Junebug versus Hurricane


Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge

A Queer Conversation With Amy Ray

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Following Amy Ray’s all-too-brief stop through New York supporting her new album Lung of Love (DaemonRecords.com), she was kind enough to sit down and speak with Junebug vs Hurricane, two faithful and always talkative listeners who, as you may already well know, live and breathe for Amy Ray’s music. 

The following piece summarizes our interview with Amy Ray and was first published for Velvet Park  (www.velvetparkmedia.com), so many special thanks to them for helping this come together. 

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Amy Ray is a harmonizer. She sings to get along. She even agreed to sit down with two fast talkers called Junebug and Hurricane – one a bitter old Yankee, the other an original Southerner young enough to know better. With these two it was good thing Amy Ray has what we call “a listening voice.” We nearly talked her ear off.  But that rich, calm and ever-yearning tone — the butch voice of Amy Ray — kept it all together.

We started late on a too-hot and blistering day in downtown Manhattan. Amy Ray was exhausted, on the road, just finishing an interview for WNYC public radio: a perfect venue that suits Ray’s call out into the wilderness of the nation across the radio waves, those waves mixing with her presence on Youtube and, most recently, on vinyl. Her new album Lung of Love, reviewed here, has been in our ears and on our tongues for some time now. It was, for us, a relief to finally sit down and hash out some of our ideas and inspirations with our faithful co-conspirator.

“Do people call you ma’am?”

Amy Ray: “Really polite southern boys, always.”

Imagine the three of us seated in a deserted deli called “Jazzy’s” on Manhattan’s lower west side: a menopausal Hurricane, a dumbstruck Junebug and our dear Amy Ray: three queers who know what it feels like to be out of time, who know something about lives of humidity, futility and queer belatedness.

Amy Ray says she’s always been “a little behind.” She recalls how meeting the members of the Durham-based band The Butchies in the late 1990s radicalized her, helped her figure out “where [she] was coming from, but didn’t even know it.”

She describes this consolidation-through-community as active intuition: becoming aware of herself, overcoming a more staid, middle-classness by learning how to join in and move in step with queer community.

Amy Ray shuttles between going out–the road–and sticking to her place. A resident of a rural north Georgia town–an expatriate Atlantan–she has dreams of hosting queer salons on her own turf. Migration, a journey, every-changing formation across boundaries, is the main theme in Lung of Love. This latest formation picks up flight from songs like “Birds of a Feather,” with its plaintive,”If we are birds of a feather//Why can’t we migrate?”

Ray loves community–being in a band, if not being the leader of one. She says that she’s not interested in being the sexy rock star; she wants her audience to feel sexy, to be inspired by her grooves. In songs from the last two albums, like “Bus Bus” and “When You’re Gone You’re Gone,” Greg Griffith, producer, and Melissa York, drummer and instigator, add a certain r and b swagger, a timeless and sexy sound that Amy hadn’t quite put her finger on in previous self-produced work.

Community requires solidarity, but Amy Ray fights stolidity. Transformations–of gender, politics, ethics–fascinate Amy Ray. In “She’s Got To Be” Ray asks “Is the body just a cage?” The answer is always yes and no. In Ray’s vision, people come apart and they come together: in butch/femme relationships, through bodily transitions, anti-racisms, in moments of encounter between species and in the notes and harmonies of the songs she sings.

Of the people in her life who are, as she says, “changing form,” Ray is sympathetic and attuned to their processes. Transitioning is a path Ray “might have chosen . . . if [she] were in another generation.” She “loves the trajectory” of these new men who must “go back to learn to hang on to their feminism” or, she warns, “they’re going to become one of the privileged gate-keepers of the world who we fight against.”

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For Ray, change sometimes comes in the form of not-changing, of, as she says, “waking up in the morning and saying, “this is you,” or recognizing “I don’t want to be in this body but at the same time I don’t want to change it.” The refrain in “She’s Got To Be” (“She’s got to be with me always// To make sense of the skin I’m in”) sings of and, ultimately, through this quotidian dilemma of managing self-love with her responses to and responsibilities in the outer world. “A partner,” as she says, to the title song on her new record, “She’s Got To Be” is, as Ray puts it, “both a love song to my partner and to myself,” she says that the meanings of the song morph every time she sings it. Like a form of Christian Mysticism, this song weighs and balances the mutually defining processes of Ray learning “to love myself and my partner.” It is as if the song becomes the body it talks about; the creation of an experience brought forth by her voice.

