but all of these other amazing people learn from him. It helps them become successful.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Different folk."