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Amy Ray’s latest release is pure country, and it’s been a long time a-comin’

Indigo Girl Amy Ray’s fifth solo studio album Goodnight Tender is a country record through and through. The traditional sounds on Goodnight Tender have a history of surfacing on the Georgia native’s recordings, both her solos and those she’s made with fellow Indigo Girl Emily Saliers.

But Goodnight Tender features a dozen unabashed country songs. On this album, Ray is “shining like a national guitar,” to quote Paul Simon. She’s backed by an all-star band playing pedal steel, dobro, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and stand-up bass.

Ray remains one-half of the legendary queer duo Indigo Girls. While she’s toured solo throughout the spring, she continues to regularly perform concerts with Saliers. In fact, Indigo Girls performs at The Pabst on June 5, paving the way for PrideFest’s opening the next evening.

How long have you wanted to record a country album?

About 10 years, maybe a little longer. I started writing songs and putting them in a pile and filing them away in my mind, (thinking) “When I get enough songs and when I’m ready to do this, I’m going to make a traditional country record.” Over the years, as I’ve made my other solo records, sometimes I’ve thrown the more rockabilly/mandolin/fast songs on the punk or rock records. I didn’t have the amount of songs or content that I wanted. 

Did any of these songs start out in a different musical genre?

“Hunter’s Prayer” is the main one. It changed drastically. It was more of a folk song. Even the chord arrangement was different. I tried it that way, I even tried suggesting it for Indigo Girls, but it just wasn’t working. So I bagged it for a few years. I was working on something, some other song, and I just started singing the lyrics to “Hunter’s Prayer” to a different chord progression and I was like, “Ah! This is supposed to be a country song” (laughs). Other than that, the other stuff I pretty much knew as I was writing it what the genre was. 

Who would you cite as your greatest influences in country music?

From the earliest time, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Even for songs I was writing for Indigo Girls. As far as strictly traditional country artists, Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. All the greats. I like that era from the Carter Family, gospel mountain music, a whole lot. To me, they’re the parents of folk music. (Ethnomusicologist) Alan Lomax’s recordings played a big part when I was writing a song such as “Johnny Rottentail” and more of the storytelling kinds of songs. As far as production goes, the earlier 1950s stuff, (such as) Lefty Frizzell. I like (it) heavy on the pedal steel, and the drums to not be the center focus of the project, but still have the groove.

Where does Duane Allman, who is feted in the song “Duane Allman” on Goodnight Tender, figure into your influences?

(Laughs.) Southern rock was the earliest thing I listened to as a kid. It had its roots in some country. That’s something I was brought up on — the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd — that was in my house. Allman Brothers were one of my favorite bands from second-grade on. The Allman Brothers have stayed a favorite for me. There are some old records that I go back to and listen to all the time for pleasure. Not for songwriting tips or anything like that. To me, their music is more about the melodic sense between the instruments and the vibe — the passion of it. 

Heather McEntire, the out lead singer of Mount Moriah, can be heard singing on “When You Come for Me.” How did that come about?

Maybe seven years ago, she was in a punk band from Durham, North Carolina, called Bellafea, and she wrote me an email as I was getting ready to go on the road with The Butchies. She asked if she could come out and open for some shows. That’s how I originally met her. She started Mount Moriah, and they had a lot of country influences. I think they’re a cross between Björk and Americana. They have a weird pollination going on.

Would you describe it as insurgent country?

Yes. I loved that project and we kept in touch. She said she was starting to write some songs that were country songs and sent me some demos. She asked me if I wanted to put any of them on the record. I said (about “When You Come for Me”), “Maybe you should just sing lead on it and I’ll sing harmony and it will be like a duet.” That’s how we ended up doing it. She’s opened for Indigo Girls. She’s been in my life a lot.

The inimitable Kelly Hogan, who has also toured with Indigo Girls, can be heard on “Time Zone” and the title cut. Why did you want her to sing on the album?

