Peauxdunque Album Highlight

In which Emily Choate considers the life of an album that, for one reason or another, went overlooked …

Indigo Girls’ Beauty Queen Sister

By Emily Choate, Peauxdunque Review Fiction Editor

Mine were a harmony-singing people. Four-part, shaped-note, a cappella, wooden pew. But no choir to be found—to raise any voice above the congregation’s was to risk a slippery path toward worldly vice, toward vanity or individualism. That raised-up voice might start to get ideas. It might, given the chance, begin to improvise.

To be that young teenager, disgruntled and lost. To rummage in the bins of Phonoluxe down on grubby Nolensville Road, the summertime I was fifteen, and to conjure up that album—titled Rites of Passage, as if this moment couldn’t get any sweeter. Later, to spin the album, context-less and unGoogleable, and find a roadside shaman named Chickenman, a vertigo-inducing plane ride, and a rowdy swipe at Nashville that this restless native was ready to hear.

But their voices were the true source of revelation. Emily Saliers and Amy Ray sang like women I might want to become. Saliers’ voice could soar into delicate high notes, vulnerable but assured, strong even in the quietest measures. Ray could swagger, growl, and belt—she could laugh without slipping off the note. And when their voices joined, the air in the room changed.

They sang like Southerners, too, but this sounded nothing like country music. Poring over the liner notes, I was struck by the fact that they did not co-write the songs. They traded visions, supporting and collaborating, but each voice had its own say.

Perhaps a year later, Swamp Ophelia was released and handed me a new part of my future. The world of that record fell around me like a thickly curtained wildwood. What could be found there? Scenes from a South I understood. Burned-out backfields, lovers chased through darkening trees, wheeling summer skyscapes. Secret glories and gilded losses, every turn singed by danger and mystery. Flickers of the sacred rising up from the debased and discarded.

At fifteen, I didn’t know that Swamp Ophelia was being dismissed in the press, in part for the presumption of being literary. I was too busy listening to the songs, while simultaneously falling into the worlds created by Welty, McCullers, O’Connor, and Faulkner. There, too, I recognized my world reflected back to me in their lush, furtive landscapes. I didn’t know I was supposed to be making distinctions about what you could take seriously in literature and in a rock song. I stalked my way through all these worlds indiscriminately, shaping myself into a Southern voice.

The scenes in Saliers and Ray’s songs played with startling clarity. Some rolled across a misted clearing at dusk, whispering a moment of change that will resonate for a lifetime. Others barreled down an open road, sounding their yawp against silence and secrecy, staking a claim for the forgotten, the condemned, the hidden inhabitants of the wildwood.

Neither Rites of Passage nor Swamp Ophelia have gone overlooked in the world of Indigo Girls fandom. On tour in 2015, they played Swamp Ophelia onstage in its entirety—a choice that, to me, makes perfect sense. Ophelia had unfolded in my mind like a sweeping, tragic-hearted badass southern novel, uninhibited in its grandness of feeling or the muscular grip of its sense of place.

But in the wider zeitgeist, Indigo Girls’ body of work is well overdue for reappraisal. For three decades, Saliers and Ray have continued writing, releasing, and touring songs that value spiritual exploration, political egalitarianism, and emotional honesty. But for far too long, their reputation has suffered from the male-dominated entertainment press’s systemic devaluing of women’s experience as viable material. Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon may earn praise for laid-bare, self-searching—even self-flagellating—lyrics, but similar sentiments expressed by two queer women letting their folk roots show are bound to be tagged with that fatal word of dismissal—earnest.

In the eyes of a painfully hip generation of the music press, decades of prolific, literate, socially engaged work could not stand up to the earnest diss. They became easy targets for mockery. But seismic turbulence across the culture during recent years have reopened space for the voices of women and queer artists. Same goes for artists’ overt statements of activism. Saliers and Ray—who’ve never stopped exploring their musical terrain and never stopped advocating for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, alongside support for indigenous populations—seem primed for rediscovery by a wider audience.

