I’m a dog trainer so it’s no surprise I understand the sacred bond between a canine and their human. But sometimes I struggle to find the words to convey the depth of that bond. I’m always looking for art that comes close to representing what dogs mean to me, and what they have always meant to me. I am someone who has always understood dogs better than people. This started in the darkness of an abusive childhood where dogs were my only friends. Sometimes music comes closer to capturing a feeling of a moment, an emotion, a connection than words on the page ever can. Honestly, there aren’t enough love songs about the really special bond that exists between people and their dogs. Thankfully, prolific queer artist Amy Ray is helping to fill that void with her new single “Muscadine.”
From the moment I saw the album art – a black and white photograph of Ray surrounded by a motley pack of dogs — I was smitten. Ray is half of the music duo Indigo Girls who have been writing and performing folk music with a very queer approach for nearly thirty years. The Indigo Girls have been my favorite band since I first discovered them when I was seventeen, the same time I came out as queer in 2001 and started to explore LGBTQ+ community. Having spent my early teen years listening exclusively to country music, there was something about the sound of the duo that really resonated with my music sensibilities. It also sparked newfound attempts at finding ways to fit into queer culture (let’s not talk about the awful mixtape I made for my first girlfriend that was entirely bad 90s bro country music). As much as love the duo, I’ve also been a fan of Ray’s solo work, from her punk albums that I listened to on loop in my mid/late 20s to her more recent country albums.
“Muscadine” isn’t the first time that imagery of dogs has made it into one of her songs, but this is the first song dedicated entirely to her love of her dogs, and the special relationship that they share. Not only is “Muscadine” a love song for dogs, it is a tender queer song of love and mourning that anyone who has every loved a very good dog can appreciate. In an interview connected to the release of the single and the accompanying music video with Georgia magazine Garden & Gun, Ray explained that the song was written for her dog Sawyer who passed away: “Regardless of living deaf and blind for his last few years, he was always willing to go on adventures with me in the woods. He might run into a few trees along the way, or fall in a little ditch, but he always got up and carried on.”
The hardest part of loving dogs is knowing that their lifespans are significantly shorter than ours. Part of loving dogs means knowing that we will mourn them. In the last year and a half, my two senior dogs have passed away, one at 17.5 years and the other, a former street dog rescue, we estimate at 10 to 12 years. 2020 was a strange year for everyone, but it was an especially sad time for me. Even though their deaths were, in some ways, expected, the loss was shocking. Within a matter of months, I found myself with one leash in my hand instead of three. This, of course, was particularly complicated by the strangeness of living through a global pandemic. My little 17-year-old dog passed away in May 2020 and, although he had been deaf and blind for the past few years of his life, he’d remained incredibly active. This dog was my guardian angel seeing me through some of the hardest and the best moments of my life as I had figured out how to go from an 18-year-old punk to a 36-year-old, long-term partnered, established artist and all around adult. I’d always said that losing him would destroy me. It didn’t, but there is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss his presence at my ankle. Ray’s song captures the feeling of spending that quality time with a good old dog.
I started sharing “Muscadine” with a few of my close friends who I knew were both fans of Ray’s music, and also mourning the passing of their old dogs. When the music video was released I was stunned at how tender it was.
“Muscadine” is filmed in black and white. It’s a simple film that features Ray walking near her home in Georgia with her four dogs. It’s a beautiful and quiet song with a gorgeous video that anyone who enjoys the simple pleasure of walking with a dog, especially a beloved old dog, will appreciate.
“Muscadine” isn’t the first time that dogs, the unique relationship we have with our dogs, and the fear and awareness of their mortality have come up in Ray’s music. “Ozilline,” from the Indigo Girls 1999 album “Come On Now Social,” opens with “I had to put the dog down/ Before I hit the road/ Yea I watched that sweet old life/ Become a bag of bones.” More recently, “My Dog,” a sweet country ballad on Ray’s first solo country album “Goodnight Tender,” touches on fragility with the lyrics, “My dog, he don’t even bite/ but he barks all night./ My heart, it don’t break/ My heart, it don’t even break/but it sure does ache.”
I suspect I’ll be listening to “Muscadine” on loop in 2021 just as I did “Goodnight Tender” and Ray’s 2018 country album “Holler” while I grappled with the death of my dogs last year. I have my dream job writing about dogs, but when you are grieving the death of them that’s a bit complicated. Ray’s music was the perfect loving and haunting sound to accompany the days that suddenly felt strangely empty.
It’s timely that Amy Ray would release a love song for dogs during the course of the pandemic where so many have adopted dogs (to the point that shelters across the country have been emptied!). More people are developing new and deepened relationships with their dogs as they have spent time round the clock together during pandemic lockdowns. For many people, dogs have been their closest companions during COVID.
“He ain’t picky rain or shine he’ll walk with me any ole’ time” Ray sings in “Muscadine.”
Even though the old saying is that dogs are “man’s best friend,” it turns out the relationship between dogs and women might be significantly more important. Anthropologists at Washington State University (WSU) are working on a new study showing that as dogs evolved over time, the relationships those dogs had with women might have had a more significant impact on the development of the human/dog relationship than dogs’ relationship with men. The researchers found that “dog-human coevolution was constrained by ecological factors, enhanced by cooperative hunting and resource defense, and disproportionately influenced by dogs’ relationships with women.”
While this study isn’t looking at LGBTQ people, anecdotally I know that for many of us there is something really special about relationships between queer people and our dogs. “Muscadine” captures some of that tender queer bond of having a dog who knows you better than you know yourself, and the simple pleasure of a dog who, as Ray so aptly sings, just wants a “hand that’s kind.”