I’ve always wanted have her (laughs) on this record, actually. As I was writing, (the song) “Goodnight Tender” especially, I was thinking that I wanted it to have those close, Everly Brothers harmonies, and she’s the person I had in mind. I made sure I had a time when I could capture her when she was off from (touring with) Neko Case. I got lucky! I was in Chicago with Indigos. It was sheer luck. We went to Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco loft and we recorded those vocals. I would have waited and flown to her wherever she was, but it was lucky that it was so convenient. She’s one of my favorite vocalists and an amazing person. We have a long history. She’s an ally in the music business for me.

Attitudes (on equality) continue to evolve in Nashville, albeit slowly. What would it mean to have this album embraced by the Nashville music community? It would be huge. But that would mean something bigger than me. (Lesbian country artist) Brandy Clark is being embraced. Kacey Musgraves has that “Follow Your Arrow” song that was embraced. It might be slightly different for someone such as me to be embraced, because I’m so obviously left-of-center and gay and out and political and masculine and all that. It’d be a pretty big deal (laughs). But I don’t have any expectations in that arena whatsoever. I spend more time in Nashville than I used to. I have a lot of friends there. I would say that over the years I’ve noticed discernible changes in the culture there. It used to be, 12 years ago, if I played in Nashville, there were always derogatory remarks from the bartenders and even the club owners. It was hard. The last time I played there, people and the club-owner were super-friendly and I had a big crowd. I didn’t expect to have a crowd at all. And I was with The Butchies. It wasn’t like I had toned it down at all or anything (laughs). I would at least like to make inroads in the Americana scene. I have a lot of friends in that scene. To break into any scene at this age is very hard. I just have to put the music out there and hope that it finds its way.

Over the course of your four solo albums, you have touched on genres ranging from punk rock to riot grrrl to R&B. Are there other musical genres you’d like to work in?

Nothing radical. I probably wouldn’t try to do a soul or hip-hop record. I didn’t have it in me for this record. I just wanted to do something with an easy feeling to it. You could drive down the road to it and nothing was going to shake you up too much.

PrideFest expands stages and programming

The organizers of PrideFest Milwaukee say they’ve expanded this year’s event to include a new stage along with a broader array of activities and performances than ever before. 

Last year PrideFest – North America’s largest LGBT music festival – broke 25 years of attendance records, drawing 28,137 people to the Summerfest grounds. Near-perfect weather and a strong lineup of headliners brought the event’s books back into the black after a disappointing turnout in 2011 left PrideFest’s future imperilled, said PrideFest president Scott Gunkel.

This year’s star-studded event promises to be another great success, if Mother Nature cooperates.

Out pop icon Andy Bell of Erasure is the Miller Lite Mainstage headliner on opening night, June 7. He’s the first male, opening-night headliner in the event’s history, according to Gunkel. Other first night performers include Sophie B. Hawkins and ABBA Salute.

On June 8, the legendary duo Indigo Girls hits the mainstage, and on June 9, outspoken LGBT and women’s rights supporter Amanda Palmer closes out the festival. She’ll follow a performance by Dangerous Muse, featuring electro-pop dance sounds and sexy stage theatrics never before seen on the Miller Lite Mainstage, according to a PrideFest press release.

Other artists performing over the weekend include God-Des & She, Beverly McClellan, Big Bad Gina, DJ Grind, Bad Romance, Something to Do, and Wisconsin’s own first lady of rock, Ronnie Nyles. 

The festival’s popular dance pavilion will be enhanced this year with more sophisticated sound and lighting equipment. Gunkel said an additional $60,000 worth of lighting effects will raise the dance experience to a new level of razzle-dazzle.

Numerous events are scheduled throughout the weekend, ranging from fireworks to drag shows to a leather/fetish show.

Last year, PrideFest launched Wom!nz Spot Lounge and Café, a successful new stage area toward the south end of the festival grounds. The venue, which offered poetry readings, acoustic performers, women artists and dancers in a laid-back atmosphere, “was packed all day long,” Gunkel said.

“We trademarked it and we’re bringing it back,” he said, adding that men are welcome to join the wom!n.

It’s another year, and there will be yet another new stage – The Riviera Maya Stage. Sponsored by La Nueva Ritmo, the stage will highlight the multicultural dimension of the LGBT and allied community.