With its playful sound and top-form songwriting, Beauty Queen Sister makes an ideal place to start among their more recent, undervalued albums. In 2011, ready to record, Saliers and Ray were fresh off their previous album, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug. That unique experiment offers two discs of the same ten songs: one disc recorded with full backing band and the other disc recorded with a stripped-back, intimate sound foregrounding the indelible vocal dynamic between Saliers and Ray. In the spirit of further experimentation and adventure, they decided to reteam with Peter Collins, who produced both of their pivotal early ’90s records. They wanted to push themselves, as they had back then: to shake loose new musical possibilities within their signature sound.

For Beauty Queen Sister, they sought a spontaneous approach. They gathered strong players from Nashville, where they’ve often recorded, and cut the tracks live. The result is a sparkling energy that fuels the album. That sparkling quality animates the perspectives that Saliers and Ray bring to their hallmark subject matter—the interior specificity of romantic desire, the call to understanding and action in the face of social injustice, and the pursuit of spiritual transcendence that shuns religious cliché.

These songs also highlight another significant recurring subject. Saliers and Ray both voice the southerner’s irresolvable tension of being caught between progressive and podunk—what Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood memorably termed “The Duality of the Southern Thing.”

The inviting bassline of the opening track, “Share the Moon,” draws us right into the album’s backroad world. With its laidback self-assurance, Ray’s voice lends some textural contrast to the romantic longing described in the lyrics: “I can go one day without calling/Two days without bawling/Three days without missing/But a lifetime with no kissing you/That’s something that I just can’t do.” But this isn’t a star-crossed tryst doomed to fail. The lovers that inhabit Beauty Queen Sister have been humbled by experience—they’re going to make it work. But their loves shine no less brightly. “I wish I could be there to share the moon,” makes no less impact than a more wrenching sentiment might.

This album’s heart lives in the wooded hills of Georgia, providing the backdrop for her observations: “There’s one trash heap burning/Them fireflies are returning/Nightfall is softly chirping/One trailer light is staying on ‘til dawn/I wonder who it’s waiting on.” That rural setting expands with the atmospheric second track, “John,” a character study by Saliers. Detailing a neighbor’s endless tasks on his country property, she shares his family history, his commitment to the land’s integrity, and his skill for growing things. The song’s sunny melody belies subtle complications by recognizing an imbalance in their dynamic: “John’s work is never done/Helping the girl out from the city.”

That tension between year-round country dwellers and part-time city transplants goes on: “John knows that he could make a killing/Selling rights to fish the trout/To rich city men who come in/Grilling and swilling/So he’d rather do without/Still he opens up the gates for me / Atlanta groceries in my SUV.” She’s grateful, but self-aware about her place in John’s world.

Sister’s title track, one of Ray’s best, gives us a memorable cast of characters. The song shimmies open with our heroine’s entrance: “Everybody loves the beauty queen sister/But she always got the broken heart/‘Cause she work hard to keep what God gave her/But the devil he’s just pulling it apart.” Next, we meet a compassionate biker and tattoo artist named Monkeyman. Life for everyone in this song’s hardscrabble world has a way of unravelling, and Monkeyman offers a means of spiritual consolation: “Draw your picture/Give it some ink, hear the needle whisper/For all the broken hearts and the passing fancies.” Under each chorus plays the backup singers’ (all-millennial-male R&B act The Shadowboxers) catchy refrain, “Hang on tight.”

That track sways with a soulful delight in itself, benefitting from being cut live in the studio. Another of Ray’s, “Mariner Moonlighting,” moves with a boozy crooner vibe, spinning the story of a diehard musician who’s terrible at everything else. The track feels like that crooner’s dream, as if the band playing in his head has taken a moment, here in the middle of the album, to play a wry little weird one just for themselves.

With “Gone,” Saliers (in a rare co-write with Annie Roboff) revels in the moment of leaving town in the company of someone you’ve been dying to see rolling up your gravel drive. That moment’s even better when you know you’ll scandalize your hidebound, buzzkill neighbors: “They say you’ll burn me like you’re Sherman/With a big bad torch.” The joy of busting loose and hitting the road has been a recurrent theme of Indigo Girls’ songs for decades, and this one fits right in.

