Some weeks after the 2016 presidential election, Nashville singer-songwriter India Ramey was wrestling with the still-fresh outcome and writing songs, when an image came to mind that provided an appropriately unsettling tone to what she was feeling.
“A lot of times when I write a song, I visualize it as if I’m watching a movie,” Ramey says. “It was this Western town and the narrator is stumbling out after all the fires have gone out and there’s smoke in the air and she’s telling the story. It went from there.”
The song was “King of the Ashes” and it went on to become a central part of Ramey’s new album Shallow Graves, which she says she tried to fit around this idea of a “post-apocalyptic Western.” In this case, she never refers to the current President by name — though it seems clear who she’s talking about, describing a serpent-tongued figure who “preys on the fearful and the weak” along with the need to rise up against it.
“I didn’t want to be like, ‘Fuck that guy.’ I didn’t want to be literal,” she says. “I wanted to tell a story that would survive him and that would survive what we’re going through right now.”
“King of the Ashes” has a grimy, intense feel that echoes its urgent call to action, driven by a martial beat and scuzzy baritone guitar riffs. That doomy atmosphere, part Black Sabbath and part honky-tonk, is ever present on Shallow Graves, particularly in the title track — a grinding, detuned number in which she decries hypocrites.
“This album doesn’t just have political themes, it has themes of calling out hypocrisy, calling out corruption and calling out abuse,” Ramey says.
Born in Georgia but raised partially in northeast Alabama, Ramey chronicled the South’s darker corners on her previous album, Snake Handler, nodding to Southern gothic literature along the way (“I like the darkness and the weirdness of being Southern,” she says). That approach remains on Shallow Graves, but there’s also an air of levity on songs like the punk-tinged “Up to No Good” and “Debutante Ball,” in which she unpacks some of the South’s entrenched class issues and privilege by recalling a surreal experience at a high-society event in Montgomery.
“I was sitting there watching these girls in these $2,000 dresses that cost more than my car and they’re bowing to me?” she says. “I started laughing. It was like, this is ridiculous.”
Ramey examines her trauma and anxiety in “The Witch,” a grungy, minor-key number that creeps along with fitting eeriness and sprays shards of electric guitar in every direction. “She dwells in the shadows but she’s never far away/She’s a lyin’ bitch, she’s an evil witch, and she’ll whip you ‘til you break,” she sings, personifying her own intense anxiety as a malevolent figure.
“It helps me to think of my anxiety as something separate from me,” Ramey says. “In order to survive it, I can’t become one with it. It helps me to refer to it as this evil witch or this specter that follows me around and harasses me all day.”
Shallow Graves closes with a haunting, mostly acoustic cover of Hank Williams’ “Angel of Death,” calling back to “Shallow Graves” with its message of a final judgment and the consequences of a dishonest life.
“Ask yourself in those last moments, would you be able to say you did everything right and you treated people well, and you had a loving heart and you were the best person you could possibly be?” she says. “I just wanted to leave that question with everybody and hold up a mirror.”
It’s a brooding, meditative moment, and a fitting close for an album that asks us to heed all the warning signs of the present. Lest there not be a future.