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Amy Ray Goes Stag
After selling more than seven million albums with her musical partner Emily Saliers in the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray is finding her first solo album and tour virtually ignored by the mainstream media. Not exactly a surprise given Stag is an unabashed queer-centric record featuring a cover photo of a butch-femme couple dancing slow and close, cheek-to-cheek. But in late April for two sold out nights at Slim's in San Francisco, Amy Ray and her band, the Butchies, were greeted as conquering heroes.
For almost two decades Ray has been an uncloseted lesbian musician unafraid of joining politics and music. In the Indigo Girls, she mixed her tough alto voice with Saliers's refined soprano on poetic and passionate tunes expressing themes of social activism, feminism, and spiritual searching. And framing their messages in a rich blend of folk, rock, country, and blues, Ray and Saliers managed a surprising mainstream crossover without compromising political/personal ideals. Now, at age 37, Amy Ray has taken a few steps back from small scale stardom to launch a rugged post-punk assault on sexism and homophobia.
Recorded for her own Georgia- based indie label, Daemon Records, Stag features a raw, electric sound only hinted at in the music of the Indigo Girls. Supported by North Carolina punk rockers, the Butchies, a few high profile guests such as Kate Schellenback (Luscious Jackson drummer) and Joan Jett, and Daemon labelmates from the Rock-a-Teens and Mrs. Fun, Ray has forged a big, hard-edged noise built on dissonant guitar lines, rumbling bass runs, and bashing rhythms. Throw in the most bluntly stated protests Ray has ever recorded, and you've got one of the most daring and confrontational albums of the year.
Nonetheless, Stag is much more than a statement of white heat rage. Ray is too thoughtful, poetic, and mindful of melody to make a one dimensional record. Accordingly, the album's opening track, “Johnny Rottentail,” finds Ray telling a Southern tale of dysfunctional family relations, sibling resentment, and murder over a driving mandolin rhythm. “Laramie,” the mid-tempo ballad that follows, shifts gears to a full band grunge attack, but an elegant, mournful melody carries the message that the cultural forces that set the stage for the murder of Matthew Shepphard are all around us. Floating atop dreamy and errie guitar tones, quieter tunes such as “Lazyboy” and “Measure Of Me” also buck punk's loud-fast orthodoxy.
Speaking of punk values in an April interview with Girlfriends writer Brooke Shelby Biggs, Ray explained, “Punk is as much an approach or philosophy as a musical style.” That approach includes the rebel singer-writer recording an album on a $10,000 budget, touring with no road manager and modest non-rock star travel accommodations, setting up her own musical gear nightly, and making honest, accessible music reflecting desires to live in a more loving, free, and just world.
In the Indigo Girls, Ray embodied much the same values. But as a solo performer, distanced from the trappings of major label music making, Ray has the space to connect to an aggressive muse never before fully unleashed. Most particularly, she has freed herself to confront the oppressive sexist power of the music industry and the more general, all pervasive constraints of gender identity.
Perhaps the best example of Ray's newfound boldness is the bitterly sarcastic “Lucystoners,” a tune ripping Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner for his magazine's relentless objectification of wo- men, narrow and limited coverage of female artists, and cowardly acquiescence to the anti-gay rhetoric of featured rock and rap stars.
Janny Wenner, Janny Wenner, Rolling Stone's most fearless leader
gave the boys what they deserve, but with the girls he lost his nerve
Testing 1, 2, 3, in the marketplace, it's just a demographic disgrace
and a stupid white boy handshake that we'll never be part of
Elsewhere, on “Hey Castrator,” “Mountains Of Glory,” and “Measure Of Me,” Ray turns introspective, probing confining and painful images of gay/straight/ boy/girl. No easy answers, just provocations to get beyond the normalcy that won't let us be human equally.
In a November 1999 interview with Z, Ray spoke of her need to make a punk album “to get it out of my system.” For the ten songs on Stag, she couldn't have made a wiser decision. While Ray's song- writing retains tunefulness and craft, the infusion of raw riot grrrl energy inflames the album's message and attitude. To insure the translation of this rebel female sensibility from studio to stage, Ray enlisted the Butchies as the backing band for her live tour.
Although not well known on the left coast, the trio of singer/ guitarist Kaia Wilson, bassist Alison Martlew, and drummer extra-odinare Melissa York warmed up a receptive, nearly all woman San Francisco audience with a tight and fierce set of feminist affirming punk. But on this night, the power and versatility of the Butchies was most fully revealed in service of Ray. Kicking in furious tempos and corrosive guitar explosions, the Butchies stripped Ray's sound of all Indigo associations. Freed of her more delicate folkie side, Ray's singing cut loose primal and spontaneous rebellion.
Giving each tune on Stag a rougher and looser treatment than the studio versions, Ray and the Butchies likely jarred Indigo Girls fans favoring the group's musical contrast of soothing and tough. Most of the crowd, however, seemed attuned to the evening's vibe of punkie and compassionate sisterhood. On the chilling chorus of “Laramie” (“Hey coalition, hunting season's over”), wet eyed audience members raised clinched fists while mouthing the words to Ray's urgent call to activism. A more upbeat sing-along followed with “Lucystoners,” the catchy and hard rocking diatribe against the music industry, igniting the rallying lines:
Lucystoners don't need boners
ain't no man could ever own her
with the boys she had the nerve
to give the girls what they deserve.
But perhaps the night's greatest high point came on a surprising cover version of Tom Petty's “Refugee.” Coming from Ray and the Butchies, Petty's classic hit tune transformed into a militant feminist anthem. Snarling the verse “somebody, somewhere must have kicked you around some,” Ray stirred the tensions of the room to boiling point. With the explosive release of the chorus, “everybody's got a right to be free/you don't have to live like a refugee,” she brought the show to a close on a final, delirious note of hope and resistance. Z
Sandy Carter's music column has appeared regularly in Z since 1988.