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The Four Queens
November 25, 2012 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emily Saliers & Amy Ray (Indigo Girls) are featured in this 1991 Austin City Limits "Songwriters Special" episode. Filmed at the peak of the female singer-songwriter arc 20 years ago, this special also includes Julie "From A Distance" Gold. [~58m, download links also available at the link]

Setlist:

It's A Hard Life (Nanci Griffith)
Never Had It So Good (Mary Chapin Carpenter)
Hammer And A Nail (Indigo Girls)
From A Distance (Julie Gold)
Late Night Grande Hotel (Nanci Griffith)
I Am A Town(Mary Chapin Carpenter)
Fare Thee Well (Emily Saliers)
Heaven (Julie Gold)
Listen To The Radio (Nanci Griffith)
I Feel Lucky (Mary Chapin Carpenter)
Jonas And Ezekial (Indigo Girls)
Unknown (Julie Gold)
Take Me To The Station (Full Group)
posted by hippybear (30 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
The peak was 20 years ago? I have not been paying attention. This looks awesome though.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:43 AM on November 25, 2012


Oh, I remember when this came out! A family friend captured it on VHS and we traded it around like it was from the vault. It's one of the exceptional moments in that era of singer-songwriter work. That and the elusive original Transatlantic Sessions.

I would say 1991 is slightly pre-peak and would personally place peak around 1994, but the whole era was great stuff.
posted by Miko at 12:14 PM on November 25, 2012


Yeah, I feel like Lilith Fair really marked the peak (and from my time in the business, it was all downhill from there - there was a significant backlash in the industry) but this is super cool. Yay for soundtracks for my workday!
posted by restless_nomad at 12:18 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Indigo Girls' existence was partially responsible for helping my older sister figure out where she was on the sexual spectrum, and while their music has always conjured images in my head of ugly plastic-backed acoustic guitars with leaf-patterned sound holes being strummed way too hard while backing lyrics and harmonies that just don't speak to me in the slightest, I will always hold them in very high regard. I love my sister so goddamn much, and what's important to her total makeup is important to me as well.
posted by item at 12:55 PM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Those Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter songs are fused in my mind with car trips with my parents growing up in the western US. Watching the telephone poles go past the window. Driving through sad little towns and past soaring scenery. And these voices on the old cassette tapes. Emotions seeping through the music that I only half-understood in my adolescence. I can't even be objective about it, so I'm happy for the validation in this thread that the music is actually good :)
posted by rivenwanderer at 1:16 PM on November 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm happy for the validation in this thread that the music is actually good

The hair, however, isn't.

Having now heard all of it, this really is pretty great. Good lineup, good setlist.

while their music has always conjured images in my head of ugly plastic-backed acoustic guitars with leaf-patterned sound holes being strummed way too hard while backing lyrics and harmonies that just don't speak to me in the slightest, I will always hold them in very high regard

The Indigo Girls are funny. I like them fine, but I don't love them the way some people did (and do.) But they were so much an in-group marker for lesbians of a certain age that their music is almost irrelevant - they were a couple of folk singers singing love songs that might actually, for real, have been about us or by us, no pronoun-swapping necessary. I go on and on about the value of having minority role models in the arts and media, and they're one of the canonical examples in my opinion.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:26 PM on November 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Could you elaborate about the backlash in the industry?
posted by merrill at 1:43 PM on November 25, 2012


So I worked (roadied, moderated, wrote web content) for a female singer-songwriter starting in about 2001. Her moderately successful band had broken up - they'd had a contract with Arista, but got dropped after a couple of albums when Clive Davis left. (He'd been their main champion, and apparently that made them first on the chopping block.) They'd done pretty well - had a couple of Top 40 hits on their first nationally-released album - but without the label, they couldn't make enough money for the guys to justify keeping their kids in day care while they toured.

Once she was on her own, things were even harder. She got told a couple of times, outright, that radio stations didn't want to play female vocalists much anymore - that people were "sick of that" since Lilith Fair. So there was basically a quota on female vocalists, and it was filled largely by established artists. Her live act did - and does - reasonably well, and she's still trucking, but radio never gave her any love.

