Folk and punk: not so different

For more than 20 years, Amy Ray has been known as one half of the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls — two women whose music is built around counterpoint harmonies, catchy melodies and an activist spirit. Together, they’ve dropped 14 studio albums (including this year’s independent release, Beauty Queen Sister), four live albums and earned a Grammy Award.

But, lesser-known outside of their dedicated fan base, Ray has had a rather productive solo career. For starters, she launched Daemon Records in 1989 to support independent artists, and has helped along the careers of Girlyman, Rose Polenzani and others.

“[When] I started the label, it wasn’t to be indie or anything,” she says. “I had a lot of money and I wanted to put music out by people that I loved. That was when [Indigo Girls] first got signed and we had money. That’s changed a lot. So now it’s like — how can we help? How can we chip in? There are just great artists out there and I want to do stuff with them.”

Where that used to mean operating a full-service indie label, these days Ray fills in by using her own celebrity to help compel other artists’ careers forward. For example, her latest signee, Seattle-based singer-songwriter Lindsay Fuller, has joined the Indigo Girls on tour, and Ray has appeared as a special guest at some of Fuller’s shows to draw crowds otherwise unfamiliar with Fuller’s narrative sort of alt-country. This grassroots approach to promoting indie artists relies heavily on the community Ray has helped build with Emily Saliers over the course of their decades-long collaboration. But, as is apparent in Ray’s solo work, that is as much punk rock as it is folky.

Indeed, in addition to her work with Daemon, she has released a handful of solo albums. Those albums veer quite a bit from what unsuspecting listeners might expect from an Indigo Girl. Listen closely, though, and within the punk energy and gothic reverb atmospherics is an allegiance to lyricism and vocal arrangements that underlies so much of modern rock.

“I love vocal arrangements and working on background voices,” she says. “I love old soul music that had that going on…[and] old field recordings with groups singing together, call-and-answer stuff. For me that’s where I can tap into my inspiration and soul, because I’m not as much of an instrumental player. It’s probably what I’m drawn to because I lack the skills to express myself in another way. But it’s the idea of this spiritual, vocal activism of the South, which I was very much raised on. It’s in my environment all the time.”

That said, though, what Ray does solo is not exactly an extension of the Indigo Girls. It may come from a similar place, but it’s a fully realized separate voice, reaching in a different direction.

Ray grew up listening to an array of ‘70s rock and folk singer-songwriters. Though she and Saliers began their collaboration while teenagers — leaning heavily on a folk influence — Ray started to delve deeper into rock and punk during college. She remembers falling for “Patti Smith and the Replacements, the Clash — people I’d heard speak to my soul in a way a lot of the music I’d been listening to hadn’t. I didn’t know what I was missing, I guess, is the truth. I heard [this] other stuff and I was like ‘Oh my god.’ Then I delved into real folk music like Woody Guthrie and some Appalachian music, field recordings from Alan Lomax, stuff like that. So, I had two really raw perspectives that were very opposite kinds of music but still had that community vibe.”

Speaking of “community,” her fifth solo album, Lung of Love (due in February 2012), is a solo effort in name only. While it’s built from her singular vision, she called in some musician friends to back her up. In addition to her touring band: Kaia Wilson (guitar), Melissa York (drums), Greg Griffiths (bass) and Julie Wolf (keyboard). Then, of course, there are plenty of vocalists – Brandi Carlile, Jim James (My Morning Jacket), members of A Fragile Tomorrow and Lindsay Fuller.

She’ll no doubt pull from it when she rolls into the Grey Eagle on Dec. 9 with her band. The Shadowboxers, an indie pop group built on (you guessed it) lush harmonies, will open. Ray describes them as “a crazy cross-pollination of Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and boy-band music,” and recommends not missing them.

— Kim Ruehl is a freelance writer living in Asheville.

who: Amy Ray (of the Indigo Girls) and The Shadowboxers
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Dec. 9 (9 p.m. $12/$15. thegreyeagle.com)

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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