Photograph by Sandlin Gaither
Photograph by Sandlin Gaither

Amy Ray Gives Thanks

In this special Thanksgiving feature, Indigo Girl Amy Ray talks about her new album, "If It All Goes South." She explains how she made peace with the negativity that accompanied growing up gay in the Southern church, how her practice of gratitude is helping her transform into an “optimist Southerner,” and the ongoing importance of being earnest.

For more than 30 years, Atlanta-bred Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — aka the Indigo Girls — have been icons of modern folk music and political activism. Ever since their breakout hit “Closer to Fine” (admit it: you just caught an earworm), their tight harmonies and memorable tunes have epitomized diary-intimate and socially conscious folk-pop. Their eponymous 1989 debut album earned them a Best Contemporary Folk Recording Grammy, along with a nomination for Best New Artist (losing out to the infamous Milli Vanilli). They have sold over 7 million albums. One went double platinum, three platinum and three gold.

They were among the first out-and proud musicians to attain commercial success, a status that made them as much culture-war target as musical attraction. (Identifying forthrightly as gay during the Reagan years was both courageous and commercially fraught.) For years, gay and lesbian artists feigned heteronormativity to preserve their careers; the Indigo Girls’ success paved the way for subsequent generations of gender-fluid artists to present themselves as they chose. Over time, their advocacy for a broad spectrum of human-rights and social-justice issues endeared them to an audience hungry for musical heroes to represent their beliefs.

But nobody sells 7 million units pandering to an insular base of fans. Their clear love for singing together and connecting with an audience — no matter how small — won over new fans wherever they played. And even as their albums climbed the charts, Amy and Emily never succumbed to pretension or star-tripping. They remained as down to earth and approachable as they had been during their early gigs in the late 1980s around Atlanta’s Emory Village.

Before the quick and easy communications of email blasts and websites, the Indigo Girls pioneered a do-it-yourself approach to audience-building. By taking time to meet and greet — and, crucially, collect contact information — from fans at their shows, the Girls forged an authentic connection with their audience, backing it up with frequent mass mailings (you know, the kind with postage stamps) of postcards and homey newsletters. They threw mass-mailing parties with cadres of family and friends to address flyers and lick stamps.

Today, those parties are the stuff of legend — but they remain an enduring example of their approach to making music, making it in music, community building and social activism. But now their village, once living-room cozy, spans the continent.

Nearly four decades on, the Indigo Girls maintain a steady touring schedule. Their current tour is taking them to the four corners of the United States with a hometown New Year’s Eve finale with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In February, Amy takes her band on the road in support of her recent solo album, “If It All Goes South,” including a show at Nashville’s High Church of Music, the Ryman Auditorium.

"I don't want to do that anymore. I mean, I don't want to be the 'bitter Southerner,' you know? I want to be the optimist Southerner."

“If It All Goes South” ranges stylistically from roots rock to soaring gospel to keening ballads to shit-kicking hoedowns. Along with her regular touring band, Ray recruited an impressive roster of guest artists for the production, including Grammy winners Brandi Carlile, Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins and the special secret weapon known as Sarah Jarosz, who elevates any project she touches. Recorded in just over a week in live-to-tape sessions at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, the production captures the energy and immediacy that you only get from a band flying live and without a net.

Like many of us from this benighted/blessed region, Ray’s feelings for her Southern heritage are bittersweet, with a simmering undercurrent of righteous anger. “Tear It Down” reflects Ray’s affection for her Southern roots in the face of remnants of the Old South that continue to torment.

I don’t guess that we deserve all this, beauty and the light
The way the firefly returns in June, as dusk sings her lullaby
All the lives that fertilized and the manifested hand
The human bondage that provides the bounty of this land
Tear it down, tear it down
That ragged cross of race

She also shares the musings of someone who would like to embrace her heritage but can’t quite forget the wrongs parceled out in its name. “They Won’t Have Me” (resurrected from the 2006 Indigo Girls album “Despite Our Differences”) begins over gorgeous finger-picked guitar and dobro. “They won’t have me / But I love this place” leads to “All this love to offer, all this love to waste” leads to the band switching from acoustic to electric instruments for a burning build with drums and slide guitar. Finally, this once-tender ballad explodes into a full-on banger of heartbroken despair.

