With the first two songs on the 2020 Indigo Girls album “Look Long,” Amy Ray and Emily Saliers take turns establishing the essential tension.
On the opening “S#!t Kickin’,” Ray is a “little bit left of the ‘salt of the Earth’” and “a little bit right — my family, you know, they let me be / To make my way through this world, in spite of everything.” Making peace with her people and where she’s from isn’t easy, but it is fulfilling. She reflects on her granddaddy, the preacher, trying to meet his theology halfway — “If you can find him, you can love him / But girl, you got to be honest about him / Or you’ll be fighting them weeds for the rest of your days.”
On the subsequent title track, Saliers connects similar unease with her family to conflict with her country. “My grandmother had Apollo mission glasses,” she sings, “Etched in red white and blue commemoration / I’m no AWOL patriot because I’ve dodged your party lines / I will always love my troubled nation, this beautiful land.” Ultimately, she promises to “keep the faith,” a seeming vow to extend the spirit that binds her clan.
Set to varied, but consistently full and lively folk-rock, “Look Long” is also bound by notions of holding onto the people and places that are important to you, even if they don’t always agree with you.
“You have to sustain the battle,” Ray told Free Times during a recent phone call. “When you brush up against people you love, and they feel differently than you do about really big issues, you also have to sustain the love. You know, within your people and your family, even if you disagree about things. That's a constant struggle for everybody, for both sides.”
More than halfway through their fourth decade as a duo, and with 15 albums behind them, the Indigo Girls are no strangers to such conflicts. The gay singer-songwriters grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, an inherent struggle that shows up on “Look Long,” but never in a way that feels preachy.
They’re longtime activists, pushing for change on fronts affecting queer communities, Native Americans and human rights, and fighting for independent media and voter education, among other things. As the new album illustrates, these positions aren’t held at any length from the music, but they’re not the overriding focus. And when they do surface, it’s always in a way that uses the personal to illustrate the political.
Ray’s breezily striding “Muster” targets American gun violence, but it’s as much about untangling family legacies as fraught politics. “Some people held their daddy’s guns,” she sings. “Me, I hung mine on the wall / For every war, we could have won / Without shooting them at all.”
Saliers’ “Country Radio'' offers a crystalizing example of loving a thing that doesn’t love you back. “I wanna be that boy, I wanna be that girl,” she opines during the chorus of the delicately billowing ballad, “I wanna know what it's like to fall in love / Like most of the rest of the world / But as far as these songs will take me is as far as I'll go / I'm just a gay kid in a small town / Who loves country radio.”
As its title indicates, the Indigo Girls’ latest album takes the long view on these big issues. Ray pointed to Saliers’ “Country Radio” as an instance of writing a song, and then seeing at least some of the change it espouses.
“When that song was written and now are almost two different times in a way,” she reasoned. “We haven't solved it yet. But think about the awareness in country music around the place of people of color, the place of gay people, the place of left politics. That has been talked about more in the last six months, or eight months, than it has ever been talked about.”
Another aspect that buoys the weightier themes on “Look Long” is the music. Recorded with John Reynolds at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in England, the album is a rocking, rootsy grab bag, one unified by its consistently bright and hopeful vibe. The bluesy, country-leaning packaging on “S#!t Kickin’” and “Muster” is propulsive and boot-stomping rather than sullen and beaten-down. The title track is graced by elegant finger-picking and swelling harmonies.
The Indigo Girls are set to take the stage as a duo at the Columbia Speedway, their first show since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the concert industry. Ray reflected on the difficulty of replicating the music’s uplifting counterweight without the band that helped them create it, the one that was set to join them on tour last year.
“When you take the band away, sometimes it doesn't have the same effect,” she said. “John Reynolds and the band that played on this, they make a song fun to move to ... no matter what you're talking about. It’s just energetic and full of life. John's production is, and he is as a person, too, just super full of life. And just relentless in that way.”
But Ray isn’t worried about finding compelling ways to strip back the new songs. That will come with time, and she and Saliers have others to play.
She’s more excited about reconnecting with audiences. Ray spoke warmly about the live-streams they did during the pandemic, and seeing their fans interact in the comments. But it was a challenge to play her best without a crowd in attendance.
“I found that I cannot sing as well or perform as well in that way,” she offered. “When you're on stage, the sound is live, and you're used to hearing things a certain way. And (when) people are in real time, and everybody's in the same room, the whole sonic quality is just different, you know? And so you just sing better, I think. I mean, I do.”
May 26. 8 p.m. With Danielle Howle. Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center. 2001 Charleston Hwy., Cayce. $35-$50 (must buy at least two tickets). colaconcerts.com.
May 27. 7:30 p.m. With Danielle Howle. The Bend. 3775 Azalea Dr., North Charleston. $250-$300 for up to four people. charlestonmusichall.com.