By Annie Parnell, Staff Writer
This is the first in a planned series of articles about queer country, folk, and Americana artists from various regions around the US. (Previously, we’ve published articles about queer country musicians of Canada and the U.K.) – Ed.
I grew up with family roots in New England, and the region has definitely left its mark on my musical frame of reference. The country and folk music from the Northeast is as rich as the land it sits on, and sometimes just as haunted — and in both the urban and rural communities of New England and New York, the queer presence is vibrant. Here’s a few regional favorites I’ve collected from the queer country scene of the Northeast. (Don’t fret, partisans of PA, NJ, DE, MD, and DC: you’ll be covered in our Mid-Atlantic article.)
Ruby Mack (Greenfield, MA)
Ruby Mack takes their name from a New England apple variety, and their Americana sound is just as crisp and sweet. Hailing from the mountains of Western Massachusetts, their 2020 release “Devil Told Me” was recorded in a converted church and dwells in themes of salvation, heartache, and queerness. Coming-out ballad “Milktooth” repeats the refrain “Holy woman said I deserve what I want/ So I told her what I want is you,” while the poignant love song “Jane” asks “What is the cost of playing it safe?”
Jake Blount (Providence, RI)
Jake Blount’s earthy, banjo-driven old-time music positively shines on his 2020 album Spider Tales. Naming the album for the Ashanti trickster god Anansi, Blount uses irregular rhythms and ancient songs like “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “Move, Daniel” to bring forth the under-examined Black and Indigenous traditions in roots music. In this intimate video, he and step dancer Nic Gareiss perform album opener “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone.”
My Gay Banjo (New York, NY)
My Gay Banjo’s classic “Country Boys in the City” is a wistful recollection of first big-city queer love for two country transplants. Over fiddles, cricket samples and the band’s characteristic banjo, it delves into the complicated relationship with home that many country queers who turn to the city for solace face.
Whimsical love song “Exactly Who We Are,” off of their most recent album “To The Wolves”, focuses on acceptance in complexity and fluidity, promising to a sweetheart “I will love you everyday when you’re butch and femme.”
Jessye DeSilva (Boston, MA)
Boston resident, Jessye DeSilva describes their music as “Somewhere between piano-driven alternative rock and country-tinged folk.” A professionally trained vocalist and assistant professor at Berklee College of Music, their work focuses on relationships, religious alienation, and the reclaiming of queer joy.
“Queen of the Backyard,” off their EP “Hover”, is a nostalgic reach back to a younger self — when Jessye promises “I’m coming back for you”, it’s almost impossible not to tear up.
Paisley Fields (Brooklyn, NY)
Brooklyn-based crooner Paisley Fields’ new music video for “Stay Away From My Man” is campy as all get out. Flashing fringe and lace over Loretta Lynn-tinged lyrics that decry a “butch-posin’” and “straight-actin’” man-stealer, the video — like much of Fields’ discography — takes classic country motifs and reimagines them for a queer audience and from a queer perspective. Patrick Haggerty, of the legendary founding act Lavender Country, provides backing vocals on the version found in Fields’ 2020 release Electric Park Ballroom.
Anjimile (Boston, MA)
Anjimile’s Malawian-influenced indie folk meditates on spirituality, queerness, and reclaimed cultural histories. Now based in Boston after growing up in Texas, their breakout 2020 album “Giver Taker” features slow guitars and banjo, Sufjan Stevens-esque backing vocals, and snatches of Chichewa lyrics and rhythms on songs like “Ndimakukonda.” Another EP, “Reunion”, is coming in early May — keep an eye out!
Hen in the Foxhouse (Hudson Valley, NY)
Queer collab Hen in the Foxhouse (Jem Violet and Elena Elías Krell) mixes folk with pop, opera, and soul influences to dwell in themes ranging from feminism and queerness to the natural landscape of their upstate New York home. In addition to their musical talents and academic career at Vassar College, it turns out Elías Krell is also a part-time trapeze artist — here they are performing a routine to their wistful heartbreak tune “Most of the Time” at the Hudson Valley Circus Arts Showcase.
Izzy Heltai (Easthampton, MA)
Another artist hailing from Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, Izzy Heltai describes his style as “everyday queer trash”. Blending folk, country, and diverse influences like electronic music and classic rock, his 2020 album “Father” and recent single releases “Day Plan” and “My Old Friends” feature twangy riffs and folksy chords alongside beautifully honest lyrics like “take me out to see the country…it’s the only place I’ve ever felt like home.”
Ana Egge (Brooklyn, NY)
“I’ve known I was gay since I was a teenager but have known ever since I was little that I’m gender queer,” folk musician Ana Egge recently explained in a Twitter conversation with Sarah Shook & the Disarmers in July. Now in Brooklyn after growing up in Canada, North Dakota, and New Mexico, her song “Girls, Girls, Girls” is an upbeat testament to her new hometown’s queer community with a strong Joni Mitchell bent, while “Cocaine Cowboys” and its adorable music video ruminate on the classic honky-tonk imagery of country stardom.
Girls on Grass (Brooklyn, NY)
NYC cowpunk trio Girls on Grass’s latest singles “Spill Your Guts” and “Who’s Gonna Cry” keep a righteously angry thread running through their rollicking, rootsy sound. “Spill Your Guts” bemoans “Letting the straight world control your head” over a perfectly bluesy harmonica riff, while “spaghetti-western” B-side “Who’s Gonna Cry” promises to “Lift the poor up with the sick and not look back” accompanied by a stop-motion music video in which puppet versions of the band take down Donald Trump.
Loone (Montague, MA)
There’s got to be something in the water in Western Massachusetts. Loone’s “queer dirges and hymnals” have a distinctively eerie folk sound, featuring hallmarks of distorted guitar and samples of people talking about being visited by ghosts. “Lovers as Mirrors,” off their 2015 release “Now I Know You And See How Wide You Are To the World”, is a compelling ode to the end of a relationship that breaks into cathartic siren-like wails about halfway through — perfect for exorcising your demons.
Karen & the Sorrows (Brooklyn, NY)
Last but certainly not least, Brooklyn scene stalwarts Karen & the Sorrows have a mission to broaden country’s horizons to include queer artists and fans, “Even if it doesn’t always love them back”. Frontwoman Karen Pittleman runs the Queer Country Quarterly, a community home for the past decade that currently continues as a livestream due to COVID-19. The music video for the title track on their 2019 release “Guaranteed Broken Heart” casts Pittelman in a lonesome yet whimsical pageant for the title of “Miss Broken Heart,” queering heartbreak with bright lights and nipple pasties.