Indigo Girl Amy Ray reflects on Sears Toughskins, previews Party at Ponce, “Beauty Queen Sister”


Four days before the official release of their 14th studio album, “Beauty Queen Sister,” the Indigo Girls will debut selections from the project Saturday night as they headline Party at Ponce, the kick off for the planned multi-million dollar Ponce City Market renovation of the massive City Hall East location and former Sears & Roebuck building on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The evening serves as a benefit for the city’s Atlanta Beltline Partnership and Georgia Organics. And if we’re really lucky, Indigo Girl Amy Ray may take the stage in a pair of green Toughskins jeans, her preferred hue from childhood. In addition to the popular brand of Sears jungle gym-proof denim, Ray’s mother worked there as a teenager and the songwriter’s very first acoustic guitar and amp also came from Sears. “It’s such a great building,” she recalls. “My Dad used to take me there to pick up our catalog orders. Every Christmas, we got our Sears Wishbook  there too! That was an extremely big deal at the time. I have a real emotional attachment to that building. We’re thrilled to be a part of this benefit.”

For “Beauty Queen Sister,” Ray and longtime musical partner Emily Saliers worked once again with producer Peter Collins (who also twisted the knobs on their acclaimed albums “Rites of Passage” and “Swamp Ophelia), this time in Nashville, to create the album’s 13 songs. Ray says the song, “War Rugs” was inspired by this year’s social media-fueled revolution in Egypt. “That song came about, along with some other songs this year, after Peter and I listened to what I had written earlier and we decided the songs just weren’t good enough,” explains Ray. “I wrote ‘War Rugs’ right when the uprising was happening, while it was on TV. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Watching Egyptian youth literally put their lives on the line was an amazing thing to watch. I love everything about revolution, social media style. It was about achieving their independence and using Twitter to do it. I wanted to pay tribute to that in a non-bias way.” While Ray and Saliers routinely use the Indigo Girls social media pages on Twitter and Facebook to support their activism in various social causes, you won’t catch Ray posting navel-gazing details about her life, like some other celebs. “I’m not the person who posts, ‘Today I’m eating oatmeal for breakfast,'” Ray says laughing. “I don’t really care about that stuff. But I’m sure the people who follow us sometimes ask, ‘Why are they always posting about activism?!'”

Ray recounts that the album’s rocking title track also came along late in the songwriting process for “Beauty Queen Sister.” “I was inspired by a friend of mine who was becoming a tattoo artist,” recalls Ray. “She was talking about her life and I ended up conflating it with [author S.E. Hinton‘s classic coming of age novel] ‘The Outsiders.’ And then, I was doing some vocals with Brandi Carlile and another songwriter Lindsay Fuller and we were talking about our siblings. And Lindsay just came out with ‘Oh, everyone’s got a beauty queen sister!’ I ended up calling her back and saying, ‘Hey, do you mind if we use that for our album title?'” Atlanta vocal group The Shadowboxers, meanwhile, contribute gorgeous harmonies on the Saliers-penned love song, “We Get to Feel It All.” Thanks to an introduction by Saliers, longtime Indigo Girls manager Russell Carter now manages The Shadowboxers as well. “Emily ended up meeting those guys at a Seder,” Ray says. “One of the guys was singing around the table and they ended up in another room with guitars later on, trading songs. Before we knew it, we were playing with them at a gig at Emory University where we all graduated from. We thought they would be perfect for that song so they came up to Nashville and we said, ‘Hey, while you’re here, would you mind contributing to ‘Beauty Queen Sister’ too?’ That’s how we operate. We get you into the studio for one thing and then ask you to do a million other things too!”

Saliers’ vocals, meanwhile, rattle the rafters on “Birthday Song” on the new album. So, does Ray ever go slackjawed and stare at Saliers in the studio when she hits those high notes? ‘Yeah, I do,” she allows laughing. “When she first sang that song to me, I was like ‘Are you kidding?! I had no idea you could sing that high. That is ambitious!’ I remember saying, ‘You know we’re going to have to sing this live eventually, right?’ But she wrote it and of course just nailed it. That song is so beautiful. When I first heard it, I didn’t realize the impact it was going to have. A lot of the musicians who played on the the record really reacted to it in a positive way. It’s so intimate that I was scared by it at first. I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could do that for someone I feel special about.’ I just love everything about it.”

It’s that mutual admiration that’s kept the Atlanta duo intact and growing creatively over the past 25 years. “Space and respect are the two things,” Ray reflects. “You have to give each other space to be creative and you have to respect the other person’s decisions. We both understand how important it is to be challenged creatively by working with different musicians and on different projects. That’s how Emily and I have always approached things. We trust each other and we trust the process. Another big thing is that Russell [Carter] has managed us since we were 23 years old. We’ve had the same booking agent all along. It’s a family. You grow together and stay grounded together. Our audience is also so incredibly loyal, like [Mary] Chapin‘s [Carpenter] and Melissa Etheridge‘s. We were all lucky enough to come along at a time  when artists were still being developed at record labels. It was about developing a community. Luckily for us, it’s all stuck.”

The Indigo Girls with headline Party at Ponce Saturday night at 9:50 p.m., preceded by Shawn Mullins at 8:45 p.m. and Francine Reed at 8 p.m. Included in the $90 benefit ticket price? Food served up by by some of the city’s finest chefs, including Kevin Rathbun, Anne Quatrano, Shaun Doty, Jay Swift, Hugh Acheson, Ford Fry, Duane Nutter, Brian Jones, Joe Truex, Joshua Hopkins, Ron Eyester, Scott Serpas, Pano Karatassos and Frederico Castellucci. Tickets are available in advance online or at the door Saturday night.