Video Feature & Web-Exclusive Interview


Video: “Snake Handler

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 Handlershines a light on the darkness of Ramey’s past, driving out any lingering demons—or snakes, if you will—along the way.

Snake Handlerwas recorded in six days with producer Mark Petaccia (Jason Isbell’s Southeasternsound engineer) 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.

Before launching her music career, Ramey worked as a Deputy District Attorney in Montgomery, Alabama—helping women who, like her own mother, found themselves in abusive situations. Between daytime hours spent in the law office and nighttime gigs alongside her Birmingham-based band, Ramey realized that music—her true calling—could also help people. She began making honest, heartfelt music, filled with lyrics that spoke openly of her past. “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.” Snake Handleris a songwriter who is 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.

We talked with India Ramey about her approach to songwriting, as she gets ready to perform at the opening reception of the Jeff Fasano Photography Americana Portrait Retrospective photo exhibition on Thursday, September 12 at 5 PM. The photo exhibition runs September 12-15 at Michael Weintrob Photography Studio & Gallery located at 919 Gallatin Avenue, Studio 6, Nashville, TN 37206.

INDIA RAMEY Interview with
M Music & Musicians magazine publisher,Merlin David

How did the album Snake Handlerevolve?

Snake Handlerwas a really personal album. My dad, from whom I had been estranged for most of my life due to his addiction and violent behavior, was dying when I started writing the songs for the album. I had a lot of conflicting emotions going on all at once, and writing the songs was a good way to sort them out. I had already writing “Devil’s Blood” which is about trying not to be like my hell-raising dad but knowing I have a little bit of him in me before I found out he was dying. I also felt like there were family stories that needed to be told like “Rome to Paris,” and there was something freeing in just baring it all.

How did you tap into that darkness?

In general, I’m a little dark place. (Laughs) Mom would say, “What manner of child is this?” I think she was joking. I gravitate to some dark subject matters, and my family happens to be a buffet of dark subject matter. (Laughs) I was confused by my sadness of my dad passing because I thought I would dance on his grave—because he was a bad person. But I kept working on songs that came out of that tragic event. I went to see him on his death bed and told him I forgive him in spite of everything. It was really weird because he was aware of me, even though he couldn’t respond. It was a very forgiving, bury the hatchet moment. It was sad, but it gave me life, and what I needed to not be angry. He fancied himself a hero or anti-hero in a Waylon Jennings song, but he was addicted redneck from Rome, Georgia who beat his wife. He was a piece of s**t, but he was my father.

How were you able to forgive?
My mother raised me to be a compassionate person, and I’m just hardwired that way. I wanted to show him a level of compassion, and to show myself that I wasn’t like him.

Is there one song you are especially glad made it onto this album?
“Snake Handler”—when I wrote it, I knew it was kind of weird and I was worried people wouldn’t connect with it, but I loved it and it was empowering to write it. I’m glad it became the title track. People seem to like it. That makes me super happy.

What inspired the song “Snake Handler”?
My family on my Mom’s side is all from Sand Mountain, Alabama, the cradle of snake-handling churches. I heard about them when I was growing up at family reunions and Decoration Day, and was always fascinated by the dark nature of the services and method of worship. That’s the first layer of the song. I also inserted some personal elements into it. It’s also about the “snakes” in my head (my OCD, anxiety, self-loathing—all that fun stuff) and how I have to deal with them or “take them up” every day. The other layer is toxic people—the “snakes” that come into and out of our lives from time to time. We have to eventually take them up and cast them out in order to live healthy lives. It’s something that walks a fine line between bravery and desperation to survive. I think that is a fairly cohesive theme between those three layers.

Is that area really known for snake handling?
There is a book, Salvation on Sand Mountain, talking about being the birthplace of snake-handling churches. A lot of people don’t know it’s a sect of Pentecostalism—based on two pieces of scripture in the Bible: picking up serpents and treading on scorpions. But some people take that metaphor literally. My mother’s family was all Methodist farmers. I layered the song. It’s about snakes in your head—facing your demons, your serpents, every day. Dealing with bad people, or just your run-of-the-mill narcissist that comes into your life—who poisons the air. I’ve had quite a bit of dealings with those people. I think I am a narcissist magnet. But there are a lot of them walking around amongst us.

How did working as a Deputy District Attorney in Montgomery, AL affect your music?
I was an attorney for 10 years, and for 3 years the Deputy DA. I ran the violence against women prosecution department—armed robbery, domestic violence, murder, rape. Working there was a giant PTSD trigger. I was focused on law and order, trying to make my Mom proud—make everybody proud. Later, I went into private practice and moved to Birmingham. We had a band of lawyers and accountants—we did bluegrass covers. (Laughs) We were called “Scattered and Smothered”—like the waffle house hash browns. I enjoyed singing, but I wanted to sing my own stuff. I would write in my lunch hour. I know this sounds weird but I think having been a legal writer for a while helped me be a better songwriter. Legal writing is the same basic idea. You want to be able to make a point, make it well and make it in less than five minutes. (Laughs) It also gave me some interesting experiences and human connections that I can draw on as a writer.