Lung of love, this failing breath//The compass of a heart that won’t rest

The murmur’s beat, the stalling gait//The compass of the heart that won’t wait

Every queer that rises must, one day, converge. The title song “Lung of Love” takes up a new approach to the organic expression of feeling.  The heart, now an over-determined and perhaps overly-cited, source of angst and joy, takes a back seat in this song that conjures up feelings that, like breath itself, make us and constantly fail us: “We are learning to breathe–we will pursue this trick our whole lives. And when we have finally mastered it we will become the breath–there will be no more separation.”

In her wisdom Amy Ray has produced a record that sings with confidence and that seems more self-assured than anything either of us have listened to in a long while: by her or by any other contemporary music makers. If there is a reason for this, though, it is not just age and maturity that give this record, and indeed its title song, its depth of meaning and of pleasure. Mysteries reveal themselves throughout the album the same way they do in nature: through the experience of time passing through and by our ever-failing bodies. In the end, Ray sings: “I pray that you get this tune//And that it don’t leave you lonely// This fruitless sorrow we feel//We come by it honestly.”

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Her butch voice sounds so smooth, made up of vibrations we can hear come together. It’s a voice that tries to erase itself, saying “I guess I should have been listening.” And yet it still sings. The voice–that she has honed, that we all enjoy and that adds a sweet and sexy swagger to all of her songs–keeps it together for our ears that wait and listen.

Part of Ray’s new composure and more sure, deep voice comes through in her not being afraid, these days, of exhibiting a little grouchiness, or of demanding a little more. “Glow” is sarcastic about low blows and lower goals. As Ray says, “If that’s [my] best day, well then, I’ve got more work to do . . .” But sometimes Ray wishes people would just calm down, stop “trying to win.” Relationships, in particular, can seem like endless occasions for complaint. The road song that in “Bus Bus” (from Didn’t It Feel Kinder) had its “heart on vibrate,” still trying out the “lovesick troubadour” routine that in “Bird in the Hand” has worn out, the femme just saying “get in line// stop your wandering.” In Lung of Love‘s “I Didn’t” the road runs out and the butch-femme couple are “Just looking for a fight// to make all that hurt seem right.” And, yes, all these songs do make the hurt seem right.

With melodious complaints,”Do You Have to Be the Rolling Train// Do You have to be the wounded bird// Do You have to be the only voice I hear, crying in the wilderness?” Ray is building a trove of songs memorializing a relation of love that is becoming historical as we listen, as the tune fades. Butches and femmes. To the butch, femmes are women who categorically did not belong to us and yet give themselves to us. The femme in this song–Ray’s latest chapter in this unsung, and possibly dying, lesbian tradition–is always pushing: “we got this mountain we got to climb,” and Ray, riffing on her own song, laughs: “I’m weary!” She’s weary of having to play and replay the past in her own relationships and in our communities. “I Didn’t” sings of and camps the queer relationship: it reacts to the well-known form of processing with a kind of dismissal: no, I’m not your parent’s alcoholism or your ex-lover’s aggression. Amy Ray wants you to know: She didn’t.

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In her own world and in our queer communities, Ray sings, observes and listens; she sings in order to get us to harmonize, in order for our experiences to collectively overcome their circumstances.  If she’s weary, it’s because she finds herself in a world she didn’t create. If her songs have any political import it is that they carry with them, and in their refrains, a utopian overcoming of our present circumstances,  a breath of something-else-to-come that may be somewhere off in the distance.

Amy Ray doesn’t like easy slogans. She didn’t even always like our easy reads of her songs, which trade on doubles–in theme, metaphor and intention. “Give It A Go” takes up the problem of gay suicides and the national ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, improving on that slogan with her way cooler, “stick around for the show.” But it’s the music from the mysterious past, and Ziggy Stardust himself, who returns to the jumping bridge. Ziggy, the glam rocker returns from Ray’s childhood, a “touchstone” from a time of innocence, when “we didn’t even know all the words.” But some breath returns, though it can’t save everyone. Ray admits that she’s had a hard time talking about what she perceives as a campaign that “square[d] out” with too much celebrity involvement and too little of a sense for the rich bestiary of loveable losers and freaks. Too little of what Flannery O’ Connor would appreciate as the sacrifice of the freaks, the way they are “a channel to the creator,” Ray says.

Everything that rises must converge. This is Ray’s migration, her movement and transformation. She migrates harmonies across borders, species, all sorts of bodies. When asked about her tendency to make deep connections, she explains that her father was a radiologist, a reader of X-rays, and that these images filled her house growing up, “It’s just the lens I see things through.” This lens, it seems, is about the body that waits to breathe; the world-to-come that lies, waiting to emerge in our very next breath.