You know what divides us is just a difference someone made
Some got tired of trying, some were just too scared to stay
We gave ourselves to nothing and we let ‘em have their day

Who’s gonna do the planting, who’s gonna pray for rain?
Who’s gonna keep the farmland from the subdivision man?
Nothing, nothing

But as we might expect from someone who has been fighting the good fight for decades, all is not despair. Shot in and around her North Georgia home, the video for “Muscadine” is a black-and-white love letter to a region that, despite its failings — “Why can’t I love my valentine?” she sings, over and over — is the place where she can give thanks and practice gratitude.

I wanna be grateful for what is mine
And when it's not, be satisfied
Take these two halves, make 'em rhyme
Leave this world better than the way I found it

I caught up with Amy the week before Thanksgiving for a Zoom chat from her tour hotel in Wichita. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Amy Ray with bandmates Kerry Brooks, Adrian Carter and Jeff Fielder recording "If It All Goes South" at the Sound Emporium in Nashville. (Photograph by Jordan Hamlin)
Amy Ray with bandmates Kerry Brooks, Adrian Carter and Jeff Fielder recording "If It All Goes South" at the Sound Emporium in Nashville. (Photograph by Jordan Hamlin)

Playing With the Band

Rob Rushin-Knopf: Well, let's jump right to the album. I love that you mostly recorded this live in the studio. It sounds like a true band, which is so rare these days.

Amy Ray: Well, that is really good to hear. We've been together nine years as a band. That was my goal with this record. We were like, okay, we've done two records together, this third one, we’ve just got to be a band. It can't be you know, all about backing Amy up. It's got to be we're all in it together. We're a band going live to tape. You gotta get in there and play your best and prove your existence, you know. We all love each other, and we've been together a long time now. That [band sound] was seriously our main goal.

RR-K: In the intro to this interview, I wrote about a couple of the songs on the album that are critical of the South. Your love for your region is clear, but you also pretty clearly have a sharp axe to grind on some topics. Could you talk about that a little bit? I’m thinking specifically of the song that addresses your relationship with religion called “A Mighty Thing.”

AR: Yeah. I mean, it's axe-grinding, for sure. It's a recognition of my travels through fate and getting on the other side of things and going, yeah, I love all this stuff, and now I’ve got to wrestle with all the crap that I took in that made me hate myself at church. Because I ultimately took in the good stuff, but also took in all the bad stuff that made me hate myself for being gay and hate myself for my body and not being comfortable with myself, my views and everything, my tomboyishness. I got the good stuff, but then I ended up realizing that I had the bad stuff, too. And that made me turn in on myself.

Basically, the song is casting aspersions at organized religion for doing this to people. I made a deal with it — basically took all the good stuff and wrestled with the bad. Still, to this day. I'm basically asking how can we in the face of that — {sings} “this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine” — how do you let your light shine, when everything you've learned in church as a young, gay person is that you're bad? How do you let your light shine?

RR-K: What do you say to yourself of 40 years ago, or someone coming up now? What do you tell that person?

"The people that got me through were the few ministers that believed in the light inside of me and didn't feel judgmental toward me."

AR: What I say in the song is that “a teacher is a mighty thing.” The people that got me through were the few ministers that believed in the light inside of me and didn't feel judgmental toward me. Or the teachers I had in high school that really took me in, even though I was coming out as gay and everything. And they took me and Emily in. We had an English teacher, Ellis Lloyd, that still lives in my mom's neighborhood. And he opened his classroom to us to play music and really encouraged us and nurtured us. And I had a history teacher that kind of took me aside when I was turning into a young Republican (laughs), and he was like, you know, you need to think harder about these things in history and society and stuff. He kind of took me to task and really made me wake up, actually.

So, I would tell my younger self to stay with those people. But I don't know if you can avoid that struggle. I think you have to have it.