“This multicultural stage is dedicated to presenting musical groups from diverse backgrounds,” board member Francisco Araiza said in a statement. “We wanted a place to showcase different nationalities, ethnicities, languages and religions, and by showcasing our diversity, we hope to find the commonalities that make the fabric that forms one worldwide LGBT and straight community.”

The stage will open on Friday night with oldies from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s spun by Kim from Club 219 and BJ Daniels from The Factory – both iconic DJs from Milwaukee’s disco era. “It’s kind of a reunion thing,” Gunkel said.

Saturday night will feature Latin music acts and DJs, and Sunday the new stage will put hip-hop under the spotlight.

The revitalized Milwaukee LGBT Community Center plans to have a high profile at PrideFest 2013. The group is taking over a two-story structure on the south end of the festival grounds near the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse Stage and the Wom!nz Spot.

“We’re sort of taking the community center on the road,” said board secretary Martin Palicki. “Everything you’d find at the center, we’re taking to the grounds.”

Palicki said the center will offer an alternative for attendees who want to spend some time at “a quieter place, where you can talk to people.”

The center will host seminars on such diverse topics as housing, retirement and gardening. There will also be a virtual gallery featuring artwork the center has exhibited and a videographer on site to record visitors’ coming-out stories. 

The center also will host family-friendly activities, including an inflatable slide for kids of all ages. An alcohol-free area for young people ages 13-24 will have a DJ and dancing. 

“There’s been a family explosion at PrideFest,” said board member Denise Cawley. “When we (she and her partner Anne) first had our son, we counted like two babies at PrideFest. Now he’s 6 and there’s been a baby explosion.” 

Cawley’s son Aidan looks forward to PrideFest, where he particularly enjoys the roasted corn, the hot dogs – and having his picture taken with drag queens, he said. 

When purchasing tickets at the gate, PrideFest visitors will be offered the opportunity to add $1 to be donated to the center.

One of the most novel features about PrideFest is that a volunteer, unpaid staff runs the elaborate event, which is the first major festival of the season.

“Every year, these folks come back and dedicate hours and hours of volunteer time to organize, and run this three-day festival,” said festival director Pete Minns. “And every year, it’s a great time.” For more information, go to pridefest.com.

Emily Saliers is psyched about PrideFest

Since bursting onto the music scene more than 20 years ago, the Indigo Girls have inspired many imitators. But few of them have achieved the songwriting success or harmonic perfection of lesbian duo Emily Saliers and Amy Ray. Individually and collectively, the two lifelong friends have created some of American folk rock’s most unforgettable tunes. Their signature classics, including “Closer to Fine,” “Galileo,” “Power of Two” and “Get Out the Map,” still have devoted followers singing along, swaying in their seats and dancing in the grass.

Saliers and Ray have continued to evolve as songwriters and performers, as demonstrated on the double-disc set “Poseidon and the Bitter Bug” and 2011’s dazzling “Beauty Queen Sister.” I spoke recently with Saliers about the newer album and about the Indigo Girls’ return to Milwaukee PrideFest on June 8. Their previous appearance a few years ago was cut short due to rain, so let’s hope Mother Nature gives them something closer to fine this time around.

The “Beauty Queen Sister” CD artwork, by Joseph Peery, has a tattoo style. Tattoos also appear in the title cut and in “War Rugs.” Do you have any tattoos to speak of?

I do have two small tattoos – one on my left inner wrist and one on my right inner wrist.

Do they say something special?

One is an image of infinity and the other is an initial. They’re small. Amy is quite tatted. You’re probably less likely to find me writing about tattoos than Amy. I like the thought that goes into wanting to put a piece of art or a remembrance permanently (on your skin) that is with you wherever you go. 

You have a reputation for writing beautiful and distinctive love songs and “We Get to Feel It All” is no exception. Are they harder to write?

They’re so easy! If all I had to do was write pretty love songs, it wouldn’t take that much effort for me. I definitely am drawn to a pretty melody first, and then an emotional lyric about love and personal relationships. That’s my oeuvre, my natural thing to go to.

“Able to Sing” is a song about a wedding. Have you written – or been asked to write – for same-sex weddings?

