Amy Ray released Stag, her first solo record, on 6 March 2001. At the time, I was a senior at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, NC. Looking back through the sands of time, I can recall counting down the days until the Tuesday release date, checking for updates on turn-of-the-century fan sites, such as Lifeblood.com. When the day came, I skipped my fourth-period class so that I could drive to the Borders bookstore and purchase my copy of Stag. I had waited a long time for this. I needed to hear Amy all by herself.
Amy Ray is well known for being one of the Indigo Girls. She’s the dark-haired, moody and sometimes unpredictable counterpart to Emily Saliers, the strawberry blonde, polished and reliable member of this iconic duo. Emily writes the songs that you know by heart and use to define your overall impression of Indigo Girls: “Closer to Fine” (Indigo Girls, 1989), “Hammer and a Nail” (Nomads Indians Saints, 1990), “Galileo” (Rites of Passage, 1992), “Least Complicated” (Swamp Ophelia 1994), and “Power of Two” (1994). While Indigo Girls have been writing songs and recording and releasing music regularly since 1987with fourteen studio and a handful of live albums—these songs from their early records still make up the core of their entire output.
The enduring popularity of these hits has helped Indigo Girls materially—in the record stores and, more importantly, in selling seats at their live shows. In other words, Emily is still working these songs. As a longtime Indigo Girls follower, I cannot remember a concert when most of these hits were not a part of the set list. Moreover, audience members frequently would shout requests for “Power of Two” or other favorites even after the duo had played them.
Even so, while my interest in and respect for Indigo Girls as an ongoing phenomenon remains strong, I would not mind if I never heard any of Emily’s hits in concert again. I like “Galileo” well enough (mostly because of the obscure music video made for the song that features Amy and Emily playing dress-up) and am happy whenever Professor Tongson performs karaoke versions of “Least Complicated.” I appreciate the way Emily complements Amy and for the magical blend of their voices. I am also happy to acknowledge that, for a while, Amy—always longer on inspiration and shorter on musical precision—needed Emily’s techniques to ground and accompany her work. Still, I have always been in the Indigo Girls business for Amy alone. I would happily sit through a thirty-minute version of Amy’s “Chickenman” (Rites of Passage, 1992) before singing along to yet another round of Emily’s “Closer to Fine.”
Most Indigo Girls fans, I suspect, are on Team Emily and merely put up with Amy’s antics—either because of her inherent sex appeal or because, like me, they have developed enough patience to exist peaceably within the A/E dialectic. Long before she finally went solo, Amy had been showing musical signs of needing to break away from Indigo Girls. You can look at every Indigo album before Stag and find examples of songs that predict this evolution. Most people probably skip the songs that rub against the Indigo Girls’ template: “Center Stage” (1989), “1 2 3” (1990), “Touch Me Fall” (1994), “Cut it Out” (Shaming of the Sun 1997), “Compromise” (Come on Now Social 1999), “Faye Tucker (1999). With varying—but, I would argue, increasing—degrees of success, these more obscure tracks audibly foreshadow Amy’s need for a solo career. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes these songs too much for the ensemble to handle. It’s not that they challenge Emily to fit into them musically, but they nonetheless seem to confound rather than expand the capacities of the Indigo Girls style.
Stag resolves this quandary. In ten songs and less than thirty-five minutes, Amy’s first solo effort expresses the material she was unable to fit into an Indigo Girls frame and reorients my own approach to her past and ongoing work with Emily. By offering up songs without Emily, she gave fans a sense of an underdeveloped, but definitely present, voice that grew up with and eventually away from its Indigo Girls roots.
In terms of its sound, or genre, Stag covers a lot of territory. This quick and dirty record opens with the mountain music punk track “Johnny Rottentail” and jumps to the emo-gothic country sound of “Lazyboy,” and hard-driving rock anthems “Laramie” and “On Your Honor,” with satisfying pop punk running through all. On paper, or to an Indigo Girls outsider, the musical styles of Stag might seem scattershot; to anyone who knows Amy, however, these crossovers make perfect sense. To get the sound she wanted, Amy took to the road, recording with various indie bands across the South: the Butchies, Nineteen Forty-Five, the Rock*A*Teens. She also traveled to New York, where she got some help from Joan Jett, Kate Schellenbach and Josephine Wiggs for “Hey Castrator.” Most contemporaneous reviews of the album referred to the sound as “punk,” a term I find unclear. But I assume critics mean the sound is loud, messy and unruly: qualities that describe Amy and this album perfectly. I am content to call Stag a rock and roll record. More specifically, I might say it belongs next to other great projects that come out of the Lenny Kaye school of garage rock.