Who originally inspired you to write songs?
It was either write songs or go bat-s**t crazy. (Laughs) I wanted to sing and I didn’t want to just sing other people’s songs, or tell other people’s stories. I wanted to try my hand at telling my own story, and I instantly got addicted. As far as singers or songwriters that inspired me: Neko Case and Jason Isbell top that list, but there are somany.

Tell us a time when something unique inspired you to write a song.
“Drowned Town”—we lived on Weiss Lake in Cherokee County, Alabama when I was a pre-teen into college. It’s a TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) lake. When the TVA relocated families to higher ground, before they dammed the river, they would also exhume the bodies of the families’ loved ones and relocate them. There is an abandoned graveyard under that lake where I lived—for dearly departed who didn’t get relocated when the water gets low in the winter. You can see the outlines of the graves. I grew up hearing and reading about the other towns, cities and communities that once had a name, a purpose and population that are now just standing empty under all that water. To think of all of those buildings and graveyards standing—drowned under the water—is eerily beautiful to me. I love the song those stories became. My Mom loves it too.

What songwriting tip would you like to offer?
Write what youlike.

What instruments/equipment can you not live without?
My voice. I’m a singer foremost, before a guitar player. I usually come up with a melody and words at the same time. Then I sit down with a guitar and pick out a chord progression. It’s all about voice, lyrics and cadence. I wish I had started playing guitar earlier—wish there was more I could do with the guitar. Playing the guitar opens up the song and takes me to different places than the song in my head. I play a Gibson guitar, and I have a little Tanglewood guitar. I also use a clip-on Kyser capo. I enjoy using that capo because it helps me find new voicings. I approach songwriting the old-school way—without bells and whistles. I like to get the story written. Once I have the song, I get together with talented musicians and with my wonderful producer Mark Petaccia.

Which Top 5 Musicians inspired you to become a musician?
Neko Case, Jason Isbell, Patsy Cline, Pat Benatar and Patty Loveless, Bonnie Raitt, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells and so many more.

What are your Top 5 favorite albums of all time?
Road Apples(1991) – The Tragically Hip
Blacklisted(2002) – Neko Case
Southeastern(2013) – Jason Isbell
Wish You Were Here(1975) – Pink Floyd
Fleetwood Mac(1975) – Fleetwood Mac – I love “World Turning.” I like the dynamics of that song. The guitar playing is ridiculous. Lindsey Buckingham is not human. (Laughs) It starts on one level and builds. That album and Rumours.

Tell us a “pinch me” moment when you thought “Wow, this is really happening to me!Pretty much every time I have performed or recorded in Nashville, I have to pinch myself. I still can’t believe I live here and I get to do music here.

Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
Yes. WMOT Roots Radio in Nashville played my vinyl of “Snake Handler” on the air. It was the first time they played vinyl on the air. I met John Walker of WMOT at a show and mentioned that I had not yet heard the test pressing for my new record because my record player was broken. He said, “We have a record player up at the station. Bring it by and we’ll play it for you. Hell, we’ll play it on the air.” I was floored by his kindness and I was thrilled to the point of giggles when I ran out of the station to the car to hear my song played on Nashville radio for the first time. I still can’t believe it.

What is the best advice someone has given you?
My granddaddy was a musician and singer his whole life. He wanted us to do something with music. My sisters and I were trying not to be artists because we were trying not to be poor. When he was dying, my Mom bought my first guitar from Wal-Mart, and he was trying to tune it. He said, “I want you to learn to play it, and I want you to do something with your voice.” We all sang together, so to be a singer in our family was pretty unremarkable. Nobody was going to pat you on the back if you could sing a tune or harmonize. We all did it. My family wanted something remarkable like go to law school. My mom, sisters and granddaddy used to all sing together. Later, I made some recordings of singing Dolly Parton songs, and my granddaddy said, “You’ve really got a quality voice.” Granddaddy was offered a job on The Lawrence Welk Show, but he passed it up because he had kids and my grandma didn’t want to move. He was a piano tuner for the rest of his life. He didn’t regret it, but also died with that regret of not pursuing music. I want to do this for him.

What advice would you give others?
Do what you love and don’t worry if it’s not practical or profitable. If you love it and work hard at it, it will serve you.

What’s next?
I am great with child with this new album. I can’t wait to birth it into the world. It is called Shallow Graves. I’m super proud of it and I hope to get it out in 2020.

Where can new fans get more info and stay updated?

Social Media?

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