You can either look away from the church completely, or you can face it and decide whether it's for you or not and take the good and leave the bad. I have a lot of atheist friends who just don't even mess with any of it. But you still have to face society. It's all a church, you know? The church of the South is the church of the South. And you got to face it. You gotta find the good and find the people and be willing to congregate with the ones that don't agree with you as well. That's the big lesson to me: I didn't want people to judge me, but I spent a lot of years judging other people. And I don't want to do that anymore. I mean, I don't want to be the “bitter Southerner,” you know? I want to be the optimist Southerner.

RR-K: Well, you know, Chuck Reece, our editor at Salvation South, was one of the founders of The Bitter Southerner.

AR: Which I thought was great.

RR-K: But when he started Salvation South, the very first thing he wrote was “I'm not bitter anymore. What I am is hopeful.”

AR: I didn't know that part of his trajectory. He wrote that? Wow, that's cool. Yeah, that's very cool.

Photograph by Sandlin Gaither
Photograph by Sandlin Gaither

Heeding the Call

AR: You know, I wanted to be a preacher. I mean, I felt like I had a calling. Decatur First Methodist Church. I just was really into church — youth group, Bible school, Wednesday night supper, choir, I mean everything. I love it, you know, and then I had to wrestle with it, right? I was pro-life for a while and really went through a lot of stuff and came out on the other side.

RR-K: I heard you had a Reagan sticker on your car.

AR: I did, I really did. I went through a lot figuring out how to have autonomy from my parents politically, too. And then also how do you keep the good stuff and throw out the bad. All that stuff. Everybody goes through it, in the South especially.

I had an internal translator for the church services that just made it work for me. And I just took the good stuff. When I was in college at Emory, I wanted to go to theology school, because my granddad was a preacher and a great-grandad on my mom's side was an itinerant traveling preacher. I was fascinated by all that, you know, and I thought there was a kind of a calling or something.

And then I was like, I can't do that. I can't even … I’m too pagan to be able to preach in a church. I'd have to be in a church like the Unitarian Church, which I really respect, but I am addicted to that construct that I learned as a kid, a certain kind of Methodist service. So, I decided, well, I'll just sing. But really, for a long time I thought I would get to theology school one day.

RR-K: And you still consider yourself a faithful believer?

AR: I'm a pagan who has a relationship with the historical Jesus. That's what I call myself. I believe in the tenets of what I learned about the gospel in the Christian church, and I think they're not very different from the tenets you learn in any church. You know, love thy neighbor, all that stuff. It's all about treating each other with respect and forgiveness.

And I believe in redemption. I am an anti-death penalty person because I believe that every person has a chance for redemption. A lot of the things that I learned that were good in church I still hang on to. And those are taught in a lot of other faiths. What I think we all want is like the Joseph Campbell thing. We all want a construct of some type to operate and live within. It might be humanism, it might be some kind of faith doctrine, but we all want that to help us navigate life. And that's what it does, you know, for good or bad.

"I just figure the basis of good in faith traditions is still there, and we have to hang on to that and not let any church take it away from the people who make it great, the ones just trying to do good."

And the church, all the churches, have done terrible things. But also good things. Like when you go to the School of the Americas protest at Fort Benning, the majority of people who show up are Catholics. They are peace-loving pacifists who show up to these marches. And so how do you make that work with all the bad stuff, like colonization and missionary work and imperialism and all that? And I just figure the basis of good in faith traditions is still there, and we have to hang on to that and not let any church take it away from the people who make it great, the ones just trying to do good.

Amy in the studio with Sarah Jarosz (Photograph by Jordan Hamlin)

Building the Ecosystem

RR-K: You mentioned that the Indigo Girls are doing around 75 to 100 shows a year now. Apparently, that’s not enough for you, because you are heading out in February behind the solo record.

AR: Yeah, we're starting in Texas and then across the South. We’ve got the Ryman (Feb 23) opening for Tedeschi-Trucks, and we just confirmed the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta on February 25.

