Amy Ray: With a Rebel Yell

Amy Ray is a rebel. The South is her heritage and rule-breaking is her birthright.

Amy Ray is a rebel. The South is her heritage and rule-breaking is her birthright. As the darker half of Indigo Girls (with Emily Saliers), Ray has always infused her songs with a certain measure of defiance, either personal or political — or both sewn into one seamless, artistic tapestry. That’s the folk singer way, though, speaking truth to power in a palatable, if often polite, manner. During the times when she has stepped out of the Indigo Girls framework and into her own solo projects, Ray has stepped into the full-throated, fist-pounding stance of a punk rocker. That is, until now.

With her latest offering, Goodnight Tender, Ray inhabits a wholly new persona — that of country raconteur. Despite those well-established rabble-rousing tendencies, it would be a stretch for these songs to earn her the brand of an outlaw… at least an outlaw in the grand tradition of Johnny, Willie, Waylon, and Merle. Regardless, there’s a meandering easiness to the tunes that signals Ray is right at home surrounded by the giddy pluck of a banjo and the woeful wail of the pedal steel. There’s also a contented weariness to the performances that indicates Ray is perfectly happy with her hard-fought, hard-won lot in life — singer, songwriter, activist, and, most recently, parent.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but I came out — or, was outed, actually — for the first time after an Indigo Girls show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 1992. Walking back to the car, my best friend at the time asked, “What will your parents say when you tell them you’re gay?” So, I don’t know who I’d be without having had you and Emily, and k.d. lang to look up to. You must have heard a thousand stories of gratitude like that over the years.

That’s very nice of you to say. When I hear stories like that, I usually just think about when I came out. I didn’t really come out all at once. I was just dealing with it since high school, had girlfriends, and eventually talked openly about it with my parents, little by little. But I had an easier time of it because my two older sisters are also gay. My parents definitely had a really hard time with it, at first. But, I’d say that, because I had these two older siblings and some people to help me… in some ways it made it easier and some harder because, I’m sure, for my parents it was like, “Whoa!”

Another one!?!

Yeah. For me, it felt like it diluted the wrath a little bit. But then they came around, and they are really awesome and supportive now. Just really great. I got lucky.

As a role model and icon to so many fans looking for a reflection of themselves out in the world. How do you carry and live up to that responsibility? Because I know you feel it.

I just try to be honest. I don’t try to look at it as this huge deal that I have to live up to, or be a super-person, or something like that. I take seriously the movement and the activism around it, but only as an individual person, not with a mantle of greatness and responsibility. Because I feel like the best thing we all can do is just be really good individuals and try our hardest to do what we can in our communities within the context of any activism — any kind of human rights activism, or environmental activism, all the things that we aspire to do to make our world a better place and our communities stronger. So I recognize that we have been in the public eye and it’s an honor, in some ways, to have that success, to have the support of the gay community-at-large. I guess we just feel like we live our lives in an honest way, and we make mistakes — everybody makes mistakes. But we just try to be the best people we can be.

Amy Ray

Throughout your career, you’ve also mentored other up-and-coming artists like Danielle Howle, Rose Polenzani, Athens Boys Choir, Girlyman, and others through your Daemon Records label and opening slots on Indigo Girls tours. How did that feel — stepping into the role of mentor?

Yeah, the opening slots, the record label… I don’t look at it as a one-way mentoring thing, though. I look at it as, if you have success, you should always be trying to pull people up. And there are always going to be people above you, as well. And there’s always something to learn from a young band, musically and as far as their outlook goes, the way they approach their careers in comparison to yours. There’s always something to be learned, so it’s not a one-way street. I think we should be helping other bands out when we have the opportunities to do that because other bands helped us. I also know that we benefit from it in a pretty big way so it doesn’t feel like this thing where, “Oh God, we have to help another band out.” We’re fans of a lot of bands. So, because of that, we want to play with them.

Did you intentionally include a lot of female artists on your Daemon roster?

