Though it wasn’t their debut album, the Indigo Girls’ 1989 eponymous release might as well have been, as it was the first thing most people outside of their hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, ever heard of the duo comprised of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. The two had been friends since elementary school, eventually gigging around the Atlanta area, playing punk clubs and community pubs. Walking the musical line between R.E.M. and Tracy Chapman got them signed to Epic Records, which led to the re-release of their Strange Fire LP on May 1, 1987 followed by the self-titled album on February 28, 1989. On its way to selling more than two million copies, the latter also nabbed the Girls a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, as well as a nomination for Best New Artist, which they lost, rather memorably, to Milli Vanilli.
At the time of Indigo Girls’ writing and recording, Ray and Saliers were in their early 20s, wrestling with the faith, fear, family, and fidelity that is part and parcel of moving into adulthood with a seeker’s soul and a Southern upbringing. The album, therefore, is brimming with explorations both sacred and mundane. Taking six of the 10 songs—including “Secure Yourself,” “Kid Fears,” and “Blood and Fire”—Ray puts her husky alto to work digging through the rubble of who she was and is, in order to figure out who she wants to be in relation to the world around her.
On her four contributions, Saliers’ lighter touch serves as a counterweight to Ray’s fiery passion. Her physical voice, at that time, was cloudier than in more recent years, but her metaphorical voice was as heart-achingly romantic as ever. “Love’s Recovery,” for example, has stood the test of time as a classic Saliers composition in which she looks at a love from every angle, acknowledging its faults and flaws, while still uplifting its heart and hope. As the daughter of a theologian and a librarian, Saliers was instilled with a questioning spirit early on.
While they wrote (and continue to write) separately, their voices joining together has always been where the magic happened. Carefully yet intuitively arranged harmonies bob and weave throughout the collaboration, with Ray providing ballast to Saliers’ buoyancy.
As part of their inner circle, blues singer Michelle Malone watched the Indigo Girls up close and early on. “[That album] is now a classic largely because it captured the essence of that thing Amy and Emily have always done so well: vocal harmony weaving through well-written, sincere songs,” Malone contends. “Their vocals sound naturally intuitive, and I’m sure a lot of it is, at this point. However, I’ve seen how hard they work, since their humble beginnings, to make it sound effortless. That hard work came to fruition on this wonderful album.”
Kicking off the set was “Closer to Fine,” written by Saliers on a porch in Vermont while vacationing with her family. She had just graduated from college and was ruminating on a world of academia that seems fraught with seemingly sure-footed answers that often fail to be full. Once again, that questioning spirit of hers comes barreling through, as she turns over every rock, from the insight of sages to the council of children, understanding that the most complete answer to anything is never under just one of them. The song’s lyrical resolution—“The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine”—is a testament to the spiritual notion that we each have all the truth and wisdom we need right here inside of us and, the more we look for it outside ourselves, the further we get from it.
Indeed, the Indigo Girls helped lead Atlanta-based singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins to his truth. Mullins first met Ray when she played and spoke at his high school. They struck up a friendship on the spot and kept in touch thereafter. Though deeply inspired by her songs, his career path took a detour into the military before settling into music. Such was their connection, he remembers the first time he ever heard “Closer to Fine” break wider. “When I first heard it on the radio and saw the video on MTV, I knew that my friends had ‘made it,” Mullins recounts. “I was at a military college and writing songs, but feeling stuck. I hadn’t been in touch with Amy or Emily in a couple of years. I had a contract with the Army to fulfill, but seeing the Girls’ success really inspired me to choose the Reserves over regular Army. It was like they were saying, ‘Shawn, it’s okay. Follow your bliss!’ And, for that inspiration, I am forever grateful.”
Over the three decades since its release, the tune has inspired millions more and become something of a cultural zeitgeist within both the Indigos’ loyal fanbase and the world at large. In addition to the original recording, which featured Hothouse Flowers backing Saliers and Ray, “Closer to Fine” is also on two of the Indigos’ live albums, as well as their 2018 orchestra album. It has appeared in various forms in numerous television shows, including two of the most-beloved comedies of all time, The Office and South Park. It was also performed on Late Night with David Letterman, had an official video, and reached number 52 on the Hot 100 chart.
Taken all together, that’s some heady stuff and an astounding résumé for a folk song that features a penny whistle solo and a Rasputin citation.
The thing is, “Closer to Fine” is so much more than just a folk song; it is joy, hope, and validation set to music. It’s the kind of artistic lightning in a bottle that everyone hopes to capture, and very few do. The Indigo Girls have played it thousands of times—at every concert since its release—eventually elevating it to show-closer status. And that iconic penny whistle solo? It’s been performed on fiddle, recorder, banjo, accordion, and more over the past 30 years. “Closer to Fine” is the little ditty that could… and does… every time… for everyone.
Singer/songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche grew up with Ray and Saliers as part of her extended musical family. She’s since done multiple collaborations on the stage and in the studio with them, and it’s never not special to her. “Singing ‘Closer to Fine’—or any song, really—with Amy and Emily during their shows is a chance to soak up some moments of a certain kind of joy that I don’t get to see all that often,” she says. “The connection that they have with their audience, and the love and happiness that the crowd is beaming back at them, is priceless and so special—just like they are. I especially enjoy seeing people who seem like they might normally be shy, singing along and giving into their love of that song, connecting again with whatever it has meant to them over the years.”
