As half of the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray has traveled the world, but as a gay woman and a progressive activist and half of a folk duo that’s long advocated for justice and equality, she’s always torn when she goes back home.
A daughter of the South, she’s lived in Georgia all her life, save for a short period she attended Vanderbilt University. But as a blue voter in a red state, especially as a lesbian raising a child with her partner in rural Dahlonega, she’s aware that she’s often an outsider. It’s something she’s grown to accept, she told The Daily Times recently, but she feels it keenly, so much that she even wrote a song about it on her last album, 2018’s “Holler.”
“I was born in the grist of a rebel yell, swaddled in the song of the whippoorwill / they haunt me and they hold me just the same / but it’s an ounce of comfort, for a pound of grief … .”
She could pick up and leave, she acknowledged. While not a superstar, her lifestyle affords her the ability to live comfortably, and Lord knows plenty of her like-minded brothers and sisters have fled the South for more accepting environs. Ray, however, isn’t going anywhere — because for every hateful headline the land of her birth generates, there are hundreds of others that demonstrate its capacity for the very thing she’s fought for all her life: love.
“If you live somewhere outside of the South, you hear such bad things about Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi or Tennessee or the Carolinas that you probably have a negative view of the South,” said Ray, who brings a solo show to The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville on Tuesday. “And certainly, things have been very brutal in our history. We’ve done terrible things because we’re scared, or in the name of religion, but if you take the long view, now is certainly a time when we need to make a claim to the loving South instead of the hateful South. We need to perpetrate that and keep it going.
“I want to live here, because no one can own this. They can’t take it away from me and hate me so that I’m going to want to leave. That ain’t gonna happen. I’ve known people who have — friends that I’ve had who have been gay or African American, and they felt like they were living in a place where it’s not safe, and so they had to look out for their safety. But for me, I’ve got a lot of white privilege, so I’m going to stay where I am and make a difference. Because I don’t want to live in a bubble. To me, that gets boring.
“For some people, it’s comforting, and it’s a good thing for them to do because they need that,” she added. “But in my own personal experience, I want to make changes where I am, because I can.”
Ray and her Indigo Girls bandmate, Emily Saliers, have known each other since elementary school in DeKalb County, Georgia, and have been performing together since high school. They went their separate ways upon graduation, but homesickness drove them both back to Georgia, where they attended Emory University and began performing as the Indigo Girls, releasing their debut EP in 1985.
By 1988, they had turned the head of Epic Records, and their self-titled, major-label debut featured their first hit, “Closer to Fine.” They won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording in 1990, and subsequent albums charted other hits on the Modern Rock chart — “Hammer and a Nail” from “Nomads Indians Saints” and “Galileo” from “Rites of Passage,” among others, although the records “Swamp Ophelia” and “Shaming of the Sun” both debuted in the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Subsequent records always managed to make it to the upper tiers of the Billboard albums charts, but it’s been four years since the duo’s last studio effort, 2015’s “One Lost Day.” They’re in the mixing stages of the next one, Ray said, and hope to release it in early 2020.
“We went over to England and recorded over there with some friends who did ‘Come On Now Social’ (the band’s 1999 album),” she said. “We worked at Peter Gabriel’s studio, and it sounds really great.”
In the meantime, however, she’s enjoying her time outside of the Indigo Girls paradigm, both with her label — Daemon Records, established in 1990 — and her solo career, which debuted in 2001 with “Stag.” Recorded with The Butchies, a North Carolina-based all-girl punk band, it showcased an incendiary side of Ray that doesn’t fit the Indigo Girls formula of contemplative and soulful folk.
“I was playing with them in 1999 and 2000, and we decided to record some stuff together,” Ray said. “They were like a pure punk rock, kind of riot girl trio, so it came out of that place. At the same time that was happening, I was just hooked into listening to a lot of bands that were of that ilk, and I noticed the shift in some of those older people — bands like The Mekons and Jon Langford — and how they were getting turned onto country music and experimenting with that sort of punkabilly sound.
“I just noticed this thread in country music and old punk rockers, and it started resonating with me a lot, so as soon as I started making ‘Prom’ (her 2005 solo record), I was thinking about that. I made a few other rock records, but at the same time, I was starting to write more country type of stuff and putting it aside until I found the right people I wanted to play that kind of music with. It was a way for me to put together that Southern place I come from and the history of folk music from the South, as well as the music of the mountains.”
When she moved to Dahlonega almost three decades ago, the local scene and sounds drew her in. The results turned into 2014’s “Goodnight Tender,” about as country a record as a punk rock lover with folk leanings could make, fleshed out with fiddle, mandolin, harmonica and steel guitar. It was a natural progression, she added, to bring all of her influences to bear on “Holler,” which straddles a fine line between everything that’s made her the musician she is today.
“It used to be a lot different, because when I first started doing solo stuff, it was mostly punk rock, so it was a little bit riskier,” she said. “People would leave sometimes, because it was so different than what the Indigo Girls was doing, but a large part of that fanbase is open to all different kinds of music — country and punk and hip-hop and everything else, and I think they appreciated that it sounded cross-pollinated.
“I just play my best, and this band I play with, I’ve been doing it for about five years, and I have a lot of faith in them. They’re super musical and really fun to watch play, and I think if I enjoy watching them play every night, and they keep me entertained every night, then I trust the audience is going to be, if nothing else, turned on to these really great players besides just me. It’s a vibe that’s infectious, and because it’s a team effort, and everybody gets along really well, it’s just a fun time. Typically, when people come that don’t know our stuff, they leave and say positive things and talk about feeling good and all that, so that makes me believe in it, and that it can translate.”
Just don’t go expecting to hear any songs from the Indigo Girls catalog. For one thing, the band doesn’t know them, Ray said with a chuckle. It only takes a little musical diplomacy, however, to win Indigo fans over, and in a sense, that’s the same sort of optimism that keeps Ray coming back home to the South, no matter how far the tunes take her. Because despite their differences, Ray has learned over the years, the hearts of most Southerners beat good and true. She won’t stop standing up for what she believes is right, but she won’t stop believing in the better angels of their nature, either:
“I’m gonna tell them boys don’t be a drag, ain’t ya tired of fighting ‘bout the damned ol’ flag / well it ain’t Southern pride it’s just Southern hate / and I know from your mamas that you’re better than that / every time I call, well, you have my back and some time for muddy buddies and a tall glass of sweet tea … ”
“I think your job is to alleviate some suffering every day in your life,” she said. “Do something nice every day to try and help somebody besides yourself, and you should try to live like that on a local level and a global level, too. Our job is to keep the scales from tipping too much the other way, and I think that slowly, we get there. It seems like it’s always one step forward and two steps back, and we can get discouraged because we don’t see our progress, but I think there is a raising of the bar that’s happening that we don’t always recognize.
“I’m seeing people do amazing things in local arenas. If you look at national arenas and you think you can’t be effective, I always tell people to try to make changes where they are. A lot of times, those things become the symbol of what people can achieve, and when people look to that for inspiration, it starts to resonate.”