No, actually. It wasn’t intentional. It was just the way it happened. That’s just kind of my world, you know? And I had a large number of female artists, and a large number of artists that were sort of, I guess, outcasts in some ways for some reason — different musically or personally or culturally. I definitely didn’t set out to do that because the only parameters I wanted to have were that it was a left-of-center label, and whatever reason you had for being left-of-center would qualify you for that.

I would say you succeeded in clearing that bar. When you set up your label, there weren’t a whole lot of artists going that route, other than Ani DiFranco. What was the catalyst for doing so?

There were some other labels — not artist ones — but I looked to DB Records, which was Danny Beard’s label in Atlanta and a pretty cool label that did some great stuff in the alternative community. And then, of course, Sub Pop was going on and Touch and Go was happening. There was a big scene in DC with a lot of stuff happening, so the punk scenes were more what I looked at, as far as what’s the path and how do we run the label. So, Fugazi and Ian MacKaye and those guys in DC who had the punk scene going were doing things in a very co-op kind of way and I liked their example, the way they did things. And, then, everything else was just, “What would be the ideal thing if I were the artist?” It was really like, “Okay, I have some money and I know a little bit about this, and there are all these bands that I really love.” And, at the time, it wasn’t as easy to put your own music out or have distribution or anything. It was just like, “Let’s start and see what happens and go a little bit at a time.” I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I spent too much money sometimes… a lot of mistakes about how to release records, so it was a long learning curve for me. I was so busy with Indigo Girls and everything that was going on that it would take me a while to learn from the experience, I guess.

But, now I know a lot more, and I wish I had the money now that I had then and I could recreate the experience and not make so many mistakes. At least I have the knowledge now. Mostly, I’ve put my own stuff out over the past five or six years. And I think, at some point, I’ll take a break from putting my records out and start putting other people’s records out again. I’m really interested in archiving different scenes and figuring out an angle for that, because I really love archival collections of bands and songs you wouldn’t normally get to hear — things like sounds from a certain region or time period.

That’ll be an interesting thing to see unfold.

It’s for my old age.

Your song “Lucystoners” (from Stag) marked such a moment in the music industry, as far as what I was seeing going on. It speaks directly to so many of the boys’ club issues that have long-plagued the music business — from the misogynistic humor of drive time DJs to the sexist bent of media moguls. Are women and the outcast artists, in 2014, still fighting an uphill battle on those fronts?

Welllllll… I mean, what do you think? I’d say it’s not as much of an uphill battle, but it’s mostly because we’ve been able to facilitate so many of our own infrastructures and the DIY movement on the Internet. I would say there are some things that have made it easier to have your own world. I still think the gatekeepers for the majority of major stuff that’s going on are white men, middle-class guys.

And upper-class.

Well, upper-class, too, but they aren’t all upper-class anymore! That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of really great allies within those people. I wouldn’t say it’s turned over yet — it’s going to be a long time, you know? That’s like a revolutionary thing. But, in the meantime, there are all these great infrastructures and stuff that people built like Internet radio and YouTube and all these ways to get your name and your stuff out there. So, you’re not as hindered, in some ways. In other ways, you’re hindered because you’re relegated to this one area that you’re still not able to get past. I mean, rock ‘n roll is like this thing that’s — hopefully it’s going to change — but it has been, for a long time, a boys’ club.


You namecheck Jann Wenner in that tune. Was he just an easy face to put on it or were there specific instances that caused you to call him out?

Yeah, he was an easy face. It wasn’t like I wanted to get back at Rolling Stone magazine or anything like that — at all. It’s just, for me, they were the example of a lot of stuff about the boys’ club. There’s an awful lot of good political writing in Rolling Stone, and good writing, generally. But, there was definitely this time period where it was like the Maxim of music magazines, you know?

Yeah. It was my dream starting in high school to write for Rolling Stone, and then… maybe I don’t want to write for Rolling Stone.

Yeah. Exactly.

As an out, queer, masculine-of-center woman, your experience of moving through the world and the business is different from, say, Sheryl Crow’s or Beyoncé’s. What do you think has been easier and harder about that? And is it even possible to parse what biases might be attributed to homophobia versus sexism?