RR-K: It's bound to be a different level of creature comfort between the Indigo Girls and how you roll with the band.

AR: Yeah, I don't have any problem with it. I love it. I mean, we get our own hotel rooms. I'm not sleeping on floors like we used to. [laughs]

I drive most of the time because I'm addicted to driving. We pull a trailer. There's seven of us, sometimes eight. We are just a bar band, you know. The (1,000-seat) Variety Playhouse is the biggest thing or opening for Tedeschi Trucks. A lot of times we're playing for 50 people someplace where we don't have a good following yet.

RR-K: So Indigo Girls fans don't just turn out automatically?

AR: (laughs) No, no. I mean, you know a lot of the people that come to see me did learn about it through Indigo Girls, but there's a whole other set of people that, I don't know, the Indigo Girls aren't necessarily their bag, I guess. Over time I've discovered that.

You know, when I first started doing solo stuff in 2001, it was like more punk-rock stuff. The Indigo fans that came out left sort of quickly. (laughs) We had a lot of them for a while, and then I just had to build my own thing. Then I sort of switched to country music, which is a whole other thing. It's really like Southern music. It's like country, but it’s...

"We have no crew. I book all the hotels. My agent and I book the gigs. It's just totally different. I'm the girl. Me and six straight white guys."

RR-K: Roots?

AR: Roots. Yeah. I switched to that and I got back some of the Indigo fans. But then I had some people pop up and say, “Why don't you do the punk thing anymore?” And I'm like, “Because you didn't show up!” They're like, well, we love it now, and I'm like, okay, whatever. [laughs] I love playing that punk rock. I love punk rock so much. So much. If I can play the chords fast enough, I’ll probably try to have reunion at some point with The Butchies.

But yeah, it's a whole different thing. We have no crew. I book all the hotels. My agent and I book the gigs. It's just very totally different. I'm the girl. Like wow, this is so ironic. Me and six straight white guys. [laughs]

RR-K: Getting back to the album for a second … you have a bunch of outstanding guest artists on the project. Just to name one: Brandi Carlile. You've got to take some pride in her success. I know you resist taking any credit for her rise, but you got to admit, you two really gave her a hand up at the beginning. It's not that she didn't do the work. But gosh, you guys gave her…

AR: We gave her a platform. But you know what? I think anybody else would have, too. That's the thing. It's hard to take credit for her because she's so undeniable. I feel like anyone could have filled that. Any artist at the time that was bigger than her could have given her that platform and been better off for it. Because she added to the show. She didn't ever subtract. Right? And I felt like she was gonna ascend, no matter what. She was just on a trajectory. It was kind of unstoppable. We knew it.

RR-K: I was thinking ahead of our chat that we have to thank the Indigo Girls for your decision to take Brandi on tour with you almost 20 years ago, because that led to having Joni Mitchell come back this spring and give us that amazing Newport show.

AR: Right. Right, right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. (laughing)

RR-K: The butterfly flaps its wings. You never know what you set in motion with an intentional act.

AR: That's true. You're right. You don't know. It all works together. But then again, we can thank R.E.M. for giving us a shot, you know, and Drivin N Cryin. And The Squalls, who gave us our first gig, opening for them. You never know what's gonna happen, right? That is the reason why you share gigs. It’s like feeding an ecosystem. Because it's all an ecosystem, right?

Photograph by Sandlin Gaither
Photograph by Sandlin Gaither

Living in the Community

RR-K: It’s clear that building community is key to your whole world view. But let’s look at another side of that, the challenge of bridging the divide with people in your community who don’t share your beliefs and goals.

AR: Yeah.

RR-K: You live in North Georgia in a very conservative community.

AR: Yes, Dahlonega. I've lived up there for 30 years now. I moved up there as soon as I could. I always wanted to live in the country my whole life, even as a kid. So as soon as I had the money, I bought land in Dahlonega and moved to the woods. I live on the river on 80 acres, and it's like heaven. I love the community up there. It's very different from me. The majority of it is different from me politically, but whatever. I have a lot of good friends from every walk of life, and it's taught me a lot, actually, and I feel comfortable with it.

