Photo: Greg Roth
Artist India Ramey is like a glass of top-shelf whiskey – complex, sweet, raw, and a force to be reckoned with. The Georgia-born songstress released her newest album Snake Handler on September 8. It’s a beautifully and carefully crafted masterpiece telling the story of her tumultuous childhood. Growing up with the backdrop of the Deep South and experiencing domestic abuse, hard living, snake-handling churches and the hypocrisy of religious fanaticism, Ramey’s life has been a fascinating song (or album) waiting to be written.
Ramey describes her unique musical style as “Southern Gothic,” a term which immediately evokes tons of powerful, and colorful imagery. The slide guitar, banjo, acoustic guitar and Ramey’s rich, soaring vocals have every song bursting with soul, bluegrass, blues and alt-country influences.
“I was the youngest of three girls, and my mom married a piece of shit,” Ramey explains. “She got a divorce from him when I was four, but he came back. He’d kick in the door and drag her out of bed and punch her in the face. My sisters were older than me, so they’d go out the window and call the police and I’d hide under the bed.”
Music entered Ramey’s life through her grandfather, who traveled with a locally famous gospel quartet around their home region of Sand Mountain, Alabama. “He was real good looking, all the girls thought he was a thing,” Ramey laughs. After serving in the U.S. Navy and singing in the Naval choir, he was offered a position on The Lawrence Welk Show, but had to turn it down to take care of his growing family. He went on to be a piano tuner and musician.
While her grandfather was in his last days on earth, Ramey (then a practicing attorney) bought her first guitar at Walmart. When she took it to him at the nursing home, he strongly encouraged her to do something with her music. “When I want to give up, I can’t, because I have to do this for him. It keeps me in it and keeps me going,” Ramey says. She even keeps a picture of him in the room where she practices.
Snake Handler is a highly personal album, but Ramey is very quick to give credit to her producer Mark Petaccia (engineer on Southeastern by Jason Isbell, among others). She was drawn to the big, warm, enveloping sound he created on Southeastern, and was impressed by his highly personalized and genuine approach to her unique style. “He spent an entire weekend listening to Neko Case because he knew that she was my hero and he wanted to get in my head,” she explains.
Ramey’s favorite song on the album is the highly personal final track, titled “Saying Goodbye.” She wrote it after visiting her abusive father on his deathbed.
“He’d had an accident and was in a coma, and he wasn’t in good health because of hard, hard living,” she says. “He thought of himself and saw himself as one of those outlaw country heroes, even though he was a deadbeat addict. I was so grieved over the relationship we never had and with this finality, we would never have. There’s that part of your heart that holds out for redemption, and I knew that there would never happen. So I said to him, ‘I forgive you. I won’t forget all of the bad things you did, but I love you and I want to say goodbye.’ I wanted to show him compassion that he was never capable of himself.”
To India Ramey, the stories remain the key part of her music. She boldly faces even the darkest parts of her past without fear, and because of that she is living her dream of being a true artist. “I’m a storyteller. These stories aren’t just personal to me, they’re interesting. I want people to know these stories. That’s the most important.”
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