Amy Ray Band and Shawn Mullins in Knoxville

Lee Zimmerman on August 17, 2019
Amy Ray Band and Shawn Mullins in Knoxville

Photo credit: Alisa Cherry

“When Emily told me she’s going on vacation, it meant it was time to go out and play,” Amy Ray she declared at one point, referencing her longtime collaborator in The Indigo Girls, while relishing the opportunity to deliver on her own.

She certainly showed that the enthusiasm was well justified as she and her exceptional six piece band — bassist Kerry Brooks, guitarist Jeff Fielder, fiddler/guitarist Adrian Carter, pedal steel player Matt Smith, drummer Jim Brock, and special guest, Alison Brown on banjo — launched into a lively set of songs drawn from each of her six studio albums. Nevertheless, she started in familiar territory with “Share the Moon,” an Indigo Girls standard that drew appreciative applause from the nearly sold out house.

Still, the 20 songs spread over the nearly two and a half hours that followed proved her mettle as far as her own acumen was concerned. Other than a brief instrumental break that gave Brown a solo spotlight for a medley that wove in a pair of Stephen Foster songs (Brown does head up the label Ray records for after all), the band delivered with stunning aplomb, giving the material a decidedly down home flavor befitting the stately environs of Knoxville’s century-old Bijou Theatre. While songs such as “The Gig That Matters,” Jesus Was a Walking Man,” “Dadgum Down,” and “Tonight I’m Paying the Rent” (a song Ray said was inspired by the first time she and Saliers played Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe) clearly reflected her rural roots, the overall vibe underscored the familiarity factor that connected her with the crowd. There was an intimacy and informality about the occasion, even to the extent of Ray and company acting as their own road crew. That attitude extended beyond the usual formalities; instead of the usual retreat to the wings to soak up applause prior to an obligatory encore, the band simply stayed on stage and launched into “Didn’t Know a Damn Thing,” a reflection on the racism that engulfed the southern environs where Ray was raised as a child:

“Back in Georgia…
I didn’t know a damn thing
Bodies were hanging
Bodies were burning”

It was a somewhat somber ending to a concert that began lightheartedly enough via a solo acoustic set from special guest Shawn Mullins. Mullins interspersed songs and stories with wry observations that reflected on the fact that he and Ray first met at Emory University in Atlanta in the mid ‘80s when she came to campus to share her lessons about songwriting. “She’s 25 years older than me,” he joked, drawing a tart denial from Ray later on. Nevertheless, he allowed that Ray’s visit changed his life, noting, “I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

It clearly set him on the right course, and in retracing such staples as “Shimmer,” “The Great Unknown,” “Beautiful Wreck,” and “My Stupid Heart,” he reaffirmed the fact he’s now well versed in mining his muse. “Light You Up” and “Beautiful Wreck” were notable in their absence, but given Mullins’ jocular presentation, fans had reason to feel fulfilled regardless.