RR-K: You know, I wonder, because obviously, you're recognizable and known.

AR: Not by everybody up there, though. Some people just know me as a person that's lived there for a long time. Honestly, there are a lot of people up there, especially the younger people, that have no idea what I do. Some people know I'm a musician, like they know I have kind of a weird career or something. But I’m more recognized as being one of the few left-wingers.

RR-K: Do you get involved in the in the local political activity?

AR: Yeah. I did a series of benefits for a high school music program up there. There's a place called the Community Helping Place that does amazing work. They have three medical clinics, dental clinics, a thrift store, advocacy for the homeless. It's pretty amazing. Obviously, it's nonpartisan, because you can't do anything up there that’s not. So I do stuff with them.

"There's a lot of interfaith work being done to help people that are down on their luck. And I think that's cool, so I try to do stuff that’s more community-based."

County commission meetings and water issues, the animal shelter, you know, community stuff — those are the things that are important to me up there. I really try to be in it because there's a lot of good people in the community and good activists that are trying to do things for the better. There's a lot of interfaith work being done to help people that are down on their luck. And I think that's cool, so I try to do stuff that’s more community-based.

RR-K: There's yet another election in Georgia coming up. (Incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock will face Republican challenger Herschel Walker on December 6. Don’t forget to vote.) Do you or Emily have any plans to jump into that in any way?

AR: We haven't been asked yet. Of course, we jump in by just talking about it all the time. For (gubernatorial candidate Stacey) Abrams, we did an event with her and did some stuff to support her, like we put her picture on our guitar picks and gave them out everywhere for six months, raised money and stuff like that. But we haven't yet been asked by the Warnock team. Of course, we will do whatever.

We rarely do endorsements of specific political figures because we try to talk about policy issues to get people to think more that way instead of just about the person and the cult of personality. But with the Abrams race and the Warnock race, you just got to step in. Everybody needs to step in; everybody that can do anything needs to help. We'll probably reach out and see if they want to do anything, but I think it's mostly gonna just be trying to spread the word and do some social media stuff, things like that.

I was bummed about Abrams’ loss. I feel like she's done so much to build out our infrastructure of voter advocacy and done all this legwork with stuff like the New Georgia Project. But I feel like there’s this thing with African American women where they do all this work and they don't get the prize. It just seems like that's what's happening, and it's a bummer, you know? Because she is so actively working on behalf of so many important, overarching issues, and then doesn’t win. So you're like, ahhhhhhhhhh, depressing. But we carry on.

The Indigo Girls in 2005 (Photograph by Wendy Harman, licensed through Wikimedia Commons)

Staying Where You Are

RR-K: It’s more than 30 years of the Indigo Girls carrying on. There's been momentum and progress, and then there've been a lot of setbacks. You say carry on. How do you keep going and how discouraged do you let yourself get?

AR: You have to let yourself get discouraged just for a minute to vent, to get it out of your system. But then I look at people like that new rep from Orlando, Maxwell Frost. Now, that kid is 25, and he's amazing. So I look at the things that do happen, and that gives me a reason to carry on.

Georgia? Yeah. You know, we went the other way from what the national picture was, but we've already made a lot of progress. We're getting there and things are changing. I feel a shift, so I just try to remember that it's a long, long road. Like any of the work Emily and I have done, like with Native American issues, or queer issues, or issues around feminism and choice, or gun safety legislation and the gun violence problem here. All the stuff that we work on is long. It's long.

Especially the Native issues. You have to have such a long view to be involved in that. We've worked on Honor the Earth since we started it in the early ’90s. It has taken that long to get any real media attention. But that's why these people — like the civil rights movement and indigenous movement, the social justice movements — are multi-generational. The reason they're intergenerational, the reason why young people and old people are working together is because that's what it takes. The old folks started when they were young, and they're still working on it, and the new folks are learning from them. And they know it's gonna take so many generations to make change. That's how they do it.

