“I spent a lot of years doing what everyone around me wanted me to do, what I thought was the ‘right thing’ to do. When I got old enough not to give a shit anymore, I told everyone what I was going to do,” declares sassy Southern spitfire India Ramey, who will release Snake Handler, her brilliant new album, on August 4th. The Nashville-based songstress has lived one heck of a life, and her experiences intricately shape her gritty brand of darkly-tinged alt-country.
“I’m a recovering lawyer,” she admits with a laugh. “I grew up poor; my mother wanted us to go to college so we could get good jobs and not have to rely on men to be financially secure,” she explains. “I quit practicing in 2009; I got laid off when the economy tanked. At that time, I was finishing my first record—I don’t know why I was making a record, I just felt compelled to do it. I’d made all these songs and I wanted to sing. My producer then introduced me to Pappy Middleton, who has worked with Bonnie Raitt for years. Pappy sat me down one night and said, ‘Hey kiddo, are you looking for a new job?’ I said ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘Don’t. I think you have something here. You need to do this now.’ So here we are,” she says. “I owe it all to Pappy.”
Reared in Rome, Georgia until leaving home as a youngster to study ballet at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Ramey was raised on a steady diet of Stevie Nicks and Neko Case. “We sang together every Saturday—housecleaning day—my mom would put on Fleetwood Mac while we cleaned, and we’d all try to out-sing each other,” Ramey recalls of time spent with her mother and sisters. “I sang all the time. I was always in a costume with a choreographed song and dance and made everyone watch me,” she laughs. “My first instrument was my voice.” Music was Ramey’s passion, but she never thought that a music career was a viable option. “Eventually, I couldn’t deny it anymore,” she says. “I had to pursue music.”
Four years ago, Ramey began crafting the songs that would become Snake Handler, which coincided with the death of her estranged father. “As always, when I get upset about something, I write,” she explains. “My early memories are riddled with violence. My dad was an addict, and probably had a severe personality disorder. I have vivid memories of hiding behind various pieces of furniture in the house, watching him brutalize my mother, and seeing my sisters sneak out of a window to go and call the cops. And, my dad was a cop. I’d be asleep, and he’d come and kick down a door, and jerk my mama out of bed and start wailing on her,” she adds. “After he left for good, things got better. I hated that dude my whole life; I spent a lot of energy hating him, yet in the end, I realized I loved him, and I was heartbroken and confused when he died,” she continues. “I grieved the relationship we never had. I did go visit him at the end, and I told him I forgave him. The last song on the record is about saying goodbye to him.”
Snake Handler was recorded in six days with producer Mark Petaccia, the sound engineer from Jason Isbell’s 2013 masterpiece, Southeastern. “My producer made a 110% effort to get inside my head at every turn, to make the best record we could possibly make,” she says of Petaccia. A fan of the dark and creepy and fascinated with the fringe, Ramey writes of depression, overcoming obstacles, and her childhood recollections. “Think ‘True Detective—Season 1,” she laughs. “I seemed like bubbly child, but I was dark, weird, little kid who liked to watch scary movies.”
Even the very name of the album’s title track evokes sinister imagery and brings to mind rural Appalachian practitioners who dance with danger by taking up serpents in their rural Holiness churches. “Oh, my people were old Methodist farmers,” she laughs, and assures that the song is metaphorical. “It’s about facing your demons, the snakes in your head, getting rid of the toxic people in your life,” she explains. “There’s always a fear that those things can take you down.”
“Even though the record is dark, it’s really fun,” she continues. “Life is dark and weird and messy. I don’t even know how to write a song trying to pretend that it’s not. That would bore the hell out of me. The stories are really important to me; they’re not all about my dad, but that kind of stuff needs to be heard. So many people have been through what I’ve been through, but they don’t talk about it. I want other people to know they aren’t alone,” she adds. “I want to make people feel something.”