“The Second Time Around” for Amy Ray’s “Laramie”

— Again

Elena Glasberg

November, 2010

hunting season's over

I’ve got a queer hangover and it is NOT getting any better.  Actually, it’s getting harder and harder to be me.  I mean at 51, finally the world cannot stop speaking of my categories in the most emotional and righteous of ways.  If it’s not Israelis killing innocent Palestinians in the name of God-knows-what, it’s gays beaten and killed by “neighborhood bullies.”  Or, as some lament, not being allowed to kill (unlike those universally conscripted Jewish Israelis) for their country.  And now, “gay suicide”: gays killing themselves before anyone gets the chance.

Life for gay kids was once easier.  Before the “It gets better (so you can become normal)” tidal wave gathered and struck.  I remember as an undergrad at Purchase College in the late 1970s I had a chance to take a course on gay culture with a now-foundational anthropologist.  She was a Jew and a butch.  No way, I thought.  Why would I want to study what I already knew?  I was so dumb!  I could’ve caught a case of identity studies as it was on the rise and begun a profitable career in my self.  But no.  I took astronomy and Medieval literature, though I was neither sidereal in nature nor was I of the past.  I was just trying to live my girl-obsessed punky little life.  I showed up one time to the (newly forming) gay undergrad club that met in a room in the basement of the dorm.  Scanning the room of fatties and dweebs and seeing not one female who didn’t make me hate myself almost as much as I was likely to come to hate them if I stayed, I fled back to the light of apolitical prettiness and joyful exclusion.

Forgive me, Amy.  I didn’t know any better.  I was a rocker.  Loved Lou Reed and Patti Smith.  Television, Neil Young.  Screaming guitars.  Lucinda, Dylan.  I did not associate with lesbian-feminist women’s music festival any more than I could tolerate Melissa Etheridge’s middle American high school version of the lesbian loner peeking in straight girls’ windows.  Earnest and direct politics worked for Woody Guthrie.  But for everyone else, it’s musical death.  But with typical missionary zeal, Junebug showed me the error of my ways.  Now the scales have fallen from out my ears holes, I can hear Amy Ray’s commitment and her experience with multiple communities and genres: rural kids, Homocore, women’s music, bluegrass, Native land rights, protest songs, anthems.  And as it turns out, she was weary, weary of the coerciveness of communities of outlaws and of the highjackings of injury and loss of the normative movement of gay politics.  Given the recent and seemingly natural (or as they say on the internet where everything happens now, “viral”) expansion of national gay rights production of an evidential “epidemic” of gay bullying and suicides in the “It Gets Better” videos, it just might be time for a second time around with Ray’s 2001 Song about Matthew Shephard’s murder, “Laramie.”

Amy Ray sings the connections of the US landscape, from the old fields and plantations, dirt roads, and highways.  She’s been riding the rails between a place called home and the road, like a good American troubadour.  When she’s on the road she’s dreaming of a dirt road.  When she’s sitting at the end of that dirt road, she’s singing about getting back on that open road.  That’s what troubadours do; they trouble space and the air with their songs.  When she’s not hurrying on to some woman down that road or trying to make her way back to the one she shouldn’t have left, Ray’s road songs are actually thinking about those spaces, fences, and networks that trace and create the political landscape of the US. Now is the time to revisit one of those places at the end of a road, Laramie.

The road to Laramie is a weary one.  “We all heard about that mess.”  We’ve been hearing it and replaying this dirge of young men martyred in the name of hatred.  Or was it freedom?  The campaigns for so-called “gay” marriage and for open military service and the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell policy more than ever define gay politics.  These moral, political goals leave behind the “mess” of actual sexual politics as it forms bodies and classes of people not unlike the way barbed wire created the Plains by fencing things in and keeping things out.

Laramie’s liquid la la syllables invoke the “open plains” of cowboys and Indians.  Of course cowboys and Indians has never been a simple set of stories.  Laramie’s associations of conflict, enmity, and racialized hatred have deepened since Matthew Shepherd met his end on the side of a road, leaned up against a barbed wire fence, the same cheap and flexible fences that helped create the “open” space of the plains and a cattle industry.  The same fences that helped drive under Native ways of living on that land.