Ray’s memorable “War Rugs” captures the complex desire to connect to servicemen and women while a baffling war rages on the other side of the globe. “Soldier girl, oh soldier boy/Tell me what to say/When I see you at Christmas leave/Tattooed in haste.” Through Indigo Girls’ signature harmonies, put to especially striking use here, the song acknowledges the ideological conflicts that keep us painfully ignorant of many who live close to us. Ray sings: “We’re all growing up together/We’re all making a mark on it/We’re all damning the consequences/I want to understand the soul you have in there.” After referencing 2011’s Arab Spring, and the slew of reshuffled alliances those events instigated, she ends the song on a larger hope: “I want to understand/The soul it takes to stand/For something bigger than myself.”

Saliers’ stirring “Feed and Water the Horses” amplifies that call for understanding. In a tribute to commitment for the long haul—to our work, our love, the survival of our planet—Saliers sings: “I want to/Feed and water the horses/The course is long and dry/Can’t do it alone/We’ve known we can’t/Although we try and try and try.” Cousin to that song is another of Saliers’ strongest tracks, “Able to Sing,” which sprang from a news story about redwing blackbirds mysteriously dying en masse after July 4th celebrations. Saliers remakes the incident into a metaphor for jingoistic patriotism and our blithe refusal to see the destruction we’ve helped cause. “Some days are fairytales/Some days belie/That four and twenty/Blackbirds baked in a pie/Could open up/Their sweet throats/To serenade a king/That’s a lot of heat to take/And still be able to sing.”

Late in the album comes another song about chains of social consequence. “Damo,” Ray’s soaring ode to Ireland, evokes the sweep of gray coastlines, the pipes-and-stomp of Irish music, while also adding layers of ambivalence about viewing that tradition as a white Southerner: “What do I know of Ireland/Except what made it here/Through the ports, into the hills/A whistle and a jig/They worked the fields, they worked the rails/And sang the songs of slaves.”

As on any Indigo Girls album, songs that challenge our roles in the social fabric live alongside introspective long songs. Ray’s “Making Promises” is a grownup’s recognition that her beloved not only heightens her better qualities, but also exposes her worst foibles. “I’m of two hearts and up all night/I couldn’t keep myself from making promises.” Locked in a pattern of self-defeat, she hasn’t lost hope: “I’m gonna get it right this time/When the Spring is coming round/And I’m feeling brave, I’m gonna lay it down.”

In “We Get to Feel It All,” Saliers also embraces the complexity of what committed love brings into our lives over time—the possibilities and the troubles: “Sometimes I can’t tell/You’re open like a book/Or shut like a shell/But if I hold you to my ear/I can hear the whole world/The dark stories of a distant past/Our time created in a single blast.” Within these lyrics, the kernel of charged romantic intensity that fed the grand vision of Saliers’ early work is still intact, but here the imagery (and the perspective it depicts) is especially focused and mature. Another Saliers track, “Birthday Song,” captures a tender moment of indecision about what gift to give the one you love.

The closing song, “Yoke,” casts a nuanced and powerful spell. Over a hypnotic violin riff that pulses underneath the entire track, Ray sings about the emotional dangers of true intimacy. “Escort me to your kingdom come/From the gallows’ hold, and the things we’ve done.” Ending the album on this song’s rich sense of mystery acknowledges that, no matter how much we grow and learn, our inner worlds stay vulnerable to the shadowed realms of another person’s heart: “And you hold your nightmares close from view/The horses going wild, under a breaking moon.” But in the last waning moments, Ray reminds us: “the weight of it, that’s why we’re here.”

This final line is a crucial one. Indigo Girls’ early records burst with scenes of emotional risk, dwelling largely in the turmoil created by that danger. By contrast, Beauty Queen Sister unfolds in a far more reflective mode, like long afternoons in a world sheltered by tree-shade. Though the external threats of life are no less powerful, the interior landscape of this album feels far safer. “Yoke” speaks from the crossroad of struggle and transcendence.

These intersecting visions reveal that new colors—new joys, new observations, new compassions—are possible when we stand on firmer terrain inside. From the far side of experience—all its hard-won gains in love and identity—that wild range of emotion exists not as a rueful tradeoff, but as a soul-enlarging privilege and responsibility: “We get to feel it all.”

 

Emily Choate’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in ShenandoahThe Florida ReviewTupelo QuarterlyChapter 16Late Night LibraryYemassee, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has earned several residency awards, most recently from Virginia Center for Creative Arts and The Hambidge Center. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.