Throughout the album, Amy’s lyrics are both honest and oblique in how they represent her to her listeners. Amy has always been fond of mixing her metaphors to reveal multiple interpretations and meanings for a song in a given place or time. For instance, a love song may employ political metaphors to get its point across or, as in the case of the 1997 Indigo effort “Shame on You,” Amy will turn a spring cleaning pop ditty into a self-effacing critique of American imperialism.
There are roughly three patterns running through the songs on “Stag,” even though the edges of these are not clean and the relevant topics and metaphors tend to fold into another. In “Late Bloom” and “Lucy Stoners,” listeners get Amy’s reflections on the then current state of her professional life with Emily as an Indigo Girl trying to make it in the boys’ club music market. Amy’s thoughts on desire and sex take on a decidedly inexplicable form here as well. In “Mountains of Glory,” “Hey Castrator” and “Measure of Me,” Amy explores the male body and sexual gaze as it exists, both on the outside and from within. Elsewhere, Amy seems to be concerned with our responsibilities to others, particularly in the ways we come up short. She is not, if we are to believe in the self-portrait offered up in “Black Heart Today,” quite as cheery or optimistic as we might assume of a veteran Indigo Girl. To the contrary, Amy is one of our great, queer grumps, though not always openly. She is much better at needling the world around her than imploring it to change. This came through in Stag and has continued to flourish in Amy’s subsequent solo efforts.
“Laramie,” for example, is an especially poignant song that begins with the specter of Matthew Shephard’s corpse in order to move into and linger in the world that has survived him. This is not a hopeful song, and that is exactly what makes it so powerful and so un-Indigo Girls. This is a song about the rottenness of a world that can and will break us into dust. Writing this essay in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, Amy’s rage is especially resonant, chiefly for the accuracy and expansiveness of its vision:
We hit snow on the road to Laramie
We all heard about that mess
But that town ain’t nothing different
Than the rest
The opening image in the song is stark and horrible and is conversant, in tone as well as imagery, with Neil Young’s epic, “Powderfinger” (Rust Never Sleeps 1979):
Look out, Mama, there’s a white boat coming up the river
With a big red beacon, and a flag, and a man on the rail
I think you’d better call John,
Cuz it don’t look like they’re here to deliver the mail
Both of these songs begin with a terrifying vision in white, and, as such, each in its own way comes out of that great white abyss created by Edgar Allan Poe at the end of his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym—Shepherd’s scarecrow corpse and the white boat coming up the river. These are signs of the times and of times to come. Signs of nothing good, that’s for sure.
Amy sees into and beyond the signs of the times in the song. She intimates that the real trouble is on the horizon, another slow train coming up around the bend. Shepherd’s death was an iconic moment in the history of the straight man’s sins against humanity: a history that was neither born nor killed in those Wyoming killing fields:
Poor man do the bidding for the rich man
Those rednecks just doing
What the classy fuckers thinking
And tolerance, it ain’t acceptance
I know you wanted it to be
When you’re out of Laramie
In terms of its sound, the song builds and builds, its anger moving just behind the beat of the drums. By the time it moves through its middle, through the body of its verses, it descends into a series of threats that, for once, target the ones steering the big white shit-ship into the future:
Hey all you jokers,
Hunting season’s over
Lay down your mission
Hunting season’s over
If there are any doubts left as to why Amy really needed to stray from Emily, “Laramie” ought to clear them away. This song does not harmonize and does not require harmony. It is angry and it points its finger. It is also not a song that could ever be performed to any successful degree without a rock and roll band. “Laramie” is a cow punching kind of a song, and Amy is just the cowpuncher for the job.
“Lucystoners” is another track that is self-evidently not an Indigo Girls number, even though it reflects on the duo’s life in the popular music meat market. Its title is an homage to Lucy Stone, nineteenth century abolitionist and feminist. Stone is perhaps best known for keeping her birth name after marriage, an act that was important at the time for breaking with tradition and useful in a more enduring sense for providing Amy with an opportunity to pen the wonderful refrain: “Lucystoners don’t need boners.”