It hasn't really gotten any better, I don't think. Take a tally sometime, when you're listening to the radio. The local alt-rock station in Austin is pretty good - it's indy, not Clear Channel - but maybe one in five songs they play is sung by a woman. The internet probably helps, some - I'm years out of the business - but it's still a rough fucking road to be taken at all seriously if you're a female musician.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:56 PM on November 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's funny, I haven't thought about the Indigo Girls in years, and now this is the 3rd reference in 3 days. I really don't know how to think about them as they where (still are) a group fiercely culturally owned by a group I am so not a part of, despite having close friends within the group, that I have a difficult time listening to the (IG) without slidding into thinking about gender issues. Which I guess is not a -bad- thing, but not really something that makes me want to listen all that much. At a certain point I want to live my choices and not have to constantly have the same debates about them.

I hear what you are saying r_n, I do a indie radio show a few times a month and while I won't claim to be fantastic in this regard I am nearly constantly on the look out for female driven vocals in the ''alt rock'' spectrium of things just so hings are not so monocultural.

(all that being said I've always liked the Indigo Girls' cover of Romeo and Juliet)
posted by edgeways at 2:37 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is great.

I have always been a folkie/singer-songwriter fan; I think I spent half my earnings at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA between 1983-2000. There were some stellar female performers during that time, and folks like Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin were the absolute top of the heap.

This video brings back great memories. Thanks.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:02 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Indigo Girls are funny. I like them fine, but I don't love them the way some people did (and do.) But they were so much an in-group marker for lesbians of a certain age that their music is almost irrelevant - they were a couple of folk singers singing love songs that might actually, for real, have been about us or by us, no pronoun-swapping necessary.

I don't want to downplay the significance of having someone finally singing songs that were likely written to voice feelings of members of a marginalized subculture. Must've been huge.

But as a straight guy (and one originally largely clueless about their identification) it must've been about the music for me. That and a certain... literacy? Lettered-ness, maybe?

(all that being said I've always liked the Indigo Girls' cover of Romeo and Juliet)

I know not everybody feels this way, but I can't second that enough. I never got the song from Knopfler's performances. Ray's vocals, by contrast, just exude passion and ache, and every time I listen, I'm kindof in awe.
posted by weston at 3:05 PM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Great stuff. I love Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith.

Speaking of MCC, this video is pretty much my favorite thing ever.
posted by Dismantled King at 3:40 PM on November 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Indigo Girls are funny. I like them fine, but I don't love them the way some people did (and do.) But they were so much an in-group marker

Not only for lesbians. I am a female folkie singer-songwriter, though admittedly of a nano-size nature in comparison to the greats, but the Indigo Girls were a very exciting beacon of hope for me when I came of age. I can't remember not wanting to play guitar, but as a girl player - I started at age 14 in the early 80s - I was an anomaly, actually a total weirdo at the time. I had a hard time at music stores getting what I needed, and surprised people constantly that I played, and with the kinds of things I was interested in playing. There were no, zero, useable role models for me in the mid-late 80s, until the Indigo Girls came along. It's hard to put their impact into proper perspective.

They haven't matured for me as well as other artists. I still have a lot of respect for everything they did and do, and the harmonies they wrote, the melodic sense Emily is gifted with, and the energy with which Amy in particular tackles all her music. But I find I listen to them more nostalgically than with a current sense of esteem.

However, Nanci only gets better, and she's the person whose style I find still resonates - though I am sad for the loss of the dynamic range of her voice on recent records.

Oh, and I agree with r_n that things peaked then because there's been much less attention and encouragement for female artists since. And many of the female artists that have been invested in and put forward, in the mid-90s and after, have not as strong, Patty Griffin, Iris DeMent and Gillian Welch maybe being notable exceptions. Basically I think women always had a home in pop/dance, and have a better home in rock/indie rock now than they did then, but for songwriters and vocalists it's not as good a time.
posted by Miko at 5:10 PM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I never got the song from Knopfler's performances [Romeo and Juliet]. Ray's vocals, by contrast, just exude passion and ache, and every time I listen, I'm kind of in awe.

