By Allison Kinney, Staff Writer
This is the third article in our Regional Queer Country Series, where we take some time to scope out the queer country scene in regions all across the United States. Check out Country Queers of Texas and the Northeast.
I was born in Tallahassee and my mother once told me that she had a plan for if any of her kids turned out gay: she’d move our family to San Francisco with the hope that the city lived up to its reputation. Sadly, by the time I came out that ship had sailed. For many queer Southerners, being at home is a form of exile-in-residence. The alternative is actual exile.
“All good cowboys know there ain’t no good-old home-sweet-home,” Mercy Bell tells us. “There’ll always be a ghost in the back of your closet, no matter where you live,” say The Mountain Goats (they’re not queer country, but they have been my traveling companions on many lonely roads.) One of the great powers of music is to fulfill the longing for belonging. A song can lift you out of loneliness. A good live show can turn a crowd of strangers into a crowd of strangers who want to be friends.
I’ve chosen contemporary artists for this list. My thinking was: now that we’re emerging from our solitude and cautiously baring our faces to the summer air, you might want to know who could be playing a show near you sometime soon.
For a list of some queer southeastern tunesmiths from earlier eras, I recommend “Looking for a Rainbow in the Mississippi Delta: Early Queer Blues” by my colleague Cher Guevara.
al Riggs of North Carolina is the songwriter behind many “Sad Songs For, About, And Written By Birds.” I believe it; the songs are strange, clever, surprising, and beautiful, with an avian practicality – birds sing because they’ve got something to say, and so does al Riggs. The most recent in their long parade of albums, I Got A Big Electric Fan To Keep Me Cool When I Sleep, announces itself as “Junky, hissing, ultimately triumphant queer country.” Here’s what my colleague Annie Parnell has to say about it. And here’s “End Up Found,” a song with good advice: “make sure you’re loved in public.”
During her time with the supergroup Our Native Daughters, Tennessee phenom, Amythyst Kiah wrote the Grammy nominated “Black Myself”. Out on her own, she’s just released Wary + Strange. The strangeness of “Tender Organs” (from the new album) is the incredible improbability revealed in ordinary things if you look at them closely, or hear someone describe them as though for the first time, without the anesthetic of cliché.
“Notice here / notice here / these tender organs / riding inside me” Kiah sings. We don’t consider, most of the time, that our bodies and minds are delicate chemical reactions. We’re terrifyingly vulnerable, but Kiah’s voice complicates the message of her lyrics; her organs may be tender, but working in concert, they make a powerful sound.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
A voice teacher once told me, with some exasperation, that singing doesn’t have to be pretty all the time. I was fifteen and heavily invested in being a good girl, so I ignored her and stumbled into the trap of prettiness. I restricted my voice (not to mention the rest of my life) to a contrived performance of femininity.
My voice teacher was right, though; “ugly” sounds can engage the ears and be effective storytelling tools. Sarah Shook doesn’t just avoid the trap, they have at it with a hammer and dance on its broken sprockets. They leap and soar beautifully over elegant and challenging melodies.
But they aren’t afraid to snarl, growl, and gasp. As a lyricist, Shook is self-aware and fearlessly witty without being calculated or contrived. They have a keen eye for the clichés country music can fall into and a ruthless hand to point them out for ridicule.
As for the rest of the Disarmers, the last band to combine traditional folk instruments with punk energy this explosively was probably the Pogues. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers of North Carolina are an absolute fire hazard.
Those who know me could have predicted that Mercy Bell’s rhyming of “butterflies” with “formaldehyde” would win my heart. “All Good Cowboys”, from Bell’s self-titled album, is a leaving song, a wandering song and possibly a break-up song. But jaunty for all that.
Bell has done some wandering herself: she’s ping-ponged from coast to coast, before alighting in Nashville. Her lyrics deliver the sorts of surprises good road trips do – the delighted bafflement of encountering a giant carpet with Marilyn Monroe’s face on it beside the highway. You will quickly realize there’s no predicting what Bell will say next, but you can be sure it will be good.