I think it’s very hard to parse that out. I think sexism probably comes first and is at the core of homophobia, in some ways. I think you can look at that as almost a seed of a lot of stuff that’s gone beyond it. God, it’s so complicated. All the stuff about Beyoncé and her videos, and then people who rag on Taylor Swift… and then other people who speak up for them saying they are making their choices. And then other people saying they are degrading to women and letting themselves be run by the business. But we don’t really know what’s going on with them.

And Miley Cyrus.

Yeah, and Miley Cyrus. We don’t know. It can either be the strongest example of liberation or it can be the worst example of sexism. You know? So it’s very hard for me to even analyze it. I just have to believe that there’s a little bit of truth in both sides of it, probably.

Is it them taking their power or is it them playing to the straight male gaze?

Yeah. And maybe part of their power is making the choice to play to the straight male gaze. That’s the big argument.

With your new album, Goodnight Tender, you’re venturing into country music for the first time — and that’s some good ol’ boy territory, for sure. What led you to make that move at this time?

But it shouldn’t be! A lot of people love country music. I’ve been wanting to make a country record for about 12 years and I just, honestly, felt like it was a pretty tall order because I have a lot of reverence for that genre, and because I haven’t done that. It’s different from… I have on-hand experience my whole life with rock ‘n roll. No doubt about how that goes. But country music, I come to as a fan first and foremost. I discovered it late in life, as well. When I was growing up, of course I had Willie Nelson records, and Dolly Parton, and Elvis Presley, and Woody Guthrie, and all that kind of folk stuff and mountain music stuff. But the hardcore Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash — stuff that I really like — I didn’t really listen to that until the ’90s.

Yeah, see, I just had Alabama and Kenny Rogers. I didn’t even have the real country.

Alabama was a cross-over, but Kenny Rogers was close for his era. It’s less and less good ‘ol boy territory, you know? Nashville is opening up in a way that it hasn’t in a long time. And I think that’s pretty cool.

It really is. What do you think about the new wave of female country artists — gals like Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and Ashley Monroe — throwing curve balls at the establishment and topping all of the Best of 2013 lists?

I love Kacey’s record a lot. I’ve heard a song of Brandy’s and I’ve read a couple of articles about her that I thought were really interesting. I love it! They’re just putting it out there. It’s interesting because their songs, to me, still fall within a category of that honky-tonk woman’s song — kind of a bad-ass Loretta Lynn take on things — and plays on words and twisting phrases and doing all these interesting things and still keeping some of the subject matter from the deep country. I think it’s interesting that they’re doing all that and putting it out there as liberated women, but it doesn’t inform their music as much as you’d think it would, which is nice. It shows you the diversity, like within the gay music realm of life. There’s a lot of diversity. We’re not all the same and we don’t all write folk songs and sing about lesbian topics. You know? We do that at some point in our lives, but there are other things that happen. And, at some point, hopefully, we’ll just be taken as songwriters. The distinguishing factor will be how you write a song. It won’t be what your lifestyle is.

The art and the song come first.

And we’re not there. So I think it’s still important to be an activist and speak out and reflect yourself and get out there for the queer community and really whoop it up. But the hope is, generally, as a songwriter, that you can just be seen as a craft-person.

That’s kind of the hope across the board, though not just in music. To see each other as people.

Yeah, so when you’re talking about your CPA, you don’t say, “My queer CPA.” Or when you’re telling a story, you don’t say, “This black guy came up to me.” Identity must drive some people crazy because you don’t typically say, “So, I was talking to this white guy…”

We single out the “other,” but we don’t single out the same. If we could just get rid of all the “otherness,we’d be better off.

Obviously we’re proud to be “other” and I guess I don’t mind it defining me in some ways, but you want to be seen sometimes in a way that’s just your craft. But, then, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t dictate how you’re seen. You just have to do your best and accept and know that you have to be positive about yourself so that you don’t always take how you’re seen as a negative thing.

I was going to ask what words of wisdom would you pass on to those treading the path behind you, but I think you just did that…

Ha! Yeah, that’s it. I say, “Pick your battles.” That’s what my mom always tells me. And I think she’s right.


(This article was originally published by American Songwriter.)