Many might say they got their first introduction to harmonies via The Carter Family or Crosby, Stills & Nash – I can say without any shame over lack of youthful historical context that mine came via the Indigo Girls. I had acquired the duo’s self-titled 1989 release from my friend Caroline in 6th or 7th grade; she had two older sisters good at funneling her the cool cassettes, and she’d made me a copy (a mash-up of that and other tunes like “Ghost” and “Chickenman”) on a yellow Sony Sport dual tape-deck boom box, just like the one we all had cozied away in our bedrooms.
We’d sung harmonies in music class, but I didn’t quite get the concept until “Closer to Fine” and “Kid Fears ” – Amy Ray and Emily Sailers’ voices not just ringing together, but looping around each other in a perfect equilibrium, two different weights on each side of a scale somehow hanging in balance. It was magic, and it felt like magic. My friends and I, in the way young girls tend to do, giddy on after-school candies and gossip, would try to sing these songs at my house after school, but it never felt right – it just sounded like shrill girls screaming Indigo Girls songs (however, this did not stop us). For the record, I once hit Michael Stipe’s parts on “Kid Fears” dead on. I had so many Skittles.
Amy Ray actually came to Nashville in 1983 to attend Vanderbilt; so it makes sense that she’d been clocking country tunes for years, working on string-embellished songs based around bluegrass melodies and twangy guitar locks. Goodnight Tender came out in January, and tender it is – with the Indigo Girls’ signature grit internalized and softened, Ray’s voice is the perfect vehicle for tracks like “Broken Record,” “Hunter’s Prayer” and the beautifully gospel “Let the Spirit” that flirt with a certain sense of sadness only found in the south.
By Amy Ray :::
The Nashville I know and love is at the epicenter of the American Culture Clash. In this great city, you can find a past and present rich with the changing tides of politics and culture mixing with a relentless creative musical spirit, as well as a compelling, sometimes disturbing history of racism, classism, and the folks that rise above it. Here are 5 intersections of provocation, history, and Southern tradition that have fed my curiosity and hope when it comes to Nashville.
1. Redneck and Bluenecks. The Politics of Country Music by Chris Willman (2007)
This book by a writer from Entertainment Weekly was a fascinating read for me about the political discourse both public and private in the world of country music. The country music I relate to is populist in its nature, so I’ve always been discouraged and confused by it’s co-optation by any particular political party. This book unveiled some of this for me and showed me that while profit is often the driver for people laying aside their differences in Nashville, art also often triumphs over political difference.
2. “Seeds of Southern Change: The Life of Will Alexander “ by Wilma Dykeman and James Stokely (1976)
I bought this book in a used bookstore in Greensboro, NC and it opened up a whole new chapter for me about race relations and farming in the South in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. One of my favorite reads of all time, here’s a little synopsis from Amazon…
“Had Will Alexander not shunned the limelight, he might already be a national legend, for he was one of the greatest white champions of the Negro cause in the South from 1915 to 1954. A farm boy who worked his way through Vanderbilt University and became a Methodist minister, he was a tireless enemy of the abuses, large and petty, which he saw around him.”
3. Pushing the Bear by Diane Glancy (1996)
This historical novel explores the lives of the Cherokees during the Trail of Tears and their removal from their homelands in 1938/39. The Northern Route went through Nashville, and this book has one of the most poignant, realistic depictions of the devastation, death and illness the tribe was experiencing as it camped outside of the city and made its wearied travel through a town of people that were mostly unaware of what they were witnessing.
4. Cantrell’s (1980-1986)
This infamous music club on Broadway gave punk a home for a while in Nashville. It grew out of the scene started by the short-lived club Phrank ’n’ Steins and was affiliated with Springwater Supper Club and Lounge. Cantrell’s along with Cat’s Records and Tapes stand out for me as historical spaces that gave expression to the music counter-culture in Nashville. When I came to Nashville in 1983 to go to Vanderbilt, I was in love with Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, but too chicken and depressed to venture out to Cantrell’s and check out the scene the nutured them. I still regret some of the bands I missed while I cowered on that campus. I didn’t last long at the school, but Nashville grew to be one of my creative and cultural touchstones over the ensuing years.
5. The Great Escape (1983)
While I was at Vandy I worked at The Great Escape comic and record store on Broadway (this location is closed now). Quite literally an escape for me from the conservative frat and sorority environs I knew on campus, the Walker family who own the store took me under their wing and gave me a place to feel comfortable. I discovered my love of Green Lantern and Green Arrow, with the 1971 2-part series on Heroin addiction. I probably spent most of what I made on vinyl and comics. Gary Walker was a successful country songwriter and he gave me some of the first real advice I got about my writing, which I sum up by saying: I wasn’t quite there yet, but if I really wanted to be a songwriter, I had to keep writing songs.