WhatsUp Interview: Amy Ray at the Newport Folk Festival

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Singer-Songwriter Amy Ray, one half of the legendary duo Indigo Girls, returned to the Newport Folk Festival this year, almost 30 years since her first appearance there.

The Indigo Girls were headliners at the Festival throughout the 1990’s, an important period of growth and renewal for the historic festival. I sat down with Ray for a chat at the Festival on Saturday where she reflected a bit on the band’s impact.

“It’s our audience that kept it alive, they were willing to come. But also Chapin (Mary Chapin Carpenter), and a lot of other people were doing it. I feel like I was part of a group that came back through the doors – and we had a great time. For me, it was a family event, my whole family came, my Mom, Dad and siblings.”

The Indigo Girls are the most successful duo of the past 30+ years, with top 40 titles on the Billboard 200 in the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s. Ray offered sincere gratitude to her fans, noting “It was mutual, they helped build our whole career.”

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She was excited to be back at the Festival where she is likely second to Pete Seeger in total number of appearances.  

“It feels so good to be here – I feel like its huge, its expanded. I love the Jones family, they’re so special to me, they did this for so long and supported us playing here for so long. And now Jay (Sweet) has done so much. He knew what it took to re-infuse it and make it great again.

Ray continued, “I hope there can be a connection felt between now and the Joan Baez days. The people I hang out with, I think it registers with them, but I can’t tell if it registers with everybody. Those people to me were the real pioneers of all this.”

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Ray and her band rocked the Harbor Stage Friday with a set of mainly original tunes from her new solo album Holler. She also joined The Collaboration, an all-female set that closed the Festival Saturday. Ray led a powerful version of the Indigo Girls politically charged “Go,” where she was joined by Brandi Carlile and Lucy Dacus.

Social Action and NFF

Ray’s commitment to political activism has been a priority from the start. The nature of social activism has changed over the years at Newport, as was evident at the Festival with sponsors like Keen, Bose and Granny Squibb leading the charge.

“To me, anybody that’s really trying to do activism in any way that you can get people to kind of stick their toe in the water, I’m OK with that. I want it to expand beyond that. I’m not one of those people who thinks (corporate activism) is automatically bad… it leads them to something deeper hopefully. That’s the point.

“I hang around with my nieces and nephews, from ages 15-21, and they have it together. They know the deeper part of activism, and the idea of grassroots and the idea of community. People that are really into activism, they know the road and they’re on it. I believe in it. I still think there’s a lot of community here and I hang out with really great people, they are my mentors and they teach me.

“I think for certain things to survive sometimes they have to go into this corporate area a little bit to expand and not stagnate. The trick is, can you do that without it being too much?”

As far as the music goes, Ray was busy all weekend long at the Festival, and welcomed the opportunity to hang out with friends old and new.

“Phil and Brad Cook are old buddies of mine and to just hang out with them for the weekend is great. I love Mike Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger), I love his songwriting a lot. I love the Highwomen, I thought their set was killer. I saw Benmont, which was a really moving thing for me. I’m missing some stuff that I want to see tomorrow, J.S Ondara, Lucy Dacus, and Brandi of course.”

If you missed Amy’s set, there’s good news. The Indigo Girls are coming to PPAC October 10th, where they will be joined by the RI Philharmonic Orchestra. Click here for details on the show.