I like both versions pretty well, the difference may be (and I've read this elsewhere so is not wholly my observation), is while the Dire Straits' version is about love, the Indigo Girls' version is about pain.
posted by edgeways at 5:43 PM on November 25, 2012


Thank you so much for this! Man Austin City Limits has been so good for so long!

I had no idea IG were lesbians the first 3 or 4 years I heard them, it was all about the music for me, and from "Kid Fears" to "Hammer and Nail" to, yes, "Romeo and Juliet"--and all points in between, their music has always been and remains astonishingly beautiful art to me. Though they've become politically totemic, and good on 'em, their music will always transcend politics for me.

Again, thank you for this gem!
posted by riverlife at 7:27 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I feel like I should clarify that I'm commenting from a hit-puberty-in-the-early-90s lesbian perspective, which skews everything for me. (And that I do like their music and think they definitely earned the attention, even when it is overshadowed by their cult status.) I am a pretty dogged fan of all of Amy Ray's songs, solo or as one of the Girls. (I find Emily a touch precious. But I am butch. It's possible that's one of the markers.)
posted by restless_nomad at 7:32 PM on November 25, 2012


r_n I wasn't calling you out, just noting both the incredible quality of IG's music and my own naivite.

As to Miko's point about the energy and especially attention for women's musical voices having dried up, it's a dirty shame. As a singer/songwriter it's clear to me that we've had more than a lot of the male perspective on life, and it's not like there's this mind-blowing oversupply of women's voices available. In the early-mid 90's it really seemed for a minute there that women were beginning almost to reach parity with men, musically, and then what? Lillith Fair? Ok, ladies, you made your point and had your fun, now go away and make babies for another fifty years, we're full? Cuz that's kinda what it feels lke happened: if you're not Brittanyesque, please don't bother. We'll be generous and make room for one Serious Female Artist (P.J., Chan, etc.) every few years.
posted by riverlife at 8:02 PM on November 25, 2012


Another great female singer songwriter from the era is Tracy Chapman. Not sure bout the 5th queen part.

Baby Can I hold You Tonight
posted by vozworth at 8:41 PM on November 25, 2012


Being concerned about the lack of radio play and "star status" is kind of a double edged sword in a lot of ways, if stuff sells things are popular. Why did it "crash" after Lillith Fair? I kind of doubt people said, "hey this is popular and selling really well... lets kill it".

And honestly, it's not as if there is a wasteland when we look to women's vocals. That particular pattern that the Indigo Girls fit into is no longer a terribly hot commodity despite their merits,and yeah, absolutely parity would be fantastic, however in my poor limited searching within the last year here are 12, kinda national, brand new (to me) acts that feature prominent women's vocals. I could give you a comparable list of local/regional acts.

The Kills
Dum Dum Girls
Shove and Rope
Lindi Ortega
First Aid Kit
Black Prairie
Alabama Shakes
Metric
Megan Reilly
Catherine Russell
KT Tunstall
Wild Flag

Not to mention all the kick ass ladies that continues to do fantastic jobs, both super well known to slightly less so. Which isn't meant as a "settle for" sentiment, but a get out and buy it and find it and support it, because it is there...
posted by edgeways at 8:53 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


And how many kinda national, new to you acts are there with men's vocals?
posted by restless_nomad at 8:55 PM on November 25, 2012


I'm pretty excited about this. I taped this, too, and watched it dozens of times but now I can't find the tape! Which is fine, I haven't had a VCR in a few years ;p
posted by akaJudge at 9:15 PM on November 25, 2012


r_n, quite a few, yes. The above isn't a complete list (a fair number of women rappers 'emerged' last year as well) and absolutely there isn't parity... I agree there should be more, but there isn't none or just a handful and I actively look and I buy it when I find stuff I like, as I hope everyone does, above and beyond "the queens".
posted by edgeways at 9:19 PM on November 25, 2012


I'm not totally sure what your point is, unless you really felt what I needed was a lecture about my music-buying habits. Because that would be an... interesting choice.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:24 PM on November 25, 2012


I'm sorry, I didn't mean that. That list thingy wasn't directed towards you, honestly, I am sorry. and I'm afraid I may have inadvertently presented myself as an ass. I'll go wander off elsewhere.
posted by edgeways at 9:27 PM on November 25, 2012


