Amy Ray has said that her role as one-half of The Indigo Girls is to bring a sense of "punk credibility" to their soulful brand of folk music. On Ray's first two solo records, she explored that in earnest. But with the encroachment of age brings introspection. And beginning with 2008's "Didn't It Feel Kinder" a more melodic approach to songwriting began, now culminating with this Southern-flavored release.
This isn't just a country album - it's full-out country and western. Slow dances in Kitty Wells 2/4 time find their way into the set, as does the occasional Tennessee waltz. Inspired by the countryside of her north Georgia home, Ray gives ample lyrical space to all things heartland, such as her dogs. But though it may be old-styled, it's not old-fashioned or silly. Personal stakes are high in these songs. "Half my life is gone for sure / the other half - God willing - occurs" she sings in the wonderful walk in the woods of "Anyhow." Ray, like Johnny Cash and others before, measures the length of her life's experience in the final bends. She wants to see what her scale reads for entry into the hereafter. As Ray puts it, she's "practicing for the gig that matters" set in the mandolin-soaked tune "The Gig That Matters." She's not sure of her belief or even if belief will help. But she stirs the soil of ideas about the hope of redemption and celebrates small blessings like hearing Duane Allman's guitar ("Duane Allman").
How much you enjoy this record will depend on your affinity to Ray's voice. It's tougher than horse leather - best for dispatching hypocrites and cruel past lovers. There's a falsetto moment that lands badly. But it's easy to admire the bigger aims at work here, along with the musical growth that can turn a punk rock girl into the queen of the rodeo.