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Amy Ray Plugs In To WMOT Once Again For Wired In

Amy Ray_sandlin-gaither.jpg
Sandlin Gaither

Amy Ray and WMOT have a good thing going on. The folk and country star performed for our Wired In audience at The Basement East in 2019. And last Fall, she spent an hour with me for The String just a day or two after winning an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for her commitment, along with fellow Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, to free speech and social activism.

This Wednesday night, Ray returns to the WMOT Wired In stage, this time at Star Rover Sound in Germantown, with emerging honky tonk talent Emily Nenni opening the show. This one’s sold out to Wired In members, but of course we’ll be broadcasting and livestreaming on location, so if you can’t be with us in person, you’ll want to tune in for the 7 pm start, audio on WMOT and video at http://livesessions.npr.org/.

In that spirit, I’ve pulled some highlights from our great conversation last September during AmericanaFest. It was fascinating, for example, to hear that Ray and Saliers didn’t lean into fund-raising and cherished causes after they were well-known and prosperous, but from the very outset of performing as a duo. Ray told me that taking action and aligning with change agents felt natural and right, while it also built the Indigo Girls’ first community and fan base.

“It's synergistic,” she said of the relationship between commercial development and social commitment. “And the activism within your community is sort of like nurturing the ecosystem that you live in. And it's richer for it. So the things that you gain, because you get together with another group of musicians to raise money for a good cause, are huge, because you gain the camaraderie of the other musicians. So you automatically have a network of people then, and then you share gigs. So it's not why you should do benefits. But I'll tell you that the result of all the activism work we did early on gave us more opportunity than we would have had if we hadn't done any of it, for sure.”

Here, we talk about the bare bones of getting established as the duo, working out of Atlanta in the mid 1980s.

Amy Ray 1

“College radio was huge. And very open. Noncommercial radio was very open. And so there was a lot of opportunity for us. We worked the radio stations ourselves, you know, we tracked spins and rotations and everything. And we were on the phone all the time. We had an EP and a single and a record out when we got signed and were kind of already on our way, doing just a DIY kind of career. So the radio was happening on the college level for us big time. And then R.E.M. stepped in and helped us out a lot.”

The Indigo Girls were part of a wave of songwriting women and a boom in commercial folk music that became especially visible with the Lilith Fair tours of 1997-99. Here Ray describes the times and how their spirit led Emily to make an announcement that surprised a lot of folks, including Amy Ray herself.

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“We had a lot of people helping open the doors. I mean, Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega, and the Roches had sort of come right before us and been so influential on us in the women's music scene. You know, they were in their own sort of world and had built their own machine but they also were influencing all the other worlds of folk music.”

Amy Ray started making solo projects in 2001 and has continued steadily ever since. Early that music rocked hard but then it took a country turn. We spoke about that evolution.

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“I had always been writing (country songs) and  putting them away in a little thing, and I just played one of them for one of my producers. And he was producing one of the rock records. And he's like, now that's a good song. And he's very critical. So I was like, note to self! He thinks this is a good song. And it was a song called ‘Broken Record’ from Goodnight Tender. And I was like, yeah,I write a lot of tunes like this. I just don't know what to do with them.”

Ray’s most recent album is If It All Goes South, a collection distinguished by its electrifying performances, special guests, and songs gently connected by a desire to bring the honesty and commitment of social justice fights of today to our shared history.

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“I was born in 1964. So it's kind of like, shifting very slowly. There's still so much Jim Crow stuff going on. I was born in a segregated hospital in Atlanta. So yeah, it's the same thing where it's like, there's all this going on around you. And you don't even know it, you know? All these stories that you weren't told.”

I loved this wide-ranging interview, so if you’d like to hear it in full, stream it on The String. 

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org