By Allison Kinney, Contributing Writer
Crys Matthews’s voice is an expression of pride in the queerest sense. A wholehearted celebration of itself, too bold, prismatic and beautiful to be ignored.
It is also a lifeline. Matthews’ 2021 album Changemakers bears witness to American violence. The beauty of her voice makes the witnessing bearable. On the title track, “Changemakers”, Matthews sings about the “mass shootings, deportations, wildfires” that make up our everyday news.
Matthews grew up in southeast North Carolina, the daughter of a small town preacher. She has been performing since 2010, appearing on stages around DC and around the country. She identifies as a butch lesbian and social-justice songwriter on a mission to inspire hope.
An essential part of that inspiration is witnessing. Violence that is named can be faced and fought. Hope that is named can be believed in and built on. Matthews calls out violence, and she’s just as loud in celebrating people working for justice.
Much of the hope in this album comes from how beautiful the music is. Traditional bluegrass instruments weave with the gritty glitter of electric guitar, synths, and some pretty rocking percussion. Together, they support Matthews’ remarkable voice.
On “How Many More,” she sings the names of victims of police violence. This is an album full of the nightmares that have made it hard to want to get up in the morning for the last four years (and for years before that).Matthews reminds us “the White House is a time machine” and American violence is as old as America. But unlike most news reports, this album fills me with hope.
When I fall into despair (it happens all the time – this year has been like walking uphill on a slip-n-slide) I wonder if music can do any real good. Violence is so much more concrete, and so much better funded. The beauty of Changemakers is a reminder that violence doesn’t cancel out joy. It is also a reminder that hope isn’t an indulgence but a duty. Despair is stagnation: hope makes change.
Matthews’ writing voice is as strong and flexible as her singing voice. “Signs of the Times” is a practical instruction manual for revolution, complete with case studies of recent protests, concise refutations of her ideological opponents (“It’s not anti-police, it’s anti-police brutality,”) and an earnest insistence that “Love always wins.”
In an entirely different mode, “Safe” is heavy with irony – as it has to be, in order to confront the incoherence of the argument that guns make us safe. Matthews has no patience with this absurdity, singing “spare me your ‘thoughts and prayers’ speech.”
She also brings in strong allies, quoting John Lewis in the refrain of “Changemakers.” She echoes his call to make “good trouble”, and she heeds the call herself – a protest song is some of the best trouble there is.
“This Kind of War” stands out to me. It’s a story song, focusing on a series of unnamed characters caught in America’s opioid crisis. The protest in this song builds gradually. Different characters in the song return to the image of “the sticker out of my rearview: it says, shoot your local heroin dealer.”
But Matthews points out “It’s not just the heroin dealer, prescriptions do more harm than needles.” Matthews’ protest is against the idea of war as the solution to the addiction epidemic. The solution to the legalized violence of prescription opioids run amok cannot be even more legalized violence.
Beyond the subtle elegance of the protest in this song, and the powerfully condensed character development, I’m moved by the way Matthews gives voice to this particular pain, which is so often hidden in silence. Shame demands silence; that’s why music is such an effective expression of both pride and hope.
Hope, like poetry, is not a luxury. It’s both a necessity and a responsibility, the force that drives the making of change. In a way, this album functions like a vaccine. It exposes you to accounts of injustice that could make you sick with despair. Then it teaches you how to fight off the sickness: dance, sing, march. Name the dead. Cherish the living. Make good trouble and excellent music.