Catherine the Great
Originally of East Tennessee, now of Virginia (hello, neighbor!) Catherine Backus performs with her twin sister Emily as The Skipperdees, and solo as Catherine the Great. She’s got a strong clear voice, and if it sometimes wavers, it’s the sort of quiver that goes through the ground when a train goes by; shaken by the passage of something powerfully driven.
Her Americana is journalistic and timely. She calls out this country’s founding sins of slavery and colonialism, as well as present injustices of environmental and labor exploitation. The guiding faith of journalism is that evil can’t survive exposure; Backus’s protest songs leave evil nowhere to hide.
On “The Devil in Me,” Garrison Starr becomes the defender she needed as a young queer woman growing up in Mississippi. The childhood pain of her church’s condemnation hasn’t left the new warrior and she mourns what was taken.
“I lost my youth / hiding the devil in me”. But looking back, she can see that she wasn’t the guilty party, and she defends her younger self, asking incredulously, “Is that really all you see? / The devil in me?”
The lesbian legend of Alabama Shakes, Thunderbitch, and Bermuda Triangle released her first solo album, Jamie, in 2019. She writes “I suppose all I want is to help others feel a bit better about being. All I can offer are my own stories in hopes of not only being seen and understood, but also to learn to love my own self as if it were an act of resistance.”
The frontwoman of NC band, Mount Moriah, H. C. McEntire carries the grit of her punk days into her more recent, more country records. Many of her songs contend with love-in-hiding, but her lyrics are quietly and defiantly queer.
On “Time, On Fire” from 2020’s Eno Axis, she sings, “She would leave like she appeared” – a powerful little pronoun that leaves no room for misunderstanding. The vivid imagery of McEntire’s lyrics serve two functions: projecting strange found-footage in the mind’s eye, and enacting the same half-hiding caution her characters practice.
“I can only hear your heart through your dress in the dark” she sings on “Dress in the Dark” – rather than explaining to her listeners what’s going on, she lets us feel it.
Lewis’s voice is as radiant as dew scattering light, and as powerful as a river reshaping the hills. Like the ocean, her skill as a singer seems to have no limit. I believe she restricts herself to frequencies audible to human ears only out of kindness to her listeners.
Born in Georgia, Lewis now works in Louisiana singing, songwriting, and producing both solo and with her band, The Lilli Lewis Project. The LLP’s bio asserts that it is “more than a band. It’s a pan-generational cult of radical decency” and that it “bears the spirit of days when everyone still believed music could change the world.”
Rita Indiana, “The Heist” (feat. MIMA)
Rita Indiana Hernández Sánchez, fan-dubbed “La Montra” (The Monster), was born in the Dominican Republic and currently lives in Puerto Rico with her wife and collaborator Noelia Quintero.
Her music draws on metal, merengue, punk, and traditional Caribbean styles – it probably wouldn’t be assigned to the “Country Music TM” shelf by most archivists.* Eyebrows may rise at her inclusion in a list of country artists (including the eyebrows of my editors) but listen: the soundscape of “The Heist” evokes the heat haze over a frontier town in a classic Western, into which the voices of Indiana and MIMA swagger like a pair of outlaw heroes.
The song tells the true story of the Aguila Blanca heist of 1983, in which Los Macheteros, a guerilla organization for Puerto Rican independence, stole $7 million in cash from a West Hartford Wells Fargo depot. Indiana is not only a fantastic singer and a mad scientist with a soundboard, she’s a fearless storyteller (in novels as well as in songs.)
This list is, of course, incomplete. If you, dear reader, are a queer country-adjacent artist of the southeast, consider yourself invited to our directory!
* Side note: why divide music by genre? Whom does this division serve? Advertisers and algorithms; not artists, and not us.