Yes, I have! Two of my very best friends got married a couple of years ago. I wrote a song for their wedding. It was a beautiful experience. I’m going to record it and give them a special copy. I’ve written songs for straight weddings as well, but that was really special, because they were my friends and it was very easy to access imagery knowing their history. “Able to Sing” has a lot going on in it. It’s about the wedding, but it was really inspired by the death of all the red-winged blackbirds on the Fourth of July, and the ensuing dialogue between scientists and people of faith – and how people want to explain bizarre things that happen. That got me thinking about the Fourth of July and patriotism and blood and faith and all kinds of stuff. I was really on a roll with that one. It’s one of my favorites on the record, if not my very favorite.

A lot of artists have re-recorded their songs with a symphony, as Joni Mitchell did with her “Travelogue” and “Both Sides Now” discs.

I was just reading about Joni Mitchell last night and that very thing, about the ballet she was doing in Alberta (Canada). The answer is yes. We are recording a symphonic album with the Birmingham Symphony. We are doing that the first week of June, this summer. That will be out by the end of the year (or) the beginning of next year.

What does it mean to you to be performing at Milwaukee PrideFest on June 8?

We’ve done it before (and) we had an absolute blast. But there was a huge thunderstorm and we had to quit early, which was a bummer. We often go to the city of Milwaukee, and we’re really good friends with (queer Wisconsin duo) Mrs. Fun. They’re good friends of ours and we always try to rope them in somehow. The other thing is that the movement for rights for our communities, it’s quite dynamic what’s going on right now. There’s a lot of positive change and there’s a lot of chance for change that hasn’t happened yet. I think playing a queer fest is especially meaningful with the Supreme Court considering its cases and immigration law, which affects my life personally because my partner is Canadian. Pride fests are always a celebration, but particularly poignant and galvanizing this year in the context of what’s happening politically and socially.

Indigo Girls have made a name for themselves as outspoken activists. Were you and Amy able to take part in any of the rallies or protests in Madison last year?

We weren’t involved in those specifically. We were hoping that Mr. Walker (was recalled), but it didn’t turn out that way. What we deal with, specifically in Wisconsin, (is) through our group Honor Earth. We do a lot of environmental justice work. We work with indigenous peoples, particularly across the Americas, and there are a lot of mining issues in Wisconsin, historically and currently. When Pridefest is over, we’re planning on coming back to the area and focusing on some of those issues.

Indigo Girls to headline at PrideFest Milwaukee

PrideFest Milwaukee announced the Indigo Girls will headline at the three-day LGBT celebration, performing on the Miller Lite Mainstage at 10:30 p.m. on June 8 – the second night of Pride at the Summerfest grounds on the lakefront.

A news release said, “With a recording career spanning 25 years, the Indigo Girls stand tall as one of the longest-running female folk-rock acts in the country. A long-time community favorite, the Girls last visited PrideFest Milwaukee in 2008, where they played to sold-out reserved seating crowds.”

PrideFest Milwaukee president Scott Gunkel stated, “We are excited to have the Indigo Girls at PrideFest Milwaukee. Their outspoken devotion to social issues, including marriage equality, anti-discrimination laws, and legal protections for LGBT families, is as commendable as their musical talent.”

He continued, “PrideFest Milwaukee is proud to host and showcase these icons of our community.”

PrideFest previously announced the performers for the first night of Pride on June 7. They include: Andy Bell of Erasure, God-Des & She, Sophie B. Hawkins, ABBA Salute, Big Bad Gina, Bad Romance, the Wisconsin Royalty Drag Show, the Windy City Beauties, Furrlesque, Chicago legends DJ Teri Bristol and Psycho Bitch and more.

For details on tickets, which go on sale April 15, go to www.pridefest.com.

The organizers plan on offering festival-goers an opportunity to add $1 to the ticket price to support the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center’s greatest needs fund.

For more information about volunteering, sponsoring or serving as a vendor, email  or call 1-414-272-3378.

