AMY RAY and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls, grew up in the South - well-removed from the toxic glare of the music industry in New York and Los Angeles. ``All we ever wanted to do was play music, we weren't looking for a big record deal,'' Ms. Ray said in an interview. Yet the 1990 Grammy winners are one of the best acoustical folk-rock acts to emerge in the late '80s. The Indigo Girls' music reflects a southern sensibility, and a liberal idealism. But the most distinguishing aspect of the music may be its religious themes and imagery.
Much of the women's art is, in an informal way, about faith and spirituality - a bit unusual, given the commercial bump-and-grind of most airwave fare. ``We believe in God - the living God,'' Ms. Saliers affirms. ``We give God the honor for what we do. Our music gives thanks to the gift and sacredness of life.'' The duo isn't sectarian, they aren't trying to plant a religious doctrine. Rather, they sing more about the universal experience of trying to live faith, and live through doubt. Heaven, broken prayers, angels, struggle, loving one's neighbor and the earth - all work into Indigo lyrics. They resist ``cheap grace,'' as shown in this line from ``Closer to Fine'': ``Darkness has a hunger that's insatiable/ and lightness has a call that's hard to hear.''
The Indigo Girls both come from religious families. Ms. Ray's grandfather was a Baptist minister. Saliers's dad is a Yale-trained theologian at a prominent Atlanta divinity school. Ray is more ``New Age'' in her views - she's looking into North American Indian spirituality. Saliers is a bit more classically Christian; she argues ``the importance of going to church.'' Since their commercial success two years ago, the duo has eased back on their religiousness. ``We've had to be more and more careful,'' says Saliers, ``People are interpreting our music in ways we didn't intend. People want to categorize [us] - but we want to reach people no matter what their faith is.''
This music doesn't break any theological ground. Many of its assumptions (the ``interconnectedness of all life,'' for example) could be termed pop religion. Yet at a time when popular music is often hostile and violent, the Indigo Girls affirm life. This doesn't mean they are rosily inspirational. They acknowledge struggle and pain. They say they are reaching a generation suspicious of organized religion.
This writer talked with one young man at an Indigo Girls concert who said he had been contemplating suicide: ``I had a gun to my head, but these girls saved my life. I heard their music, and I'm telling you it gave me hope.''