Having entered the Indigos’ orbit in the mid-90s and eventually doing tours and one-off dates with them, soul singer Vonda Shepard echoes that joyous point. “One of the greatest highs I have ever experienced in life is jumping up on stage with Indigo Girls to sing ‘Closer to Fine,’” she says. “There is such a kinetic energy flowing between everyone on stage—almost an electric current of positivity racing in the atmosphere—and a sudden belief that there is good in this world and that anything is possible. That’s something.”
It really is something. From the very earliest of days, fans at live shows—who generally consider themselves to match up, vocally, as either an “Amy” or an “Emily”—self-selected their harmony parts, especially on the choruses, and “Closer to Fine” became a thousands-strong group sing-along. To this day, audiences know exactly which lines are theirs to take, needing no cues whatsoever to shout out lyrics like “PROSTRATE!” and “We stand up for the lookout!”
Indeed, to experience Indigo Girls and “Closer to Fine” live is really the only true way to experience them. Whether with the Boston Pops or at Lilith Fair, the refrains ring out with such simple, timeless truths that no one leaves the room unfulfilled or, as it were, un-fine. Almost always, whoever is opening the show joins in the festivities, as well, by taking the tune’s last verse.
Lisa Loeb has toured and recorded with them and was also one of the Lilith artists who got tapped to take a turn. “They were so popular during [my] college [years], so it was a surreal experience being up on stage during Lilith Fair in the ’90s, taking a verse, and jamming with them,” she says, adding, “Emily has graced my albums with her strong, angelic voice. I love touring with them because they are true musicians with melody and lyrics in their hearts.”
Spend a little time on YouTube and you’ll find everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Brandi Carlile, Mary Chapin Carpenter to Matt Nathanson, grinning ear to ear as they belt out, “I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m. to seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend.”
For Nathanson, the experience was a full-circle moment for a kid who, upon seeing the song’s video decided right then and there that he wanted to be Amy Ray. “It’s hard to articulate how much hearing ‘Closer to Fine’ rearranged my heavy-metal, 16-year-old universe,” he confides. “What Amy and Emily do with their songs is this amazing combination of approachable and absolutely untouchable. And ‘Closer to Fine’ is a shining star example of that. It’s this magical unicorn of a song wrapped up in these campfire chords that anyone can play.”
If there’s no guest artist, then who sings the last verse? The whole dang crowd, which is why Saliers isn’t wrong for calling it a “hootenanny song.” More often than not, though, there’s a musician friend champing at the bit to jump on stage with them.
Singer/songwriter Becky Warren was living in Atlanta when she got her first guitar at age 13 so, naturally, “Closer to Fine” was one of the first songs she learned. Eventually, her band, the Great Unknowns, landed on Amy Ray’s Daemon Records and thus began Warren’s dream-like Indigo entanglement. Warren explains. “I’ve gotten to sing that verse dozens of times now, but it never gets old. Each time, it’s a surreal, magical moment where I feel the wide-eyed, hero-worshipping 13-year-old me come to the surface inside the me-of-now who is lucky enough to call these two amazing women friends. I hope I sing it with all the joy and gratefulness and respect that I feel.”
She adds, “There’s an extra exhilaration in the way the audience greets me, when I begin the third verse, as if they feel that I’m their representative up there—a super-fan who got lucky enough to live the dream of singing this iconic song.”
That kind of joyful gratitude and communal spirit has infused “Closer to Fine”—and the entire Indigo mission—since the beginning. As Loeb puts it, “They are such an amazing example of what it is to be an always-evolving music group, and their fans are also the best. They’ve cultivated a fan base who really listens to them, and for good reason: Their music and lyrics always draw me in and inspire.”
Singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi expresses a similar love and respect for all things Indigo, saying, “Whenever asked, I have jumped at the chance to sing with them. They showed me early on that women can have a strong political voice in their songwriting and still build a great career for themselves. Their musicianship has always been on a high level, and their hard work and dedication to their craft has been clear from the start. They are wonderful role models for women and musicians.”
For the official video, the Girls put on their tattered 501s, gathered up Hothouse Flowers—along with early supporters like guitarist Caroline Aiken and manager Russell Carter—and hit the back alleys of Atlanta. The Indigos credit Aiken with giving them their start after meeting her in an alley behind Good Ol’ Days in Atlanta during open mic night in 1980. She heard them practicing a CSNY song, added a third harmony part, and they’ve been friends ever since. They played together as a trio for a little while, then Aiken handed them her regular gig at the Little 5 Points Pub and helped them get shows in Nashville and New York, as well. The rest, as Aiken puts it, “is herstory … I was so happy to see these amazing women getting the attention they deserved, and they were so awesome to include me and others in their success. They have continued to spread the love, and I am so proud to call them friends.
“’Closer to Fine’ has a universal theme that everyone of all walks can relate to,” Aiken continues. “I felt that while walking with them in the video and with their manager, Russell, also carrying his own child. Including the children was brilliant. It was an honor to be involved.”
The inclusive idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is just who the Indigo Girls are, as people and artists. And the gratitude they have for their community, collaboration, and “Closer to Fine” is just as evident today as it was 30 years ago.