The track is a meditation on the stupid white boys club that is mainstream American music and Amy’s waning faith in the survivability of Indigo Girls. Composed at the turn of the century and the midpoint of her career with Emily, “Lucystoners” says that the future is only a trap door.
We were talking ticket slump
Trying to put our finger on it
Quantify the undoing
Of each little step
And it’s just a lack of press
. . .
Testing 123 in the marketplace
But it’s a demographic based disgrace
And a stupid secret white boy handshake
That we’ll never be a part of
Like “Laramie,” the song castigates and marks its target clearly. For her purposes here, Jann Wenner, that homophile impresario, is the scapegoat for the job.
Rolling Stone’s most fearless leader
Gave the boys what they deserve
But with the girls he lost his nerve
This hook, which Amy sinks into Wenner’s gut, frames the first half of the song. The last descends into her punk call to arms. It is where she and her band unload, chanting again and again: “Lucystoners don’t need boners//Lucystoners don’t need boners//Lucystoners don’t need boners.” Saint Valerie would be pleased.
“Lucystoners” is not the only phallic song on the album. In “Hey Castrator,” Amy looks at her own internalized phallus, romancing and ultimately repelling its power over her: (“Hey Castrator//Take this strong out of me”). In “Measure of Me” and “Mountains of Glory,” Amy reckons with her own desire for the male form. The former finds Amy stepping out, “crossing over what you know.”
The boy he thinks I’m damaged goods
I know he does and I guess he should
I dress like him I take him down
He gets embarrassed when his friends come around
I wanna take him to the show
I’m crossing over what you know
Is it the boy you need in me?
Or the girl that you could be?
“Measure of Me” is slow and plodding but beautiful. It is the slow dance marking the middle of this album and playing in the background of the Stag cover photo. This is a tender song; “Mountains of Glory” is just the opposite. It is a continuance of the conversation begun in “Measure of Me,” but with more noise and the edges roughed up. This song is sexual and visceral and angry. It is a love song, but one written in the tradition of Patti Smith’s “Pissing in a River” (Radio Ethiopia 1976). It is also a feminist cock rocker, a precursor to Lucinda Williams’ epic, “Come On” (West 2007).
Call up my rockboy, finally score
He’s got drama like a toreador
Me and the bottle we’re on the mend
Tired of winning gonna lose again
I’m gonna miss being the boy
I’m gonna miss being the man
When I go down to FLA
Sand in my shoes makes me think of you
I can’t get it out, it’s kinda rough
I like the way it feels, but it’s not enough
The refrain of the song lets us into Amy’s mind, revealing her doubts. But she is not undone by the encounter with the phallus. Estranging the sexual encounter and upending its inherent power dynamics, “Mountains of Glory” is Amy’s reevaluation of butch ethics.
Hey baby, don’t you need me now
Mountains of glory, mountains of glory
I said, hey baby, don’t you want to feel these
Mountains of glory mountains of glory.
“Late Bloom” is the fifth track on the album and a perfect way to close. It is written to, or perhaps merely about, Emily, and deals with Amy’s process of growing as an Indigo Girl, often in the shadow of her more consistent counterpart. The song acknowledges this history while it is also a record of Amy’s overcoming of it.
I won’t be a pawn
We roughed it up when we were young
I won’t say so much for that
What do you do when it is done?
Cause I know
When it’s over.
. . .
All that time
I spent walking behind
Now I don’t mind
Cause I know
When it’s over.
Stag is, on the one hand, the result of Amy’s need to evaluate her work within the Indigo Girls structure—a kind of mid-career crisis record. Indigo Girls’ mainstream success and major label status in the nineties notwithstanding, Amy has always had her foot firmly planted in the world of independent, regional music. Stag allowed her to leave the familiarity of Indigo Girls and its audience and flirt with other bands and other sounds. On the other hand, this is not to say that this solo venture ever meant Amy would stray from Emily, just that she needed another outlet in order to continue thriving within the Indigo Girls frame. Looking back, Amy’s songwriting contributions to subsequent, post-Stag Indigo records have continued to evolve, and she is, at last, the more reliable member of the enduring folk duo. She is, as she makes clear on this record, a late bloomer. So, Stag is more than a sign of mid-career malaise; rather, it marks the point in Amy’s career where she takes control of her musical destiny. It is her will to power.