I look at that and that keeps me optimistic, it gives me some humility and just makes me go, well, look at these folks: They just keep at it and at it and have these little successes and they don't let anything defeat them. You know, so like, stay on it. Stay where you are. Don't move, don't leave the South and let other people own it.

"I have just as much right to have my political perspective, my social justice perspective, and live in the North Georgia woods as the person that lives next door to me that feels completely different."

You know, when (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis said, “Woke goes to Florida to die,” I was like, buddy, you have no idea what the population of Florida is. There are so many people in Florida that do not feel that way, you know, and it's the same in Georgia.

That’s what rankles me, is when people think they can own a place. No. No. We're all here. We all have a right to be here. You can't own it politically, you know what I mean? And so that gives me anger that's an energy to work. You know what I mean? Because I don't want to be run out of town. And that's how it feels. I have just as much right to have my political perspective, my social justice perspective, and live in the North Georgia woods as the person that lives next door to me that feels completely different. And we can be neighbors, and we can help each other out and respect each other. And that's the way the world is supposed to work.

RR-K: But the myths die hard. The Lost Cause. God, guns, and guts, all that kind of stuff. For so many people, it's really such an article of faith.

AR: Yeah, and the thing that drives me crazy is that people that don't know that about those people think they are stupid people. And so it sets us back even further, because then they're putting all these folks that feel differently in this category of dumb Southerner. Right? And it's like, no, they're not. It's people like my dad was. I don't know if he would feel so down with (former President Donald) Trump, but he would probably like DeSantis a lot. And it's like you said, they've internalized it. It's a safety thing. It's a survival thing. It's people that feel like they're losing their place in society. And the reaction is “You're not gonna take this from me.” There's still that Confederate ideology that has been passed down through generations, you know? “You're not gonna take this from me, this is mine.” And I’m like, no, it's ours. And no one's trying to take it. Just be in it. Help, get involved in your community. No one’s gonna take it away.

The Amy Ray Band: Matt Smith, Jeff Fielder, Adrian Carter, Amy Ray, Jim Brock, Kerry Brooks and Dan Walker (Photograph by Sandlin Gaither)
The Amy Ray Band: Matt Smith, Jeff Fielder, Adrian Carter, Amy Ray, Jim Brock, Kerry Brooks and Dan Walker (Photograph by Sandlin Gaither)

Living in Gratitude

RR-K: We are running this story on Thanksgiving day. With that in mind — and looking at the contradiction of such a wonderful world versus things are so messed up — how do we find a position of honest gratitude? Not Pollyanna, you know, but real, honest gratitude that also recognizes the challenges we face.

AR: Well, Thanksgiving has a built-in dichotomy because of the Indigenous folks. If you really look at your history, and you're willing to face it, there's already a dichotomy in there, which is we colonized the shit out of this land and hurt a lot of people and killed a lot of people and took a lot of people's way of life away. So that backdrop is always there. But I was raised in — and I love — the tradition of gratitude at Thanksgiving. Because I base it on family, and on getting together with your family and your friends and friends’ friends that come because they don't have family here. And I think there is a way to take that holiday and make it about hope and gratitude. Just for that moment.

Yeah, there's a lot of crap in the world, and in Georgia and the South, generally. But you have to take a moment. If you can't take a moment to be thankful for all the good things, you will never have the strength to fight the bad things. And that's just what I live by. I just find the moment to have gratitude.

I mean, I'm so lucky. It's unbelievable, you know. I’ve got a beautiful place to live. I have a child and a wonderful partner. I have family, a lot of cousins, a lot of family. A lot of animals. [laughs]

I just have a lot of blessings and privilege. I try to always acknowledge that. And then I try to acknowledge the next level up, which is the gratitude for all the people that are out there doing the work in the trenches because there are so many people right now that are doing really hard stuff.

I just try to think of all that without being Pollyannish. It's hard not to be Pollyannish because it is Pollyanna in some ways. And what's wrong with that? You can have hope and gratitude and all that stuff in the face of all the crap. You just can. I don't know how to convince somebody of it. I’m just doing it as an example. Right?

