India Ramey’s Shallow Graves kicks off with a shudder of woozy, western guitar, sounding as much like the soundtrack to some long-lost cowboy epic as the follow-up to Ramey’s critically- acclaimed national debut, Snake Handler. Progressive, gritty, and darkly cinematic, this is a rec- ord inspired by the turbulent present, stockpiled with songs that take aim at the liars, leaders, and hypocrites among us. Ramey calls it her “post-apocalyptic western,” and she fills the al- bum’s track list with plenty of fury and alt-country firepower to match.
Produced once again by Mark Petaccia, Shallow Graves builds upon the momentum kickstarted by 2017’s Snake Handler. A former attorney whose courtroom cases focused on domestic abuse, Ramey exorcised her own demons with Snake Handler, whose songs told real-life tales of her alcoholic father, her crooked family tree, and a childhood spent amongst the ghosts and Pentecostal churches of the Deep South. With Shallow Graves, she turns her gaze outward, too, writing personal songs inspired by her interactions with the modern world. “Hole in the World” finds her mourning the loss of Tragically Hip frontman Gordon Downie, while “Debutante Ball” skewers the pretension and outdated traditions of Bible Belt privilege. Meanwhile, songs like “King of the Ashes” and Shallow Graves’ title track deal with injustice and tyranny, and “The Witch” personifies a different sort of monster — Ramey’s own anxiety — between waves of haunting lap steel and blistering guitar.
Years before recording Shallow Graves at Nashville’s House of Blues Studios, Ramey kicked off her songwriting career in Alabama, where she balanced her nighttime gigs as a big-voiced ban- dleader with her daytime career as a district attorney. She’d been raised in rural Georgia, and she’d gone to law school in order to help women who, like her own mother, found themselves in abusive situations. It was good work, but Ramey couldn’t quite shake her musical compulsion, which she’d been cultivating since childhood. After releasing independent albums like Junkyard Angel and Blood Crescent Moon, she took a break from the legal work and moved to Nashville, where she wrote and recorded Snake Handler. The album’s mix of Americana noire and south- ern-gothic songwriting helped expand Ramey’s reputation far beyond the Deep South, and she toured heavily behind its release. Along the way, she took note of a changing country whose residents’ lives were being shaped by politicians who often prioritized their own agendas over the needs and interests of their constituents. When it came time to write a new collection of songs, Ramey didn’t have to look too far for inspiration.
Angrier and far more guitar-driven than its predecessor, Shallow Graves was recorded with Mark Petaccia (a Nashville-based producer who’d engineered and mixed Jason Isbell’s solo breakthrough, Southeastern, before working on Ramey’s Snake Handler) and brothers Will, Car- son, and Cheyenne Medders. All three Medders siblings had grown up near Ramey’s hometown of Rome, Georgia, and they brought their own version of scorching southern stomp to her songs, which swayed between old school honky-tonk and acid western. Also contributing to the album was fellow songwriter Brian Wright, whose lap steel licks added ghostly ambiance to “The Witch.” On an album filled with road warriors and studio vets, though, it’s Ramey’s star that shines the brightest. Her voice — laced with Bible Belt drawl and southern sparkle — swoons during the slower songs and sounds appropriately outraged during the album’s fast, fierce high- lights, driving home the human heart that beats throughout Shallow Graves.
A stripped-down cover of Hank Williams’s “Angel of Death” brings Shallow Graves to a close. It’s a contemplative finish — one that finds Ramey looking at her own actions, measuring them against the code of ethics by which she measures the rest of the world. On a record that skew- ers the dishonest and emboldens the disheartened, “Angel of Death” reminds us that everyone — Ramey included — has room to grow.
“This album speaks out against corruption and hypocrisy,” she explains, “and there are a lot of people these days who feel they hold a moral high ground and throw around things like religion to maintain their position of power. I chose this Hank Williams song to punctuate this album with the questions he’s asking. At the end of your days, can you really say you were good? Did you do the just and moral thing? Did you?”