Amy Ray Goes Stag


Carter


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.