[23 January 2014]
Rock ‘n’ roll arrives with a time-stamp; listen to any rocker recorded after 1954 and you can probably name that decade, if not the exact year. But country – real country, not pop music gussied up with a steel guitar and a nasal twang – is timeless, and that’s rather the point. Once you feel how lonesome Hank is, once you know George stopped loving her today, once you’ve heard Patty fall to pieces, you know it makes no damn sense updating a sound that’s already perfect. Country doesn’t care what chords you know or how many octaves you can squeak out; all it wants from you is a guitar, a strong, down-but-not-out voice, and absolute sincerity.
Amy Ray gets this to her core, which is why Goodnight Tender is such a satisfying album. She’s dabbled in southern music before, of course, from her Appalachian-tinged work with the Indigo Girls (“Ozilline”, “Chickenman”, “This Train Revised”) to some down-home country punk/folk not all that far removed from the Violent Femmes (Stag’s “Johnny Rottentail”, Didn’t it Feel Kinder’s “Rabbit Foot”). But the music on Goodnight Tender is dense and sure-footed, boldly occupying space in a way her previous rootsy offerings could never quite muster. Maybe that’s because there’s no fusion here; the only reference to anything remotely modern is Ray’s cheeky desire to “Skip to my Lou to the dubstep sound” in “Oyster and Pearl”. To borrow a phrase, this is pure country, the kind of smooth, mournful racket folks make on their porch with a few guitars, a banjo and a pedal steel, maybe even a snare drum and a fiddle or two.
And what drives it all is Ray’s wonderful voice. It’s deeper than ever – she’s effortless on some low notes that would give Trace Adkins trouble – but it’s also smooth and mature, with just the tiniest trace of that whiskey-nightcap rasp. She sounds as wise as she does vulnerable, and the few times she abandons her contralto for a high note (“My Dog”), the effect is both jarring and reassuring. She communicates like a true storyteller, easily gliding through her melodies with no trace of pretense. She’s got a natural Georgia drawl, of course, but even that is kept relatively in check. There are no ornaments on these songs, no frills, and none are needed.
Still, sometimes it feels like Ray is working hard, maybe too hard, to convince us she’s the real deal. She seems to kick off every song with some dusty artifact of country livin’, from a deer in the crosshairs (“Hunter’s Prayer”) to rain in a river bed (“Oyster and Pearl”) to the Montana sky in the dead of winter (“Broken Record”) to “whiskey swamps and vagabond clans” (“Duane Allman”). But she manages to develop each one into a genuine portrait – they’re only clichés because they’re rooted in truth, she seems to say, before gently breaking our hearts.
Speaking of heartbreak, it’s all over Goodnight Tender. There’s a lot of sadness here, and even more loneliness, but the tone is never depressing – Ray’s wisdom and compassion, not to mention her infectious joy at creating such a pure, unadorned sound, keep the music exhilarating, even at its most downbeat. On the bouncy ballad “Time Zone”, she cuts right to the bone with tough-minded romantic realism: “I’m in your time zone / But I’m calling to let you down / ‘Cause it don’t mean what I thought it would”. “More Pills” aches with melancholy and yearning for a relationship she isn’t strong enough to maintain. “Duane Allman” deals with a different kind of loss as our heroine tries to let go of her musical hero (“We learn to dig deep / Wipe our hands / And walk away from the grave”). Appropriately, “Duane Allman” comes closer to country-rock than anything else in this set; you’d have to be the citiest of city slickers to keep from nodding your head to this one, first to the beat, then to the sentiment.
She’s also unafraid to show her spiritual side, which won’t surprise any fan of “The Rock is My Foundation” from 2012’s Lung of Love. The Lord gets several shout-outs in “Anyway”, a folksy reflection on mortality inspired by Ray’s witnessing the death of a snake at the hands (mouth) of her dog. “The Gig that Matters” is overflowing with Country Christian chestnuts, from callouts to St. Peter to drinking “from the cup of the righteous / While the Devil’s song played in my head”, but she gives the revival a nifty twist in the final lines (she’s still a punk, after all). But “Let the Spirit Take a Hold” is intimate and direct as Ray urges the listener to succumb to mystery and faith, even though “what you call it matters none”. Compare this approach to that of “Strange Fire”, the title track from the Indigo Girls’ earliest recording; the two have similar messages, but while “Strange Fire” burns with verbose defiance and raw emotion, “Let the Spirit” is calm, welcoming, and inclusive – and just as impelling.
Two additional songs are standouts for very different reasons. “Goodnight Tender” is, at first, clunky and heavy-handed as it attempts to combine a Willie Nelson-style character study with the singalong lullaby of a Roy Rogers waltz. But even as the clichés get wonky (“The coyotes are yippie yi yaying / They sing a lonesome tune”), Ray finds simple and honest humanity in her subjects, and her delivery, warm and almost sleepy, transforms the song from a potentially hokey tribute into a transcendent display of empathy.
And empathy is all over “The Hunter’s Prayer”, the remarkable opener. Ray takes a page from Steve Earle and takes on the persona of the titular hunter as he prays, dimly understanding that his own lack of self-worth is what’s driving him to kill. You might expect the PETA-supporter’s role-play to be filled with critique, as it is in Prom’s “Let it Ring”, but Ray sees too deeply to mock her subject. She feels his plight and conveys his pain, and the result is instantly compelling. She’s not entirely without judgment, but neither is the hunter, and what he ultimately prays for – “Give me a love that don’t fade / Oh, let me walk in decency” – is something we all crave and, Ray implies, deserve. Even at its most plaintive, this level of grace and acceptance is the heart of Goodnight Tender.
And through it all there’s Ray, crooning deeply into our ears, never making us work hard to feel her southern heartbeat. She even hands the coda to her protégé Heather McEntire, an act of kindness that feels right and true, especially since McEntire’s “When You Come for Me” is a fine slice of country gospel in its own right. It bears repeating: this ain’t no crossover record. It’s country through and through, the kind of shamelessly rustic music that accompanies lonely drives and summer dusk. Goodnight Tender takes that drive with us; it’s a set of dusty, brutally and beautifully honest tunes that break your heart before healing it again.