Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls has always visited Knoxville, but not always to perform.
"I love Knoxville, because I'm a massive Lady Vols fan," says Saliers from her home in Georgia. "I've spent a lot of time just hanging out with friends and supporting that basketball program."
She calls Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt "a hero."
"She's incredible. I feel privileged to have been watching women's basketball during her reign. Hats off to Pat!"
Saliers and musical partner Amy Ray have a full plate for the summer. The duo are combining talents with the band The Shadowboxers, who will both open Indigo Girls concerts and back the duo during their sets, and they will follow that tour with a run of shows performing their music with symphony orchestras.
"We don't want to do the same thing again and again," says Saliers. "So, playing with different people and picking up different instruments and doing things like playing with a symphony and now playing with the Shadowboxers, it keeps it interesting for me and Amy — and for our fans, as far as I can tell."
From the group's first album, 1987's "Strange Fires," to the most recent, 2011's "Beauty Queen Sister," the Indigo's basic formula has been the same. The two write separately and keep the number of songs by each equal. And, in concert, the format is generally the same.
"Every night Amy and I eat dinner together at the venue and make a set list. Typically we switch off between her songs and my songs. And we keep things in mind like, 'Is this in the same key?' or, 'Do these both have banjos,' or whatever. We give a lot of thought to constructing the set list and making it have a good flow and people will enjoy themselves and we'll have fun."
Saliers and Ray became friends and began performing together in high school, and the act began gaining local popularity while the two were attending Emory University in the mid-1980s. With fellow artists championing the duo, including R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, the duo signed with Epic Records and released "Indigo Girls" in 1989. The song "Closer to Fine" from the album became a college radio favorite, brought the group to international acclaim and earned the act a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. The duo lost the Best New Artist Grammy that year to Milli Vanilli. The group's popularity peaked during the mid-1990s, but the Indigos have retained a solid following and a steady output.
Saliers says she isn't as prolific as she once was.
"It's a craft that you get better and better at it the more you do it. I could write five songs in a day when I was 19, but there was a lot of crap! Now it's more of a discipline. Amy does this and I do this, too. I'll set a schedule for when I come home in August to set my alarm, to get up, to go to my studio and to start writing. ... It's just a matter now of discipline rather than waiting for the muse to write your songs for you."
In concert, fans want their favorites and Saliers says it's difficult leaving numbers out and frustrating when the two can't include as many new songs as they'd like fans to hear.
"I don't like super, super long concerts. I like it to be when we can build the energy and construct a set that feels really good and then that's it. So rather than playing 32 songs, cramming them all in, and having lulls. We take a certain number of songs and construct the set."
The Indigos have made no secret through the years, both in their songs and in their actions, that they support various social causes. Saliers says the two feel good about their work, but they've learned a lot about being effective activists.
"Earlier on, it felt fine to just play a concert and wave your flag and feel good about it and be a part of it. Now we're much more tactical. What change is actually being affected? Where is the money going? Do these grassroots groups use the money wisely? What tact do we take to make sure this is affecting change rather than just making us feel like we're contributing."
The duo's high profile as activists has sometimes given people the wrong impression, though.
"Generally speaking, we're seen as these quite serious lesbian guitar folkies," says Saliers. "Actually, we're having a lot of fun. We're involved in serious causes, but I think the music has more breadth than the press or general opinion would grant us."
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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