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To borrow a phrase, this is pure country, the kind of smooth, mournful racket folks make on their porch with a few guitars, a banjo and a pedal steel, maybe even a snare drum and a fiddle or two. It’s deeper than ever – she’s effortless on some low notes that would give Trace Adkins trouble – but it’s also smooth and mature, with just the tiniest trace of that whiskey-nightcap rasp.
She sounds as wise as she does vulnerable, and the few times she abandons her contralto for a high note (“My Dog”), the effect is both jarring and reassuring.
Two additional songs are standouts for very different reasons.
“Goodnight Tender” is, at first, clunky and heavy-handed as it attempts to combine a Willie Nelson-style character study with the singalong lullaby of a Roy Rogers waltz.
“The Gig that Matters” is overflowing with Country Christian chestnuts, from callouts to St.
Peter to drinking “from the cup of the righteous / While the Devil’s song played in my head”, but she gives the revival a nifty twist in the final lines (she’s still a punk, after all).
She’s not entirely without judgment, but neither is the hunter, and what he ultimately prays for – “Give me a love that don’t fade / Oh, let me walk in decency” – is something we all crave and, Ray implies, deserve.But the music on Goodnight Tender is dense and sure-footed, boldly occupying space in a way her previous rootsy offerings could never quite muster.Maybe that’s because there’s no fusion here; the only reference to anything remotely modern is Ray’s cheeky desire to “Skip to my Lou to the dubstep sound” in “Oyster and Pearl”.But even as the clichés get wonky (“The coyotes are yippie yi yaying / They sing a lonesome tune”), Ray finds simple and honest humanity in her subjects, and her delivery, warm and almost sleepy, transforms the song from a potentially hokey tribute into a transcendent display of empathy.And empathy is all over “The Hunter’s Prayer”, the remarkable opener.