So also, I think it's good on Thanksgiving to do something for somebody else. You know, just as a practice, I always try to think of something I can do — just one act, give money or help a neighbor or whatever.

RR-K: In a place like North Georgia, or anywhere else the old Southern myths have really taken root, what’s a useful strategy for those of us who have an interest in bridging the divide?

AR: I think getting involved in community-based issues is a strategy. Work at the food pantry,. Raise money for the high school band. Play at the gospel tent or just go to the gospel tent. Volunteer in your community. You're going to be working with people that are not aligned with you politically, but you do it because that's how you make those bridges. I swear it is. I know it is because it's happened for me. And it's also how people see each other as people and stop hating so much.

There are a lot of really good people out there that are trying to do good things. So first of all, you got to find your people, people that just want to do good things. And then you gotta volunteer. That's what I think.

"There are a lot of really good people out there that are trying to do good things. So first of all, you got to find your people, people that just want to do good things. And then you gotta volunteer."

I got advice from my kid’s dad. He is from North Georgia. He's an amazing gay man, and he's lived in the same community his whole life. I asked him when I first got up here: You just navigate this so beautifully. You have so many friends, and everybody respects you, and you're this Unitarian, left-wing, gay man. How are you doing this?

And he told me, “I just don't assume the worst about people. And I don’t go in assuming that they don't like me, or are judging me. And it seems to work for me.” He does all sorts of volunteer work and tries to be involved civically. And I was like, okay, let's try that.

RR-K: This brings me to a quote from your Indigo Girls history blog ("A Year a Month"). “I feel like earnestness has served us well, if not always artistically.” Speak to that a little bit.

AR: I think I was speaking in the context of us getting so much flack for being the earnest lesbian folk duo, you know, and always feeling defensive about it. Because there are all those emo bands and incredible artists that I love — you know, Elliott Smith and Fugazi, Pearl Jam, Patti Smith, and people that are so emotive and wear their hearts on their sleeves. They have a cool factor about them, especially the men, so they don't get denigrated so much. And Emily and I spent a career fighting back (laughs) just to come out on the other side and say, yeah, this is what served us. Our willingness to be earnest and vulnerable and honest about who we are and our feelings and talk to people in that context is what we have.

It was an issue early on when we were given bad reviews or talked about in a certain way. Partly I just needed to grow more as an artist. I honestly feel that way. But the earnestness and the willingness to be vulnerable is what held our audience together and our community, and it’s what carried us on through to where we are now. Because we’ve just never been one to have artifice. We've always just been who we are. And it's not always a good thing, you know. It doesn't mean that all of our albums are great or anything. It's not even about that. It's just about bringing people together, and just giving people safety in some way in a space that feels good. All different kinds of people.

I think that when we came out on the other side of that, we realized, yeah, this is what we were meant to do, and it has served us well. It has given us a career without even deciding this is going to be our spiel, our niche. Like we're going to be the earnest singers and we're going to have an audience that's also earnest. [laughs] We never thought of it. We always just went against the grain to do our thing and didn't understand why people had a problem with earnestness, actually.

Photograph by Sandlin Gaither
Photograph by Sandlin Gaither

Honoring the Tricksters

AR: Someone's working on a documentary about us, so we were looking at a lot of old footage recently, and I was like, oh my god, some of it's so cringe-worthy. But some of it is illuminating about what we were thinking and what we went through and where we came out on the other side. And thank God we didn't have any filters. We just did what we were going to do and didn't get defeated because, oh my god, we were so green and naive and willing to just say whatever, you know. And I'm glad. I'm really glad. I have no regrets. I can cringe but I don't have regret about it. (laughs)

RR-K: I think it's the essential thing that created that unique, everlasting connection that goes back to people who were listening to you around Emory Village, people who were attracted to you and stuck with you. One of the essential things about your music is that it's communitarian. The function of your music, in my mind, is building and organizing community. You know, you’re a community organizer.

AR: Proudly! Proudly! [laughs]

RR-K: It seems like it was not consciously the driving factor in what you were doing. But it sure became the structure of the Indigo Girls and of Amy Ray as a solo artist. This is what you live within.

