Years in the making, Indigo Girls Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Rounder) is a breathtaking experience. Even if you don’t like live albums (you weren’t there, were you?), this should be an exception. Made up of 22 songs, the compilation draws from 9 of the 13 Indigo Girls studio albums.
The iconic lesbian duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers included the expected hits (“Power of Two,” “Galileo,” “Kid Fears,” “Go”) and popular deep cuts, as well as a generous supply of more recent numbers (“Sugar Tongue,” “Able to Sing,” “War Rugs,” “Happy in the Sorrow Key”). Not surprisingly, the stunning symphonic set closes with a rousing rendition of “Closer to Fine,” complete with an audience sing-along. As familiar as your oldest friends, you’ll never hear these songs the same way again.
Never one to sit idle, Ray is also releasing a new solo record this month, her sixth. Holler (Compass/Daemon) is in a countrified vein similar to 2014’s Goodnight Tender. Featuring guest musicians including Brandi Carlile, Vince Gill, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), and Rutha Mae Harris (of The Freedom Singers), Holler is another powerful musical statement from Ray. I had the pleasure of speaking to Amy in advance of Indigo Girls’ October 3 show at House of Blues Houston.
Gregg Shapiro: Indigo Girls are no strangers to live albums, with at least two such previous releases —1995’s 1200 Curfews and 2010’s Staring Down the Brilliant Dream. Why was now the right time for a new live album such as Live with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra?
Amy Ray: Mostly because we’ve been touring with symphonies for about four or five years now. We felt like we’d gotten to a place where we knew the material well enough and wanted to document it. Then we came upon a symphony that fit all the parameters that we needed to make a live record with a symphony—the University of Colorado Symphony. So, it worked out. It was kind of a long process. We had been hoping to get it done for a couple of years.
“Racism is the hardest thing to change in the South, but I’ve found that there are still people who do change.”
I don’t know. This was just what I was writing. I have a band that I’ve been touring with for four or five years. This is really a strong suit for them, and for us together. As we tour and get more and more in the groove with them, we’ve been working on old songs from the rock and punkier stuff. It’s adaptable to that. When I was writing Stag and Prom, I was playing a lot with The Butchies and I was writing to their style. My collaborators typically have a lot of influence over what I’m writing. They’re who I’m creating with, touring with, playing with from day to day. I like a lot of different kinds of music. I don’t prefer this to that; it’s where I’m at. This record has a little more of the earlier punky, eclectic style mixed in with traditional country. I think I was crossing over that line in my writing a little bit.
I’m glad you mentioned collaboration. As always, you have a stellar lineup of guest musicians on the new album, including Brandi Carlile, Vince Gill, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Lucy Wainwright Roche, and Rutha Mae Harris of The Freedom Singers. When you are writing a song—“Last Taxi Fare” for example—do you hear the guest artist’s voice (in this case, Brandi Carlile) as part of the process?
Sometimes. On that particular song, as I was finishing it, believe it or not [laughs] I actually did hear Brandi, and I did hear Vince. I wrote that song over a very long period of time. I think I had watched a CMT award show or something, and Vince was singing with Taylor Swift and Allison Krauss and a few other people. I’ve always loved him, but in that moment I was like, “That guy can really sing harmony!” In any situation. I was working on that song, and it was in my fantasy head that Brandi and Vince would form a trio with me. It’s the weirdest thing, but Alison Brown, who plays banjo on the record, happens to be friends with Vince. It was one of those moments where it was like, “I can’t believe this is going to work out.” In that case, I was definitely hearing them. Vince was an “if you could have anything in the world” kind of thing.
I love the duality of “Oh City Man,” which features the builders of skyscrapers juxtaposed with moonshine makers, and the image of you walking down Broadway during a Manhattan blackout in “Fine with the Dark.” Even though you’ve lived outside of a city for a while, would it be fair to say that you feel the pull of urban living?
I think that I’m mostly a country person, but I feel the pull of the dynamics of urban living, and the poetry of it. I’ve spent so much time in New York City, and cities like London and Berlin—places where I feel the darkness and light, the pull of that, the “Patti Smith” of it. Jim Carroll and The Basketball Diaries and all my great punk-rock icons. I feel their personalities and art in those spaces. I often have to have those spaces in my life, [where I can] get down and walk the streets and spend all night out on the town with myself and the city. It informs what I do. But I find it interesting that even in the city (and the country, too), you have to think about what came before you and how things got built—what was sacrificed so that you can have what you have. That’s the tie between the land I live on in Georgia (which was Cherokee land) and New York, where you’re walking among these incredible buildings built by proud artisans who were brilliant at their craft. They were working for rich people, but none of it was for the artisans. People in New York will say, “They just don’t build buildings like they used to,” when they are around historic areas. I’m like, “That’s because they don’t have a hundred people working for 10 cents an hour—slave labor.”
In the four years between the release of Holler and Goodnight Tender, we have had to endure the election of Donald Trump and all that came with it. Am I on the right track when I say it sounds to me like you address that somewhat in the songs “Sure Feels Good” and “Didn’t Know a Damn Thing”?
Yes, for sure! I don’t know if I was affected specifically by the presidential election or more by the whole vibe of the country and my own community—the polarization, and thinking about the issues around being a Southerner. [I was] trying to take on some accountability myself, as well as trying to understand where people are coming from. It’s easy to dismiss people because they don’t agree with you, or you think they’re going to feel a certain way about things, or you think it’s not possible for them to come around to a place of tolerance or understanding. That’s not where I exist. I exist in a place where you get to know your neighbors and you help each other out, regardless of where you come from. Eventually, those barriers start to fall away, and you begin to understand each other. Hopefully, things change. Racism is the hardest thing to change in the South, but I’ve found that there are still people who do change. I’ve also found that there are people who have a knee-jerk reaction because of the way we’re put into niches and demographics. When people aren’t being their best selves all the time, I say, “I know you’re a better person than this. I’ve seen you in my community. I’ve seen the things you do to help other people. And I’ve seen you at church. I know you have it in you to be better than this.” We all can be better than this.
Every year there seem to be more and more queer female country artists releasing albums, including H.C. McEntire and Sarah Shook in 2018. Because Holler is so steeped in that tradition, what do you think that says about country music and its listeners?
I think country music is opening up. Sarah Shook and Heather (H.C. McEntire)—I’m a big fan of both of them. Both of those artists have found that they have a place in Americana, which is the progressive side of “country.” It’s the place where people who play country, but don’t fit into a more conservative demographic, feel comfortable. Pop country musicians like Sugarland and Dixie Chicks (and others, probably) also feel like they don’t want to be restricted to a certain political perspective. I don’t think music categories need to be restricted by political perspectives in any way, on any side. To me, it’s great that all these artists are getting some play, and that they have someplace where they can sit comfortably and be honored in a way that makes sense to everybody.
Since we’re talking about female country acts, I recently received a press release about a forthcoming Bobbie Gentry box set.
In the pantheon of female country-music artists, where does Bobbie Gentry fall on your personal list of icons?
I would say she has been iconic, probably from my youth—a formative person that made me go, “Oh, I can do this! I’m a female!” She’s like a role model. But for me, I’ve probably looked at someone like Dolly Parton and stayed with that. Dolly would probably be an icon for me in a bigger way for her songwriting and longevity and generosity and vision—the pure star-power.
Have you ever had a chance to play with her?
I’ve never played with her, but I have met her. She’s in a class all her own.
What: Indigo Girls in concert
When: 7 p.m. on October 3
Where: HoB Houston, 1204 Caroline St.
This article appears in the September 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.