The local alt-rock station in Austin is pretty good - it's indy, not Clear Channel - but maybe one in five songs they play is sung by a woman

Not sure if you're talking about KGSR, but god what the hell has happened to them lately? They still play pretty good songs for the most part but the genre diversity seems to have plummeted. Where's the Texana? Blues? I can't even remember the last time I heard Buddy Guy or Slaid Cleaves or Lucinda Williams or hell, Nanci Griffith. It's basically a slightly deeper indie/alt station now.
posted by kmz at 12:38 AM on November 26, 2012


I really don't know how to think about them as they where (still are) a group fiercely culturally owned by a group I am so not a part of, despite having close friends within the group, that I have a difficult time listening to the (IG) without slidding into thinking about gender issues.

I think this identification must have happened some time in the early 90s. When their major-label first album came out in 1989, they were understood as "that R.E.M./Athens-scene-connected folk rock women band." They were "culturally owned" by college students mostly. The one song everyone knew and loved was "Closer to Fine", which we all sang along to:
I went to see the doctor of philosophy,
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee.
He never did marry, or see a B-grade movie -
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me -
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind,
Got my paper, and I was free!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:44 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Long, long time IG fan here. My favorite group.... I can sing every song and have spent countless hours contemplating the meaning of the lyrics, etc. Excited to see this post! Next summer, all you IG, folk fans come to their concert at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and sing with me. Nothing better than sitting on the gorgeous lawn with a glass of wine, good friends and songs and lyrics that have shaped your life.
posted by pearlybob at 3:07 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


pearlybob, if there is any way I can finagle it, I may take you up on that invitation. I got to see Amy Ray play many years ago in Columbia, South Carolina. She was working out the lyrics and music to Go, which was still a fragment of music when she played it for the audience.

I agree that Tracy Chapman should be on this list. I recently started buying up her entire catalogue (because IG and Patty Griffin were getting lonely) and I'm loving it all over again.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:39 AM on November 26, 2012


if stuff sells things are popular.

That's just an update of the old "the reason there aren't more great women painters and authors in history is that women aren't as good at painting and writing."

Problem is, the music business is nowhere near that simple and linear. Very few bands reach national success because of simple popularity. They do it because of investment - in their monetary support, in their media/PR campaigns, and in their ability to tour and record. When you're the flavor of the moment, it's easy to draw investment. All kinds of skeevy people (and non skeevy people) come out of the woodwork to try to get you in front of people. When the flavor of the moment changes, all that vanishes posthaste.

Music marketing is a complex business; something can't be popular with you if you've never heard it, because no radio station never plays it, or you can't get it on Pandora or Jango, or the band/artist never comes to your community because they're too broke to travel that far. The musicians that reach your notice, if they don't come from your very own city/region, are in your awareness because they managed to achieve a full matrix of various kinds of support, and many of those kinds are motivated by fads, perceptions, novelty-seeking, the nature of the market, and dumb ideas about the nature of the market.

In just a couple minutes I sat here and thought of three or four really talented female musicians that I have the honor of knowing personally, who are not/have not been getting the support they could use to break bigger: Elsa Cross, Laurel Brauns, a couple others who aren't even as big time as they. Also Nicole Atkins, who I don't know but who's from my part of NJ. These women are exceedingly talented, awe-inspiringly hardworking, and put on a great live show. There are a lot of bands out there, but they're head and shoulders above many more mediocre guy bands and artists. But they really struggle, because of the perception that they're not as interesting as the next Shins or whatever would be. They aren't attracting investment because the perception is that they don't seem 'new' or hip enough - been there, done that girl music thing. So, like many of the artists you list, they have not broken through to widespread consciousness and are still quite dependent on underground/word-of-mouth circulation and notices in the smaller press.

Things are better than they were, but not great.
posted by Miko at 5:13 AM on November 26, 2012


Not sure if you're talking about KGSR, but god what the hell has happened to them lately?

I was thinking of 101X, actually. KGSR has definitely gone a lot more mainstream, hasn't it? I didn't listen to it much for a couple of years (I actually kind of loathe Texana) and listening to it lately I sometimes forget what station it is.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:36 PM on November 26, 2012


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