THEY MAY PREFER FAULKNER TO Krantz and Georgia kudzu to Hollywood and Vine, but Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers still felt right down home while making their first movie in Tucson last April. Of course Boys on the Side, an AIDS drama due next year starring Whoopi Goldberg, features the folk-rock duo as—surprise!—a folk-rock duo. "It was a blast," says Saliers, 31. Ray, 30, found working with Goldberg especially rewarding: "I dropped my guitar in the elevator—this 1947 Martin—and it cracked. Whoopi managed to find the same model and year and gave it to me on the set. This was so nice. Of course, everyone immediately went over saying, 'Whoopi, I cracked my Saab...' "

Despite their good-time acting debut, however, don't expect the Girls to go Hollywood anytime soon. Fans who cherish their spirit-stirring vocals, emotion-packed lyrics and glitz-free stage personae would think it a crime. And besides, Ray and Saliers, on a world tour that will keep them away from their Georgia homes until 1995, simply haven't the time. After years of cult popularity, the pair are much in demand since their sixth album of folk-rock tunes, Swamp Ophelia, landed smack in the middle of the mainstream hit parade. Hitting Billboard's pop album chart at No. 9 last May, Ophelia stands out in pop's grunge-and rap-strewn field like the rare plant it's named after. Blooming with what TIME calls the "braided harmonies" of Ray's forceful alto and Saliers' ethereal soprano, the album also offers lyric jolts, especially in "This Train (Revised)," inspired by a recent visit to Washington's Holocaust Museum: "Piss and blood in a railroad car/ 100 people, Gypsies, queers and David's Star."

Though both women are openly gay, they rarely allude explicitly to sexual orientation in song. "We've been out for a long time in our private lives," says Saliers. "But only recently have we begun talking about it publicly. I don't want our being gay to become our [career] focus. To tell you the truth, I don't really think of myself as gay—I think of myself as me." Ray, who compares the gay-rights movement to the civil-rights struggle of the '60s, disagrees. "I want to stand up and say, 'This is my choice. I'm gay and I'm a nice person.' "

Such differences of attitude abound, despite many common bonds. Ray, the more introspective of the two, grew up in Decatur, Ga., where her father, Dr. Larry Ray, is a radiologist and her mother, Frances, a housewife. She met Saliers in Decatur after the latter moved there from New Haven in 1974 with her father, Don, a Methodist minister and Emory University religion professor, her mother, Jane, a librarian, and her three sisters. Amy and Emily, who met in elementary school, both wrote poetry ("terrible stuff," says Ray) and sang in their high school chorus before forming a duo—Saliers and Ray—in 1980.

In 1983, while both were undergraduates at Emory, they began playing clubs as the Indigo Girls—"I liked the way [the name] sounded," says Ray. Two years later they began recording their songs with money borrowed from Ray's father. Signed by Epic Records in 1988, they scored with their platinum debut album, Indigo Girls, the following year. "We've never had the typical aspirations to fame and wealth," says Saliers. "So everything that's happened has been a wonderful surprise."

Almost everything, anyway. "Success is nice," says Saliers, "but I've become less tolerant of people shoving a camera in my face." And so the two closely guard their private lives. "I live in the middle of the woods," says Ray of the cabin she shares with her girlfriend, Cooper Seay, a fellow singer, and their four dogs—"all strays and mongrels"—outside Atlanta. "I ride my mountain bike [and] I write my songs in the middle of the night on my screen porch. But mostly I just study the forest and the birds and mushrooms." The more citified Saliers lives in Atlanta with her longtime partner, Susan Owens, owner of the Common Pond, a store Saliers helped finance that sells merchandise made from recycled materials.

The Girls write their songs separately and rarely hang out when not on the road or in the recording studio. "Together we don't have the kind of friendship where we call each other to take in a movie," says Saliers. "Which is probably why our relationship is so strong."

Now that their tour is underway, the mood Indigo is definitely upbeat. And though the two look forward to seeing themselves in Boys on the Side next year, they differ on how much tinsel they can take. While Saliers hopes to act again, Ray says she doesn't have the patience. "I'm just too hyper," she says. "I can't sit on a set for 12 hours." Luckily for the Girls and their fans, there is another outlet. "When we play," says Saliers, "we are insatiable."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Decatur

  • Contributors:
  • Gail Cameron Wescott.