It’s rare for someone you met in elementary school to become a lifelong friend, let alone the key to your professional success for decades. But that’s what happened with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who were one grade apart in their Decatur, Georgia school. Once they got to high school, they experimented with playing music as a duo. While in college at Emory University, they linked up officially, calling themselves the Indigo Girls.
They became a fixture of indie music circles in Athens, a fertile scene that also yielded the band R.E.M. However, the two women were far from a monolith of musical taste. Saliers worshiped Joni Mitchell; Ray was more intrigued by the Sex Pistols. But the way they weave their disparate world views and styles together is a large part of what makes the Indigo Girls’ sound distinctive and layered.
It seems everything about Ray and Saliers is long-term. (Musically speaking, that is; despite a popular misconception, they are not romantically involved with each other, although they do both identify as lesbian.) Even their manager, Russell Carter, has stuck with them since 1987. Carter did not take their initial studio efforts seriously – a single and an EP in 1985 – but their first full-length album convinced him they were going places. That was Strange Fire, which came out in a self-produced version in Canada in 1987, but wasn’t released in the US until 1988, when the act signed with Epic.
Both singer-guitarists are skilled songwriters and contribute equal amounts of original material to their albums. On Strange Fire, Saliers wrote “Left Me a Fool.” The typically spare arrangement, just their acoustic guitars and voices plus an added cello line, explains their usual designation as folk rock or contemporary folk. The haunting chords and wistful melody are a harbinger of what would become Saliers’ standard approach to songwriting.
As the album title indicates, Epic thought of 1989’s Indigo Girls as the duo’s true American debut. In terms of getting noticed, this album did its job: it includes the single “Closer to Fine” (with backing by Dublin band Hothouse Flowers), the video for which had major play on MTV. Their Athens, GA buddy Michael Stipe sang backup on “Kid Fears.” And to solidify the landing in the US music industry, the album won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording.
Ray’s “Land of Canaan” shows her usual energetic, rhythmic style. In the early days, she was the one to step up with the rock in their folk-rock equation. And the highly original analogy comparing the biblical Canaan to an ideal lover is poetic par for the course when it comes to Ray’s lyrics.
Nomads, Indians, Saints (1990) intensified the duo’s commitment to a more rock-based sound, with session musicians playing drums and electric guitars and bass. Then again, there’s also fiddle, dulcimer, and accordion, so they hadn’t strayed too far. The album also solidified their fan base. The single “Hammer and a Nail” from that album did very well.
In 1992, they released Rites of Passage, which boasts the closest thing to a mainstream pop sound that the Indigo Girls ever created. It didn’t hurt that the producer was Peter Collins, known for his top-selling work with Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Air Supply, and other major stars. Besides, the studio was packed with chart-busting friends showing up to sing or play, such as Jackson Browne, David Crosby, and the Roches.
But accessible arrangements did not separate Ray and Saliers from their iconoclastic views and brainy allusions. The album’s top single was “Galileo,” which contemplates mixing reincarnation with anxiety. And then there is Saliers’ “Virginia Woolf,” a paean to writing as a powerful means of expression for women, both in Woolf’s era and Saliers’ own.
Swamp Ophelia (1994) stuck with the pop sound; the sentimental single “Power of Two” inspired cover versions all over the globe. At the time, critics praised the record’s lush melodies, with Collins at the control board again.
But then it ends with “This Train Revised,” Ray’s ruthless and furious deconstruction of the spiritual “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” enumerating civil rights atrocities on the scale of both individuals and entire races and creeds. Michael Lorant’s drumming brings the song into a genuine hard-rock realm.
The Indigo Girls hit their commercial peak with Shaming of the Sun in 1997, which made it all the way to the No. 7 spot on the Billboard 200. This was followed by Come On Now Social (1999), which some critics dismissed as more of the same. I disagree. While some tracks are a bit heavy-handed (“Faye Tucker,” for example), others have a refreshing mystery about them.
Take “Ozilline,” for example. The lyrics hark back to Appalachian imagery, starting with an interview with an old woman about her memories—the spoken interview runs at a low level throughout the song—and then piling on the percussion, which gives the banjo an appropriately African-roots context.
In the early 2000s, the Indigo Girls continued to put out albums every two or three years. Their pace has slowed in the past decade, but they’re still making interesting music.
One hopes that Jordan Brooke Hamlin was paid fairly for her extraordinary contributions to One Lost Day (2015). Besides producing the album, she also played 17 different instruments in various multitracked combinations, ranging from French horn to baritone guitar. And there are other session musicians involved, too, giving this record a rich and varied sound.
As usual, it’s the songs themselves that are worth showing up for. The most captivating is “Rise of the Black Messiah,” telling of a tragic moment in American racial relations to which Ray has an unusual connect. The Angola Three were a trio of Black prisoners who in 1972 dared to complain publicly about the conditions in their Louisiana prison. As payback, they were framed for murder and sentenced to life in solitary. Decades later, one of those prisoners wrote to Ray, asking her to share his story. She wrote this song.
It was another five years before the duo would record again, and then it didn’t go quite as planned. Like everyone else in the performing arts, the Indigo Girls felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their newest album, Look Long, was supposed to come out in the spring of 2020. Its release was delayed by a few weeks and the tour supporting it put off for a year.
Thanks to promotion through weekly streaming mini-concerts, they boosted Look Long into the No. 2 spot on the Billboard folk charts, and it even hit No. 21 in the rock category. They will finally be back on the road this summer and fall. If you want to throw your head back and roar “Closer to Fine” and “Galileo” with fellow fans, you’ll find the tour schedule on their website: https://www.indigogirls.com/
Header image courtesy of Propeller Publicity/John Slemp.