On Thursday, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — better known as platinum-selling folk duo the Indigo Girls — will play the latest installment of Thistle Stop Café's Thistle Thursdays monthly series. The show, which sold out in 12 hours, is a rare chance for fans to catch the duo in an intimate setting. Perhaps more importantly, it's a fundraiser for the cafe, which opened a year ago as an extension of local social enterprise Thistle Farms.
As outspoken longtime supporters of human rights and environmental issues, Ray and Saliers have never shied away from activism. When they first visited the Thistle Farms facility six years ago, they were affected by the time they spent with the women of Magdalene, the residential program of Thistle Farms that offers housing, food, therapy, education and vocational training for women recovering from prostitution, addiction, trafficking and life on the streets.
"It was very transformative to Emily and I in different ways," Ray says. "It gave us a certain inspiration in our lives to do something better, and to better ourselves. Looking at these women, who are coming out of really hard situations, walking straight and tall, heads up, doing their thing — it was just really cool."
The Thistle Thursdays series launched in October, the brainchild of tour manager and Magdalene board member Carolyn Snell. Past performers include Kristian Bush, Ten Out of Tenn, Lulu Mae, The Shadowboxers, and The Hummons, featuring the husband and eldest son of Magdalene/Thistle Farms founder Becca Stevens. The Indigo Girls are the biggest act to play the series so far, and Ray says as soon as Snell told her and Saliers that the cafe would host live music, they were on board.
"Over the years, we kept in touch about it," Ray says. "When the cafe was opening and Carolyn said they were going to start doing live music with Thistle Thursdays, we were like, 'Oh, we totally want to do one of those!' "
For the Thistle Thursdays series, all of the sound and lighting equipment is donated by Sound Image, Morris Light & Sound, Shure Microphones, Relay Productions and TNDV. Although the Indigo Girls' Thistle Stop show is sold out, a live stream of the performance will be available for a $10 donation through StageIt (visit ThistleStopCafe.org for the link), which directly benefits the nonprofit.
The Indigo Girls will make another Nashville appearance May 23 with the Nashville Symphony. They'll perform 19 songs from their extensive catalog, which dates back to their debut album from 1987. Ray and Saliers each collaborated with a separate arranger to create scores for their respective compositions, a labor-intensive process that lasted more than six months.
"These are very deep arrangements; the musicians are busy the whole time," Ray says. "The score mirrors all of the different harmony parts. It's lots of drama, and that's what we wanted."
Ray says the performances can be challenging, and not just because they have only one run-through with the orchestra before the actual performance — usually just hours before the show. Unlike a typical rock show, in which anything can happen, performing with a 100-piece band means that everybody — Ray and Saliers included — needs to stay on the same page with the conductor.
"You get really caught up in what they're doing," Ray admits. "It's kind of a fragile place, because you have to focus so hard on staying in time, and not being spontaneous. At the same time, the symphony is playing this gorgeous stuff, and you want to listen to them, but you can't."
Not only has performing with an orchestra fostered the duo's love of artistic exploration and growth, but it sheds light on the fact that many symphonies — ours included — have faced financial difficulty. Ray would love to see the individual musicians get a pay raise, instead of the pay cuts happening in orchestras across the country.
"They practice more than I ever practice, and they often have to work other jobs while they're doing this," Ray says of the orchestra musicians. "It's humbling to see; they're so accomplished, and they're so good at what they do, but they're very underappreciated and underpaid. It really gives you perspective, in the popular music culture."
As a performing arts nonprofit, the Nashville Symphony strives to engage the community through excellence in musical performances and educational programming. For Ray, new mom to a 6-month-old daughter with her partner of 12 years, ensuring that the community has access to this music is crucial, especially as public school systems continue to cut arts education. To that end, Ray has an idea how symphonies could raise extra money while putting the "fun" in fundraising.
"It's so exciting; I wish everybody would be able to experience it," Ray says of performing with an orchestra. "I was thinking, we should have karaoke orchestra. I think the orchestras could actually make money, having a karaoke night once a month, where the orchestra is playing and anyone can get up and sing. They could do musical theater, movie soundtrack numbers, standards. It would really work here in Nashville, with so many singers!"
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