Early in her musical career, singer-songwriter Becky Warren had a band called the Great Unknowns that — like their name implies — didn’t make a huge splash, but they did make at least one high-profile fan in Amy Ray. The Indigo Girls co-founder was given a copy of their album Presenting the Great Unknowns and liked it so much, she decided to release it on her own Georgia-based Daemon Records.
“I’d never met her until we signed this record deal with her,” says Warren, now a Nashville resident. “But I kept in touch with her all these years and she’s been a mentor to me.”
Whatever she thought at the time, it turned out to be an important — even prophetic — meeting for Warren.
Nearly 15 years later, Warren and Ray merge their voices on “We’re All We Got,” the stunning opening track from Warren’s 2018 album Undesirable, which landed on Rolling Stone‘s year-end list of best country albums. A rousing blast of rock & roll at its most big-hearted and empathetic, it begins a cycle of songs that were based on conversations with members of Nashville’s homeless community.
“I was hoping it would be kind of anthemic, but it was really Amy’s part that made it worthy of being an album opener,” says Warren, who has been a regular tourmate of Ray’s in recent years and opens for her Wednesday night at Nashville’s Basement East. “I was lucky to get her.”
For Ray, it was the same reason she had originally been so drawn to Warren’s early work.
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“[She is] a great combination of infectious hooks and riffs, plus intelligent and witty lyrics,” says Ray in an email. “Her melodies stay in my head for days and her voice has got the right balance of honky-tonk and vulnerability. I have been learning from her songwriting for the past 15 years, and she just keeps getting better.”
Like Ray, who has infused her verbose, narrative style of storytelling with raw punk energy over the course of several solo albums, Warren’s musical output lives at the intersection of ambition and adrenaline. Her 2016 solo release War Surplus was a concept album that told the story of a war veteran with PTSD and his wife, while Undesirable married rock riffs to more individual, though equally cinematic, vignettes.
“[They’re] different from each other in that the first album told one story all the way through and this one is 11 different stories,” says Warren. “I’ve enjoyed the writing challenge.”
Warren spent time talking to individuals in Nashville who sell the Contributor, the city’s homeless paper, at an assortment of intersections and parking lots. She sat and listened, when people felt comfortable enough to talk about their situations, and she filled in her songs with hyper-local references to places like the Drake Motel and Dabbs Avenue — locations not likely to be seen by bachelorettes on Nashville’s party wagons.
“Only one person ever said, ‘Eh, I don’t know. No thanks,'” she says. “At first people would be little reticent, it’s a little weird, but I would just stay and talk to them until they’re comfortable. It was like talking to anyone else. You talk about what you have in common and that helps people open up naturally.”
All that would be just a noble concept if Undesirable wasn’t also brimming with hooks and rhythmic muscle — they’re songs for shouting along with the windows down, songs that locate the resilience of the human spirit even when things haven’t been going right for some time.
“Mostly I want to make a record that’s fun to listen to, and the songs are catchy and good,” says Warren. “Hopefully that brings people to it who might not otherwise [hear it].”
How to follow up such a lofty, meticulous project remains a bit uncertain, however. Warren has entertained a few ideas for her third album, but none of them have captivated her enough to pursue. Fortunately, Warren writes quickly and often, amassing songs that are later edited or discarded or combined into better versions.
“Probably 80-90 percent of them are really bad,” she says. “So I just toss those. I go back and listen to them later and think, ‘Oh, that song is really bad, but there’s one good line.’ It’s trying to come up with a lot of quantity and pulling out the quality. I’m just really hard on myself, so if I don’t hate it, it’s probably ok.”