Marriage equality was a mere pipe dream when Indigo Girls duo Emily Saliers and Amy Ray came out in 1988, coinciding with the release of their eponymous Epic Records debut. There was no groundbreaking Ellen sitcom episode. Melissa Etheridge wasn’t formally out, and wouldn’t be until 1993, when she released Yes I Am. Within popular entertainment, particularly within the music business, Saliers and Ray were at the forefront of the queer rights movement. They won a Grammy and released chart-toppers like “Closer to Fine.” And they refused to let their sexuality get in the way of their success, brazenly being themselves at a time when being a gay public figure was uncommon and even downright scary.
In Friday’s print edition, we have an interview with Tony Award winner Billy Porter, so all this week, we decided to run interviews with other musicians who have taken an active role in art and politics.
We caught up with Saliers, 53, and Ray, 52, at the beginning of 2017, just days before Donald Trump would become our 45th president. The trailblazers talked about how music will unify despite the divisiveness of his administration, why “this is a really good time for artists to come to the forefront and stand up and be brave,” and their initial grade-school encounter that led to a devoted musical career and dear friendship spanning three decades.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: You’re on the road fairly frequently. What keeps you touring as often as you do? Amy Ray: Every audience is different, so every experience is different, and I just think it’s good to get out there and play in front of people and keep that community… build it and keep it vibrant and have that exchange.
Emily Saliers: The demographic is more mixed now, and there are younger people who come to the shows. I don’t know how they find out about us, maybe their parents. Also, a lot of young women who are looking for bands that have a feminist reality about them. Self-empowered, self-worth, self-questioning — all those things that are all over our lyrics. Even though we’ve gotten much older, I don’t feel like the experience of going to one of our shows is like we’re just this old band that’s been around forever. It still feels new and fresh. I love it as much or more than I ever have.
Given the divisiveness of what’s happening politically, is building that sense of community more important now? Ray: It might be. I guess in some ways there are other levels where community is always important, because even when you have the best kind of administration and a president that you love, there are still pockets within our own country that need community and need that glue where there’s hard things going on, whether it’s different queer communities or Native American communities or communities of color that are disenfranchised in some way. But right now, it’s pretty daunting. There might be reversals that are negative environmentally and human rights-wise. I think it’s definitely a time to batten down the hatches and roll up the sleeves and start working.
What part do you think the arts, including music, will play in the political climate of Trump’s America? Ray: This is a really good time for artists to come to the forefront and stand up and be brave and make themselves known, and not be worried about alienating people with their art. Sometimes in the music community — still! — there are people who go, “Oh, we don’t want to rock the boat and alienate our audience.” But I feel like people are feeling less of that and more like, “Screw it.” I can see it happening around me with my friends even, who didn’t want to rock the boat, who might’ve been scared to alienate somebody in their audience. But now I think it’s like, “Well, what do we have to lose?”
Visual art and movies and theater right now are very important – music, also. Popular culture, like with Ellen, the original sitcom, for instance, really impacted people. It broadened a lot of people’s horizons, and Transparent does that as far as issues around queerness and trans issues and issues around Jewishness.
During Obama’s administration, there was, in a good way, a lot of permission given to all this really beautiful art to blossom, and I think that’s good because there’s this strong groundwork that’s been laid that just needs to continue happening well into the next administration. Art can really bring people together who might feel alienated from each other, like in my community. I live in a rural community where maybe 80 or 90 percent of the people voted for Trump, but I don’t really demonize people. I can’t go there ’cause they’re my neighbors, and I know them. I know them in their best moments. And I just try to understand where they’re coming from.