Amy Ray's lovely, commanding, southern voice is just one strength in what might be her best solo album to date, "Holler." Her well-crafted songs range from haunting to uplifting to indigenously Southern in all its glory and duality. The instrumentation brings one big sound, with often as many a dozen to 15 musicians. Alison Brown on banjo is particularly striking. Her solo on "Dadgum Down," for example, is other-worldly. Brown is one of several high profile guests that include Derek Trucks, Vince Gill, Brandi Carlile, the Wood Brothers, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, Phil Cook and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon.
Ray is still thriving as one half of the popular duo, Indigo Girls and this is her ninth solo album. Here she purposely tries to cover several genres, inspired by traditional country, bluegrass, mountain music, gospel and even Southern rock. Her topics cover an equally impressive range - from late nights, love, addiction, immigration, despair, and good ol' honky tonks. Of course, she finds way to weave in some politics too. She claims that the inspiration for the big sound that included horns, strings, and background vocalists comes from Jim Ford's cult classic country album, "Harlan County."
She reunites with the core band that backed her on 2014's "Goodnight Tender," comprised of multi-instrumentalists Jeff Fielders on guitars, Dobro, bass and mandolin. Matt Smith is on pedal steel, Dobro and guitar. Adrian Carter handles guitar and fiddle while Kerry Brooks plays bass and mandolin. Jim Brock is on the traps and special guest Kofi Burbridge from Tedeschi-Trucks Band is on keys. This talented group provides a loose, improvised backing and, with the augmented instruments some daunting walls of sound. Yet, Ray's voice is strong enough to cut through it all easily. Kudos to engineer Trina Shoemaker who deftly handles a challenging mixing job.
The album is remarkably strong throughout, but a few highlights include the pep talk to musicians on "Tonight I'm Paying the Rent," the Elizabeth Cotton-influenced solo acoustic "Fine with the Dark" and the gospel "Jesus Was a Walking Man," and "Last Taxi Fare" (with Gill and Carlile). The deeply southern tunes hit racism on "Sure Feels Good Anyway" and the epic "Didn't Know a Damn Thing" while "Bondsman (Evening In Missouri), featuring Trucks, comments on poverty and struggles in the Ozarks.
There's so much to focus on in these generous 14 tracks, but inevitably some songs will stay with you, unforgettably.