AR: Yes. You're right. It's what we aspire to do still, like we think of it that way, and we thought of it that way in Little Five Points when we were doing shows at the pub and trying to organize or raise money for Meals on Wheels or whatever. The community raised us. Because people like Kevin Kinney and Caroline Aiken, Benjamin  — all the people from all different walks of life that were hanging around and doing music — they all embraced us in different ways and with different tones and attitudes, but always recognized us in some way as part of the community.

We felt this, we felt the community, you know, and in Atlanta during that time — Cabbagetown and all that stuff — for us it was very rich and fertile.

The only regret I have is how segregated things were. And not knowing that there was this whole other scene going on, you know, the Black music scene that at this point is dominating Atlanta. It's amazing, and it's so cool for it to be an epicenter of the hip hop movement. So I think the only thing I regret is this missing piece. We were very white, a very white scene, but we were a community and we were embracing of queerness and otherness in every way.

"That's the kind of thing that only certain elders in my life can make me feel: I'm glad you did that, because it made me think. They pop up everywhere. There's no shortage of them."

And I think that's something to be proud of. Because, I mean, I don't know what better experience you can have than playing in the Little Five Points Pub and having Benjamin get up and read a poem in drag between waiting tables at the gig. Right? Okay. It doesn't get any better than that, you know? When I look back on that, you know, I'm just like, that was prime. (laughs)

RR-K: Benjamin was a singular cat, for sure. There’ll never be another one like him.

AR: You know, he ran me through my paces all the time, that guy, and I just love him for it. I love the way he challenged me. He would gravelly-quote lyrics of mine back to me that were really just not great or not accurate. And he would laugh. And I would be like, you're the trickster. You're the frickin’ trickster in my life. I loved him so much.

He would also remind me of my privilege, you know, because he had a life that was pretty rough and stacked against him in so many ways. And he would sort of take me to task for being self-pitying in some songs and made me recognize that I didn't know what it was really like to suffer. And I had to think about things when he would say things like that.

I mean, I loved him and he loved me, and we were friends. But he was a trickster. I always appreciated that. At first, I was taken aback, like, “Hey, why do you have to make me feel small or something?” Right? But that's not what he was doing. He was making me think. That's what he did for a lot of people in his poetry and music.

That whole scene really — Kelly Hogan, Big Fish Ensemble, The Jody Grind. All these bands that had lyrics that were very smart and questioning, challenging and ironic and very witty in a way that just made you think about things in a different way. And I really looked up to all those folks, you know, and thought of myself as this little Indigo Girl. They were my peers, but they already had this idea of society and how you figure it out. They already had that going. And I was still in college and learning how to think, you know what I mean?

RR-K: Well, you're not little Indigo Girl anymore. You're top of the heap now. Do you have any tricksters now who keep you honest?

AR: I have a lot of tricksters in my life. Yeah. (laughs) I have people in my life, musicians that I really love. And mentors in the Indigenous community that have no problem challenging me.

There are a lot of tricksters. You just have to say yes to the invitation all the time and that's what creates the opportunity. We were doing an event with Stacey Abrams, and I made some kind of joke under my breath and Stacy leaned over to me and goes, “You know, they can see your face.” And I was like, what? And she took me down. She was just like, you know, don't be careless. When you're in events, you gotta be engaged and pay attention. You can't be a smartass.

That's the kind of thing that only certain elders in my life can make me feel: I'm glad you did that, because it made me think. They pop up everywhere. There's no shortage of them. I think, because now I'm willing to be open to it, I can look at it and chuckle and learn. Yes, you have to be open to tricksters all your life, you know?

RR-K: Amy, I appreciate you taking time out of your tour to talk for so long. Thanks so much.

AR: It's good, very refreshing. It gave me a lot of things to think about. Be well.

Rob Rushin-Knopf blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom.

Author Profile

Rob Rushin-Knopf writes about music and culture at Immune to Boredom.

Leave a Comment