Interviewing Amy Ray once is crazy enough, but when I heard Indigo Girls were playing the Ryman on March 9, I decided to push my luck and send Ray an email.
Three days later, I had her on the phone again for another interview. How cool is that? One-half of the musical group arguably most responsible for bringing attention to equality issues was going to talk to me for a SECOND time.
A little background for those of you dwelling under rocks for the past 27 years: Ray and partner-in-crime Emily Saliers formed the Indigo Girls sometime around 1985 when as students at Emory University in Atlanta, they performed together at a local bar. In 1988 they made their first record for a major label and since then have conquered virtually every milestone a band could possible want to conquer, from chart-topping hits to platinum records to Grammy awards, all while being out lesbian women.
Fun fact: Ray went to Vanderbilt her first year of college. “It was very hard for me because Vanderbilt was, at the time, really conservative,” she said. “As someone who had just figured out I was gay, it was rough.”
Pretty interesting since Vandy, in my opinion, is hardly the most conservative school in town and is downright gay-friendly compared to some alternatives. Ray explained, “It wasn’t like that in ’83. It was the Reagan era and it was very conservative. And it was very, very, very money-oriented back then, sororities and fraternities and a lot of money.”
Apparently it was not always that way. “In the 70’s, my sister had gone there and it was incredible,” she said. “I used to go there and hang out on campus with her and it was so progressive and crazy, with art and the music scene was amazing. All these great country-punk bands were coming up and they had concerts there like Black Flag. Great punk groups would come through and play. As a kid, I was like ‘I want to go to school there.’ But then as soon as I got there it changed all of a sudden, going through this über-conservative period.”
We talk about Nashville for a while and some of the wackier stuff that’s going on around here with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “Nashville, I have to say…” her voice trailed off thoughtfully. “It’s gotten so much better than it used to be, but it’s been hard. It’s been slower to come around for queer people there.”
She told me a story about playing a show at 12th and Porter with her punk band in 2002, where the bartenders relentlessly made fun of their audience. “I felt like here we were, totally packed house, people were tipping well- it was a really nice audience,” she explained. “And there were three or four people making constant, really mean, derisive jokes. It just sucked.”
In spite of such a crappy experience, Ray is optimistic. “I think in the South there’s some headway being made, not legislatively [laughs], but dialogue-wise. There’s a lot of good dialogue.”
Her optimism is particularly impressive as a resident of the middle of nowhere in Georgia. “Even though I live in an über-conservative area, there’s a lot of great people here,” she said.
Ray even managed to find a bright spot in the economic crisis. “I think the federal government and the economy was so weakened and impoverished economically speaking that I think a lot of communities were like, “Well, we have to take care of our own.” And it didn’t matter what political alliance you were. You do a shelter, you do a food program, you do a medical clinic, you do a dental clinic, and you do things in your community that help people and it’s not partisan. That’s exciting to me, to see that kind of stuff. And I think that’s one of the good things that has grown out of this horrible economy in the past eight years. But as far as queer issues, there’s dialogue but there’s not a lot of legislative movement and we have a long way to go.”
She has a pretty realistic idea about how progress will go around here. “State by state, in the South,” she said. “But that’s okay. I’m not going to leave. I’m a Southerner, you know I’m a die-hard.”
One thing Ray loves about the South lately is the incredible music scene. “I love how in the South there’s finally more of these indie country-kind of groups that are doing well, really taking the bull by the horns and doing their thing,” she said in between us rattling off a couple favorite groups to each other. She’s totally on top of the music scene in the Southeast, which is super refreshing. I sometimes worry that it’s easy for artists like the Indigo Girls to stagnate artistically, but Ray and I talked about Shovels and Rope and Alabama Shakes. She hipped me to a sweet outlaw country singer named Hannah Thomas.
“We stay active,” Ray said about her music with Saliers. “We talk about music all the time and we talk about writing ideas. Those kind of things constantly inform us and give us a different outlook musically, a different chord vocabulary sometimes, a different way of looking at harmony.”
“Right now we’re playing with this band The Shadowboxers. It’s these young guys that we met a couple years ago that Emily brought into the fold,” Ray explained. “It’s a five piece rock band, but they do a million different kinds of music and they’re really special singers and writers.”
The Indigo Girls are always growing. Each record they make brings something new to the table. Their latest (and fourteenth!) release, “Beauty Queen Sister”, is bold and exciting, featuring their signature harmonies plus a foray into Celtic sounds and incredible string arrangements. Ray even mentioned the Indigo Girls will be making a live record in May with the Birmingham Symphony. I don’t know what you’re doing on March 9, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something better to do than see the ever-evolving Indigo Girls at the Ryman.