Ray sheds light on Indigo Girls’ latest release

Almost 25 years after Amy Ray and Emily Saliers released their first album under the Indigo Girls banner, they continue getting better. The out duo’s new album “Beauty Queen Sister” ranks among their best work. Their trademark folk rock style is augmented by bluegrass and Irish music influences, making for a varied and gripping listening experience.

I spoke with Ray shortly before the disc was released in October.

Gregg Shapiro: The moon figures prominently in four songs on “Beauty Queen Sister.” Why do you think that is?

Amy Ray: (Laughing) I have no idea. We didn’t even notice, believe it or not, until after we were recording. We were like, “Uh-oh, there are a lot of moons in here. We’re being very moony women.” Maybe it’s our age or something. We’re waxing poetic.

Something else that plays a significant role on the album is Luke Bulla’s violin.

We met him through Peter Collins when we did our holiday record. Peter heard him in Nashville playing at the Bluebird one night. He plays with Lyle Lovett, and he plays also in a band called WPA. He does the singer/songwriter thing, he sings too. But we met him for the holiday record. He’s a blue grass player. He plays guitar, violin, mandolin, everything – you name it. He’s a great flat picker, too. But his violin playing is way beyond. Most of the stuff he did on the record is live, like “Yoke.” I don’t know how he accomplished it. He is special. He’s a new addition. Also, the bass player Frank (Swart) plays with Patty Griffin a lot. We just happened on him and we were really lucky, because he had huge input on this record. 

Another interesting addition is the backing vocals by The Shadowboxers (Adam Hoffman, Matt Lipkins, Scott Schwartz) on the title cut and “We Get to Feel it All.” How did you come to work together?

They’re friends of Emily’s. She met them at Emory, our old alma mater. They all went there. They graduated from there last year. They were just these guys that started a band. She met one of them at a Seder and she said, “God, your voice is beautiful.” He was singing at the Seder. They played guitar together later and he said, “I’ve got this band.” And it all went from there and they opened for us. The band is quite amazing, and their voices are stunning.

I heard the title track to “Beauty Queen Sister” was inspired in part by S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.” Are you a voracious reader, and what are you currently reading?

I am a voracious reader and so is Emily. She probably reads more than I do. She’s quick. I have stacks of books by my bed. You know what I just read that actually has been out for a while but I really got a lot out of it. It’s a book called “Zeitoun.” Dave Eggers wrote it and it’s about a Muslim American family during Hurricane Katrina and what they went through. I was scared that it would be too hard, because it’s such an upsetting thing, then I read it and it was told amazing. I read old history books. I like to read books that were written in weird times. Like a book from the 1930s about the Civil War to hear the differences and see what how they looked at it and the difference from now. I just read that biography of Cleopatra that Stacy Schiff wrote. One of my very favorite writers of all time is Louise Erdrich. If you read her last five books, you would just be blown away. She just gets better and more mature.

Not surprisingly politics and social issues make an appearance on the album. With the presidential election a little more than a year away, what are your thoughts on the current state of the nation?

I guess I feel they’re so polarized. We all talk about how polarized that they are, but they really are. I don’t know which came first – that the media told us it was and we became more polarized, or if the media is reacting to the fact that we really are. I don’t like that. It bums me out. I’m patriotic in that way. I really believe it takes all different kinds of people and from all different parties to make things work with lots of different input and ideas and that we need to respect each other, the convictions that we have. If we can have … civil discourse, I really believe we can do better and solve problems. I guess I’m kind of an idealist and that’s not what’s happening (laughs). 

Emily’s wedding song “Able To Sing” made me wonder if you have written or been asked to write a song for a same-sex wedding or civil union?

I’ve never been asked to write a song for a civil union. I have been asked to sing at some, but it’s never worked out. Emily has written a song. Her dear friend got married to another woman, and she wrote a song for that, and it’s quite a nice song. But no one will ever hear it because it was a gift. But I haven’t done that actually. That would be hard. I think it’s hard to write a song on command for that kind of thing.

Are you aware of existing Indigo Girls songs that have been used for that purpose?

Everybody says they use “Power of Two.” That’s the most used song, straight or gay marriages.


Indigo Girls play the Barrymore Theatre in Madison on Nov. 10.