The “road to Laramie” comes at you with a heavy downbeat.  It comes with Neil Young’s electric guitar distortion, catching at your mind like the barbs on the wire catch at the animals, the weeds, all the lives trying to pass through.  And it comes now with a new myth, one to replace the dead Indians and the wide open: a little blond boy beaten to death by ignorant, hateful and doubtless desirous white thugs from hometown Laramie. 

With a dolorous atonal chord Ray calls out, “Hey coalitions/ Lay down your mission/aries” to skewer the morality of the aggressive new missionary mode of gay politics.  And it applies even better to this understandable but no less lamentable recent move to counter-missionize “at-risk” youth.  The viral “It gets better” videos point to the truth of the slur that gays “recruit.”  They missionize.  Of course they do.  Surely, MS was on a mission that night at the bar in Laramie – to get laid, to find friends and acceptance.  What he ran into were the fences and the barbs.  But Laramie wasn’t any different from the rest.

it gets better

Ray won’t give into urban-centered myths of freedom: “those boys just doing what the fancy people think.”  They’re the cowboys who unrolled and strung out the bales of wire fencing that made the plains.  But more often as not they’re just frat boys now, bewildered and diminished manhoods roaming the range to which Amy Ray aims another wall of noise: “Hey motherfuckers! Party season’s over…” Not just for them, but us too. Those boys in Laramie are not a party, a people “out there.”  They are not an enemy.  And not only are we not martyrs, the martyrs are actually not us.  Despite the outpourings of facile identification and developmentalism implied in the “It gets better” viral reproduction, no one really knows what it was like for the suicides.  Or for Matthew Shephard.  Further, these deaths and failures to connect, victimizations and murders may not add up to anything we know call homophobia.  For example, few consider the persistent utility of homophobia in the expression of so many religious leaders as more an effect of historical sectarianism than a real hatred of gay people.  In fact, with the “It gets better” campaign the public gay movements now slavishly imitate religions, states, and as the term campaign also suggests, military strategy.  In other words, Ray suggests that the Coalitions are missionary.  Imitators of what they seek to upend.

For coalition, Ray offers Neil Young, a connection through rock n roll, distorted guitars, songs like “Pocahontas” and “Powder Finger.”  And it makes sense Ray has been covering these relatively obscure Young songs for her young-er audience, carrying on the tradition of redressive resistance.  “Pocahontas,” despite its creepy moccasin-fever, animates the myth of the dead Indian: Pocahontas is a living, seeing presence in the aural landscape.  “Powder Finger” is a Faulknerian take on coming of age with Civil War.  From its opening alarm, “Look out Mama, there’s a white boat coming down the river” it tells the story of the brief life of a boy caught up in a war that comes to his quiet town.  American history never sounded like this, it never looked like this.  The boy might have just as easily been on the banks of a river in Viet Nam, too.  All the rivers, like all the roads converge on a young man “just turned 22” and not going to make it to the last line of the song, dying in a war he had no idea of.

There’s a connection Ray is trying for, between Young’s generation of the Vietnam War and civil rights protest movements and the contemporary resurrection of that national sacrificial figure.  Now, post-nation, “post” civil rights, we get gay martyrs as representative of a real rights-bearing category of civil life.  Before “all [this] mess,” Matthew Shepherd might have been another boy dead from war, drinking, class anger, syphilis, AIDS.  But now that sexuality fights its way through injury towards a rights-bearing condition, a gay martyr emerges from the murk of people just doing wrong.  And it is no accident that he was – and is – that type of the white male citizen, soldier, martyr.  Yeah, we all heard about that mess.  “But that town ain’t any different from the rest.” The sentimental attachment to male martyrdom and to suicide in particular distort understanding of what can change politically – and for whom — in the area of sexual freedom and policy (or rights discourse).

Laramie was also the end of the road in the gay rights imaginary—both an impasse, or a turning point in time where they said ‘enough’s enough,’ invigorating their homonationalist campaigns for rights at the end of the century.  Imagine all the concerned left and east coast homos who descended on Laramie in the years following the incident like ‘49ers, picking at the memory of this poor dead boy and mining that poor dead town for all the political and cultural metaphors they could fit in their knapsacks and take back home with them, back on the campaign.  Can a town’s political metaphors/usages be stripped mined out until the landscape is bare?  Will the fair-haired white gay martyr continue to be the gold standard of the gay rights movement at the expense of the all the land, the rest of the people, a fuller accounting and connection through history and geography?

When this country or this gay rights movement can use a different kind of martyr, well, the need for civic sacrifice will itself most likely have died out.  “Party time” will one day be over.  In that case, with Amy Ray, I say RIP.