By Hank Adams
Cindy Emch has been called the First Lady of Queer Country Music – and she loves it.
“That started right as I was touring for my first Secret Emchy Society album, The Stars Fall Shooting into Twangsville…I was definitely honored,” she admitted during our recent conversation.
But it goes against her personality to bask in the limelight alone. With a background in nonprofits and community organizing, Emch is a nurturer and a connector by nature.
“Plenty of people in the [queer country] space came before me, pulling me up behind them. I wanted to make sure when I was talking to the press that I was honoring them,” she said. “Art is about lifting each other up rather than a spotlight on a single person.”
Throughout her career, Emch has always made a point to, “…uplift people as I was uplifted.”
Country Queer’s own roots can be traced back to that very instinct—to create community. Emch began a secret Facebook group for queer country artists, a place where “we could all be connected, a safe space to post about what venues were good to play at.” Kevin James Thornton, a member of this group, soon began Strange Fire, the first queer country podcast and magazine. Not long after, Dale Geist, Country Queer‘s founder, approached Emch for advice on creating his own gathering space.
“He didn’t feel connected to a larger, national queer country music community.”
And so Emch fostered a handoff between Thornton and Geist, and Country Queer was born. But acting as a midwife to the new publication wasn’t enough. Emch also came on board as the editor in chief, a role she filled for nearly a year before putting her focus back onto her own work.
“I feel really proud to be involved in a community that is uplifting and has an eye towards diversity and inclusion. Like anything you’re involved with at the beginning, it’s good to watch things continue to grow and be excellent.”
And this is how Emch has truly earned her ‘First Lady’ moniker: by being the artist who opens her arms to the gays and theys of country with continued enthusiasm, born of her natural calling to gather, support, and create community.
“There’s so much really great talent in our community, good songs that need to be heard.”
Among those are Emch’s own songs, not least of which are those gathered on Emchy Secret Society’s latest album, Gold Country/Country Gold, out May 20 on San Francisco’s Broken Clover label.
“I come to songwriting as a poet first,” she said. “Honesty and authenticity are two pieces of the songwriting puzzle I hold near and dear to myself, and another is vulnerability…[I] try to find a way to bring together in song both the joy of living and the pain or open-heartedness of how I walk through the world.”
And while her influences range from Leonard Cohen to Prince to Lucinda Williams, it’s the country music genre that ultimately proved the right ‘good home’ for turning her joy and pain into song.
“As a woman walking through the world, as a queer person, as a person seeing injustices and inequality, there’s a lot of anger.” And as for country music? “It’s a great place to vent that, to be a little more angry or a little more raw.”
For folks that aren’t fans of the genre, country music likely seems more like a space to sing about girls in short shorts, pickup trucks, and Friday night shenanigans – or to cry in your beer when that girl in short shorts leaves you – than as a seat for anger. But an internal perspective reveals the undercurrents of anger running beneath even the booziest of neon light anthems. Having a space in which to let out the ugly bits is a large part of what country is all about. That freedom to be as upset and un-pretty as you need to be calls out to many queer artists, and Emch is one of them.
“I don’t think I could write a song if I tried to make it pretty…I’ve learned that if I can be authentic to myself then that’s what connects me to other people. I don’t know how to write to sell. My job is to pay attention to what my soul or the universe is trying to tell me.”
“This record is interesting because we were in the pandemic for its entire creation,” she continued. “The pandemic is a figure [in it], of course. It’s something we, culturally, are going to be chewing on and dealing with for a while.”
But Emch also cites something remarkable that came out of the pandemic, something that called to her natural gathering instinct: fellow singer-songwriter Carolyn Mark began hosting a weekly, four-hour variety show every Sunday afternoon over Zoom.
“For well over a year those were my Sundays. And I got to hear what other artists were working on, and I got really inspired…It was live, all of us Zoomed in from different places. It was really cool.”
The pandemic, the technology-assisted gathering, and her yearning for connection came together for Emch in a way that spoke to something even deeper. “Over time my work has come to look at the mourning about not being as close to people as we’d like. That kind of longing and nostalgia has been a common theme in my work.”
It’s a common theme and perhaps a vein that Emch remains purposefully tapped into to reach out and connect to the loneliness and longing inside us all. Whether through song, poetry, or in-person gathering, Emch remains dedicated to reaching out, creating connections, and drawing people together.
“I don’t know how to not make it a community effort,” she said with a laugh, noting that even Gold Country Gold/Country Gold became a somewhat collaborative project. “I had such great players on this record, it almost feels like it isn’t mine anymore. So it’s like, ‘We did so good, guys! We made a really cool thing.’ And I hope other people fall in love with the songs as I have.”
Judging by the legacy of love and connection already trailing behind her like the tail of a comet, listeners will likely fall in love right alongside her.
Hank Adams is a writer and photographer, country music fan from the way back, and an overalls enthusiast. They are based in Central Pennsylvania.