Country, bluegrass, folk, gospel, Appalachian music. . . Amy Ray has at least tangentially dipped her toes into those styles between albums with the Indigo Girls and, to a lesser extent, her solo releases of which this is her fifth. But here she dives into these waters, (mostly) unplugging for a dozen tunes that feature pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, dobro, piano and upright bass.
Ray’s Atlanta upbringing may not have emerged directly from country and western, but her roots clearly run deep into this music, enough so that these eleven originals and one obscure cover (from Megafaun, whose frontwoman also sings it) feel genuine, lived in and entirely authentic. Ray also produced the album, showing a sure hand with keeping an open sound that stays uncluttered even when it’s not always stripped down.
Lyrically she sticks to what she knows and sees, using Duane Allman’s death as a metaphor for how the South revives and reinvents itself after a tragedy, talking about a protagonist taking “More Pills” to kill the pain of a broken heart, pining over a lost love in the lovely waltz “Broken Record,” comparing her emotions to her dog’s even temperament, and in the title ballad, narrating a touching tale sung in the first person of a senior citizen looking back over various romantic attachments.
Ray’s distinctive, always emotive voice can be tender or tough, frisky or forlorn and any combination of those, but always compliments the music and lyrics. Goodnight Tender may not be a radical sonic departure but by recording an entire country album, Amy Ray can check another box on her career genre list, and do it with pride in a job beautifully done. Hal Horowitz