Country Queer

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“Joy of Jesus,” Stephanie Lambring

Nashville Songwriter Dissects “Christian” Attitudes On Queer Love and Sex

By Steacy Easton, Contributing Writer

Stephanie Lambring is a songwriter, first from Indiana, but she has been living and performing in Nashville for more than a decade. Her recently-released album Autonomy has a dozen songs filled with hot-button issues–sexuality, parenting, religion, bodies, among other vexed topics. This album does not try to convince or teach; it’s not required reading for some imaginary class. . Lambring’s voice is deep and rich, and the production moves between steady, almost rock beats, and lush arrangements. The whole album is haunting—brilliant lines surface from bedrocks of adroit storytelling; elegant small domestic details function in relationship to complex overarching narratives. 

We are in the middle of a renaissance of songs by women — some queer, some not — telling tales of shitty men doing shitty things; not being quiet anymore. At her best, that’s one of the things that Lambring is doing here. She is singing songs you could place snugly on a playlist with Phoebe Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness”, or Lydia Loveless’ “Midwestern Guys,” or Kate Rhudy’s “I Don’t Like You or Your Band.”

I don’t want to quite write a review of this album — it’s worth listening to, one of the best of the year, and Ann Powers did a better job than I ever could over on NPR. Every time that I listen to this album, there is one verse that stops me in my tracks, makes me cry, makes me pause the album and walk around the apartment before starting the song again. On an album with dozens of prickly, difficult truths, maybe this one verse hits me longer than most. 

It’s the second verse of a song called “Joy of Jesus.” It’s about the hypocrisy of Christians, the song begins with the words “she called her a slut”. Lambring does not pull punches. The chorus endlessly repeats “Is that the joy of Jesus?”, like a litany, like a prayer.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

The second and third verses have as much detail as the first: 

She caught him red-handed in her minivan
Goin’ down on the quarterback
So she sent him to camp to get reprogrammed
Cure that abomination

“‘Cause God don’t make faggots, son
It’s a habit of your sinful generation
It’s just a choice, forget about that boy
Don’t you want your salvation?”

It’s such a rich verse, and a difficult one. It needs to be unpacked.

The initial irony is obvious and has been spoken about a number of times — conservative Evangelicals praise joy, but cannot deliver it. There is a secular split in this track as well: Lambring is stating pretty explicitly that the things that are joyful — singing, giving blowjobs — cannot be understood as joyful. But the song ends with this abstract line: ooos and then a small biblical reference. She sanctifies the body. 

There have been other songs written about this hypocrisy, some vicious and some heartbreaking. “Heaven Sent,” a lovely song by Parker Millsap, about falling in love with a church boy, about how love is not monstrous. There are moments in Millsap’s work about being saved twice, about queerness being its own kind of sanctification, but the cleverness of his writing makes the trauma of forced choice (between loving God and loving same sex; of loving God and loving the body) abstracted a bit. 

Millsap’s song makes an argument about queerness being inborn; and by concentrating on the problem of love, instead of sex. The blowjob is important in this context, it’s not “love is love,” but two tender boys making sense of each other, against hostility. 

For all of the songs written about having sex in pickup trucks, there is not a lot of queer songs on the subject. For all of the recent queer country songs, there is still an odd reticence in discussing explicit details. There aren’t enough country music songs about blow jobs.

But, kids these days, not even city kids, have this complex connection between the acts of sexuality, and the labels of sexuality. There are straight men, especially young straight men, who have sex with each other, without thinking of themselves as gay or even queer. The bro job isn’t always a queer act. There is a kind of tenuousness about stating a 1-1 correlation between a single act and a lifelong identity. 

Every writerly detail of the second verse — the minivan, the act of discovery, the quarterback — none of it is quite talking about coming out, none of it is making an argument towards identity. Lambring shows us a kind of grasping for pleasure that is difficult to find at 17, but the anxiety of the song rests not on the sex act but hostile discovery. 

The mother calls her son a faggot. The identity is imposed on the kid, by a mother; the anxiety is paternal (thinking of God as a loving parent, and thinking of this mother, the irony of the chorus is pulled taut). Then she sends him away, exiles him. The exile, here described as a “reprogramming camp”, and then positioning the sin of his desire as a generational one. The camps would be Christian, they would use the language of Christ against queer people, The impermanence of queer joy is placed in stark relief against the permanence of theocratic containment.

I wonder about the last verse, a gloss on the Old Testament book of Hebrews. The gospel-infused sound and the discussion of scripture, against the raw language of the second verse, complicates desire here. It is not as simple as God loving you, not as simple as “once saved, always saved”. Its need for exegesis as unstable as those first fumbles in the front seat of a minivan. (I hope this kid will turn out okay. I hope that he gets all of the sex he could ever want, in a million places — and that he learns that fucking in the back seat is much more comfortable than sex in the front seat.) 

A song later on the album, “Somebody Else’s Dress”, deepens the themes of longing. Moving from acts to identity, Lambring sings about a conflicted young queer woman, one who prays to Jesus, to “make love the way that she is supposed to,” to not desire “a girl in Indiana with a bible by her bed”. The hunger of the song heightens, mentioning the possibility of suicide by jumping off the highway 404 overpass. The song doesn’t end with a death, but between the faggot line, and the suicide line, one hopes for another coda, one not so abject.

Listening to that line, there is another kind of hope, that she might ditch the Bible and follow the girl in Indiana, a hope said better in the queer wedding ode, “Save Me Tonight,” with guitars reminiscent of Tom Petty or the Indigo Girls, which opens with the line “I don’t go to church / It’s hard to see the light / Someone’s always hurt / Someone’s always right.” There is a profound ambivalence in this work, the desire to be saved by the “sweetest rhetoric” and the knowledge that the rhetoric might not save.

The sophistication and ambivalence, of even that one verse, in an entire album of queer storytelling and queer understanding, suggests those decades in the Nashville songwriting circles were work well worth pursuing.