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Nashville Scene Something Personal

Indigo Girls succeed with honesty, directness

By Michael McCall

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  For me, enjoying the Indigo Girls' music requires a willingness to cringe. Like a friend with a complete lack of artifice when it comes to discussing politics or personal matters, the duo makes strident observations that are sometimes convoluted and difficult to follow; their revelations can be embarrassing and self-involved. But like that outspoken friend, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers display their passions with an animated spirit; they take chances rather than relying on shallow wordplay or stroking sentimental chords. At a time when pop music overflows with forgettable fluff and vacuous vanity, the Indigo Girls dare to be themselves.

Now in their 16th year as musical partners, Ray and Saliers have a pleasurable, and puzzling, musical history. Like fellow modern rockers U2 and Sting, their earnestness has at times resulted in inflated self-seriousness. That's a trait Saliers acknowledges in one of the band's better-known songs, "Galileo," in which she sings, with purposeful sarcasm, "I'm not making a joke, you know I take everything so seriously." The problem is, this revelation comes in one of the duo's most fatuous tunes. In "Galileo," Saliers examines her own problems and shortcomings while wondering how many reincarnations she'll have to undergo before her soul is as enlightened as that of the great 16th-century scientist. It's this kind of head-scratching leap of reasoning that makes even forgiving fans curl their brows in embarrassment.

But I come to praise the Indigo Girls, not to slam them. My own ambivalence toward the duo turned to admiration after I saw them in concert earlier this year in Tulsa, Okla. After a lengthy break from touring, Saliers and Ray reacquainted themselves with the stage in the boldest and baldest of manners: by going out as an acoustic duo and playing several weeks of arena shows. Their return involved facing tens of thousands of fans night after night with nothing but their own voices and instruments. Without the thunder of a rousing rhythm section, and without deafening volume and dazzling production values, the two performers commandeered a stripped-down stage with nothing but songs and spirit. And they rocked the house, keeping their fans dancing and shouting and singing for most of the two-hour concert.

It's during such live appearances that the Indigo Girls really connect with their fans. "We've never really been about hit singles," Saliers told me in an interview prior to the Tulsa show. "Our fans tend to really care about the music, and I think they know we really care about the music too. Our songs are honest and emotional, and I think people hook into that. It's a mixture of talking about the darkness of the world and also the hope that we can survive."

Indeed, the Indigo Girls are a rare '90s success story because they don't rely on radio and video to connect with fans. Even so-called alternative acts such as Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and Rage Against the Machine have depended on massive amounts of airplay and corporate promotion to build career momentum. On the other hand, the Indigos sell hundreds of thousands of records and tickets while eschewing videos and gaining only minimal airplay. Moreover, they're folk-rockers flourishing in an industry dominated by hip-hop, grunge, and computer technology. As they proved in Tulsa, they can create a joyously raucous celebration with only their guitars and voices. By communicating with such unfettered honesty and enthusiasm, they've touched a chord in listeners, and they've succeeded at making this connection without giving in to the pressures of the music business.

Making the connection
The Indigo Girls, staying true to themselves and to their fans. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.
The two say their start as an independent act working the college circuit gave them a grassroots following that has stayed loyal over the years. Friends since their childhood in suburban Georgia, Ray and Saliers started performing together in high school. By the time they entered college, they were making tapes of original songs. They booked their own concerts, eventually spreading out along the East Coast, where the tightly organized yet independent-minded college radio circuit of the early '80s gave them the opportunity to build street-level support. The success of their self-distributed EP, Strange Fire, led to a recording contract with Epic Records in 1986. "By that time, we had proven that we could do this independently," Ray says. "So we were able to get the kind of record deal we wanted and to make the kinds of records we wanted. We decided only to sign with someone if they were willing to go along with our agenda and our politics and our creativity. Epic ended up being a cool label for us because they've been supportive of our goals."

The duo have also grown stronger as recording artists. Their latest release, the 12-song Shaming of the Sun, finds them experimenting with their brash acoustic style by bringing in more elaborate and more diverse rhythms. They deftly work in multicultural sounds underneath their lyrics, propping up the songs with Indian chants, psychedelic guitars, string arrangements, moody solo piano pieces, even a hurdy-gurdy and a talking drum.

Still, Ray and Saliers are at their best when banging out rousing acoustic songs. "Shame on You," the new album's most immediate song, features time-tested Indigo elements. It opens with Ray strumming a simple yet energetic guitar riff--the kind of propulsive introduction that captures an audience with its joyful spirit. The opening lines find her spending a rapturous day in the Texas sun with a friend. As the song bounces along with its catchy chorus and Latin-tinged rock rhythm, Ray and her fellow traveler stop by a "Chicano city park" because the activity and the music make them "feel so fine." As the lyrics trace the events of the day, however, the upbeat personal observations are balanced with a larger message concerning the mistreatment of immigrant workers.

That said, the segment of the song that garners the largest response in performance has little to do with its story line or its message. It involves a comment that Ray sings with particular gusto: "My friend Tanner, she says, `You know, me and Jesus, we're of the same heart. The only thing that keeps us distant is that I keep fuckin' up.' " It's a perfect Indigo moment, a juxtaposition of the spiritual and the earthy, and it's just the kind of sentiment that fans expect of the duo.

"We know that a lot of our fans connect with us just because some of what we do is uplifting and catchy," Saliers says. "They come and have fun and sing along, and that's great. That's fine with us. Then there are those that study the lyrics and react to the messages and identify with who we are and what we're saying and what we stand for." As if stepping up for her turn to sing, Ray elaborates, "I love music just for its ability to rock me and lift me up and make me feel energized and positive. And I love it because of how it can be used to say something personal or universal. I think we have fans who listen to us for both of those reasons, and that's a good thing."

The Indigo Girls perform with opening act Terri Binion, Oct. 15 at the Ryman Auditorium.

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