Blasting twin barrels of Americana noire and southern-gothic songwriting, India Ramey fires on all cylinders with her national debut, Snake Handler.
Pentecostal churches, broken households, crooked family trees, forgotten pockets of the Deep South, and domestic violence all fill the album's 10 songs, whose autobiographical lyrics pull from Ramey's experience as a young girl in rural Georgia. Intensely personal and sharply written, Snake Handler shines a light on the darkness of Ramey's past, driving out any lingering demons — or snakes, if you will — along the way.
Inspired by the warm sonics of Jason Isbell's Southeastern and the big-voiced bombast of Neko Case's Furnace Room Lullabies, Snake Handler was recorded in six days with producer Mark Petaccia — Southeastern's sound engineer, coincidentally — and members of Ramey's road band. Ringing guitars, violin, atmospheric organ, and percussive train beats all swirl together, leaving room for Ramey's voice — an instrument punctuated by the light drawl of her hometown and the quick tremolo of her vibrato — to swoon, swagger, and sparkle. It's a voice she began developing as a child in Rome, Georgia, singing made-up songs into her electric hair curler while her parents fought just outside her bedroom door. The family home was a violent one, the product of an addicted father who flew into an abusive rage whenever his vices took control. Despite being the youngest of three children, Ramey grew up quickly, robbed of a typical childhood by her unpredictable home life. She recollects those early years in "The Baby," skewers her no-good dad in "Devil's Blood," tells her mother's story in "Rome to Paris," and paints a less-than-inviting picture of her hometown in "Devil's Den."
Although her childhood lacked peace, it was filled with music, thanks to a charismatic grandfather who, in his younger years, sang in an Alabama-based gospel quartet. Well-known throughout the state, he turned down an offer to become a permanent performer on The Lawrence Welk Show when his wife refused to move to the big city. Instead, he remained in his hometown of Sand Mountain, Alabama — notorious for its number of snake-handling churches — and worked as piano tuner, decorating his own home with cast-off pianos and other instruments. It was during trips to that house, with her mother playing autoharp and her grandaddy playing acoustic guitar, that Ramey grew up singing.
"He lived to be 98," she says of her grandfather, "and when he was in the nursing home, I bought my first guitar at Wal-Mart. I took it to him so he could teach me a couple chords, and he told me, 'I don't regret anything about my life, but I still wonder what might have happened if I would've done something with my music. I'm proud of you for getting your education, but I want you to take this guitar and do something with your music.' So that's what I'm doing."
Before launching her music career, though, Ramey worked as a Deputy District Attorney in Montgomery, Alabama. The goal? To help women who, like her own mother, found themselves in abusive situations.
"When I was younger," she remembers, "I competed in beauty pageants to earn scholarship money for college. I wanted to become a prosecutor and save battered women. It worked. I went to law school, worked as a special prosecutor, and got to make a difference in a lot of victims’ lives.”
There, between daytime hours spent in the law office and nighttime gigs alongside her Birmingham-based band, Ramey realized that music — her true calling — could help people, too. She began making honest, heartfelt music, filled with lyrics that spoke openly of her past. A pair of early releases, Junkyard Angel and Blood Crescent Moon, helped sharpen her songwriting chops. Those albums also paved the way for her move to Nashville, where she turned her back on the legal world and, instead, threw herself into songwriting. Once settled in Tennessee, she found a kindred spirit in Mark Petaccia.
Working together, Ramey and Petaccia fill Snake Handler's songs with vivid musical and visual imagery. In "Drowned Town," a song inspired by the cities in northeastern Alabama that were forever submerged by the TVA's hydroelectric damming projects, Anna Harris' violin floats far beneath Ramey's melody, as through it's being recorded underwater. Similarly, the distorted guitar lines in the album's closing number, "Saying Goodbye," parallel the jumble of feelings that pushed Ramey to write the song.
"I wrote that song about going to see my father when he was dying," she says of "Saying Goodbye," which ends the album on a note of acceptance and weary optimism. "It was weird to see him on his deathbed, because I'd spent my whole life hating him. Still, I was heartbroken to see him dying. I didn't know how to assimilate those feelings. Joey Fletcher plays guitar in my band, and Mark put on a baritone guitar that was being run through a distortion pedal. When I heard it, I thought, 'That guitar sound is exactly the way my head felt when I walked into the nursing home. All the cognitive dissonance I was feeling is in that instrument.'"
Melodic and mighty, Snake Handler is a battle cry from a songwriter who's unafraid to dive back into her past — no matter how dark it may be — to find closure. It's an album about final chapters and new beginnings. About violence, resolution, and next steps. It's India Ramey: unfiltered, unrestrained, and wholly engaging.
In March 2016, Will Stewart headed back home to Alabama.
He'd been away for years, living in Nashville while earning his stripes as a songwriter, frontman, and lead guitarist. His fans reached as far away as London, where The Guardian — one of the U.K.'s most widely-reached papers — hailed his work.
Still, something kept drawing him down South. He'd grown up there, surrounded by the twang of classic country music and the stomp of rootsy rock & roll. Alabama was a complicated place, its history filled with dark characters and cultural clashes, but it was oddly compelling, too. It was home. Unable to resist the pull, Stewart returned to Birmingham. There, after a decade away, he rediscovered his muse: the Modern South, whose characters, complexities, open spaces, and strange beauty are all channeled into Stewart's full-length solo debut, County Seat.
Released in 2017, County Seat is a guitar-fueled Americana record, caught somewhere between the worlds of country and electrified rock. The songs are roomy and lush, the result of an inspired — led by Stewart, who handles singing and guitar-playing duties — whose members recorded all nine tracks in two short days. There are swirls of swooning pedal steel, layers of vocal harmony, and the pastoral punch of a songwriter looking to turn the landscape of his home state into music. Close your eyes while playing songs like "Brush Arbor," whose title references Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain, and you'll hear Stewart's Alabama home.
County Seat is also a record about time. On the album's title track, Stewart sings about a lonely man in his twilight years, hoping to find some sort of transcendence from an otherwise mundane, day-to-day life. During the nostalgic "Sipsey," Stewart longs for the wonder and innocence of young adulthood. And with "Heaven Knows Why," he takes a look at his own vices, realizing the hour has come to leave some of those habits behind. Like Stewart's own move back to Birmingham, County Seat finds its narrator in constant motion, hoping to weather the mysteries and murkiness of the 21st century South by holding on to a shred of hope.
Co-produced with Les Nuby (who also engineered and mixed the album) and recorded in a series of live takes, County Seat nods to a number of songwriters who sing about the beauty of their homeland without glossing over its imperfections. There are electrified moments influenced by Neil Young, guitar arpeggios suited for R.E.M., turns-of-phrase worthy of Bob Dylan, and the modern-day folksy charm of Hiss Golden Messenger. On an album that evokes some heavy starpower, though, Will Stewart shines the brightest. This is his first full-length release as a solo artist: a rallying cry from a Son of the South who, having returned home after a long trip, looks at his birthplace with renewed eyes.