Five years ago, Amy Ray, a former member of the openly lesbian folk duo The Indigo Girls, had a new coming out. At least that's what it seemed like from the outside. With her release of Stag, Ray combined the traditions of punk and folk, and longtime fans were forced to discard any stereotypes pegging Ray as purely a "sensitive" singer-songwriter. At her side was the North Carolina punk band The Butchies, whose main members first thrived in Portland, Oregon's queer music scene.
In a recent phone interview, Ray — who released her second solo disc, Prom, on April 12 — spoke about her fascination with punk.
"The philosophy is all about independence and playing music from your community and offering it to your community, and having it infused with a political sense that's not dogmatic, but has a sense of [making] it your own way," Ray says.
Her comments come as The Butchies, themselves a well-known staple within the lesbian punk scene - and among the most prominent of such groups in the Southeast - appear to be dissolving, or at least not making any joint long-term plans.
"We're all in our 30s, and we want to see what's out there," says Butchies lead singer Kaia Wilson. "We're taking a break and we're feeling really good about it." For the Butchies, the Southeast has been less than supportive, especially in the last few years. Drummer Melissa York says many of the region's would-be lesbian bands and singers have leaned more toward theatrical performance, like drag shows. "I don't know if people are just not into [punk] right now," says York, who's looking for a new place to call home, and considering both Austin, Tex. and New York. Both places have been receptive to punk, as has the Northwest.
Meanwhile, Ray chugs on. Her new effort is far removed from the more radical blitzes of The Butchies, New York's Triple Creme or Brazil's Dominatrix. Yet Ray's album is flecked with what punk lovers recognize as part of the genre: an edgy irreverence, as well as a few rapid-fire tunes and lyrics that strive for blunt truth over sheer poetry. Two of the most traditionally punk songs on Ray's roots-leaning album showcase the power of Donna Dresch, guitarist for Team Dresch, and that of Luscious Jackson's Kate Schellenbach, whom Ray calls "a punk soul drummer." In her song "Blender," Ray struggles against the genre's limitations: "We got a punk rock problem/ I'm tired of playing shirts and skins here/ How do we sing against the system when we're a main offender?"
Hers is a world of tension, where Southern suburbia backs into rural lands, where race is still a recognizably bruised domain, and where gender and sexuality are made unnecessarily complicated and tragic. It's a lot to juggle, yet the sanguine Ray chews on the questions: "Put it in a blender and let me get the hang/ Of how it fits together/ And how we came to be."
From such unstable terrain, the new album teeters on the nexus of folk and punk, and lands roughly in the same spot as its predecessor. While Prom doesn't push the creative envelope past Stag, listeners and fans of Ray won't be disappointed. Punk remains - as both a genre and a "making it your own way" lifestyle - fertile ground for the 41-year-old Georgia-born artist.
Meanwhile, Ray's artistic vision is both personal and overarching. As the founder of Daemon Records, which is based in Decatur, Ga., she supports the work of more than 40 U.S. artists like Utah Phillips, Girlyman and the Athens Boys Choir. The woman-fronted punk group Bambix, from Holland, has also signed to her label.
"Punk has a responsibility of 'you should be removing the lines of racism, sexism and homophobia,' and you can't always erase that," Ray says, "But it's a mission."