by Mya Byrne, Staff Writer
We country queers have a unique relationship with faith and religion. For some, it was wielded as a cudgel to drive us from our communities, and we’ve abjectly rejected those notions, forging new paths to spirituality. For some of us, our faith brought us to our personal realizations, and created a warm, healthy environment for us to grow into, regardless of background. Still others found faith in recovery.
Now, if we were at a dinner party, I’d probably go off on a rant about Kierkegaard, fear and trembling and whatnot, but I don’t really need to. Our community has already done the praxis. Their beautiful songs wrestle with God, demons, believers and what they believe, community, suffering, redemption, love, and so much more. Here’s fifteen of our favorite songs of faith, made by queer and trans artists of varied religious backgrounds, with love and devotion.
Ty Herndon, with Kristin Chenoweth and Paul Cardall, “Orphans of God”
In CQ’s interview about Ty’s holiday album, we talked at length about this song, and its personal meaning to him. Originally released by contemporary Christian band Avalon, the song speaks of a higher faith, and the universality of God’s love: “If such a thing as grace exists/then grace was meant for lives like this /there are no strangers/there are no outcasts/there are no orphans of God”. Coming from one of the queer country community’s biggest champions, it becomes reframed as a queer anthem; I dare you not to cry while listening to it.
Kyler O’Neal, “Satan’s Tears”
“Did anyone ask how real you are? Has anyone said that you are loved, or that you’re the one they’re dreaming of?” Those questions start off this song and amazing video by out trans woman Kyler O’Neal. I first encountered it at this year’s San Francisco Transgender Film Festival; it addresses a young gender non-conforming person unaccepted by their world, and the narrator promises to wipe “Satan’s tears”– created by a cruel society — away.
Karen and the Sorrows, “Jonah and the Whale”
The Brooklyn progenitor of the queer country movement is no stranger to references of faith. In this sultry twanger, the singer uses the Jonah metaphor to represent the depths of desire and transcendence required in opening up to love. “…Jonah, don’t fight it / just be guided / just be broken / smashed wide open.” It’s a goosebumper.
Jaimee Harris, “Snow White Knuckles”
“Well, I never thought I’d find God here/Full of nicotine and caffeine, shaking with fear.” If that doesn’t capture the essence of finding faith through recovery, I don’t know what does. Jaimee has been sober since 2014, and wrote this great song soon after. CQ went over this song at length in our premiere of it a few weeks ago, but it’s worth revisiting.
Emmet Michael, “God-Shaped Hole”
At the intersection of recovery and transness is this song, encompassing Emmet’s own journey, its intention to create an anthem of universality and a safe place for queer and trans people within faith. In this video Emmet asked other queer folks to appear with their own declarations of faith–it’s a very moving experience.
Adeem the Artist, “Ashes in Flight”
CQ Editor Adeem released this mighty impressive song, both a critique of organized religion and a call to the universal (catching a theme here yet?) found in all people. “We’re a patchwork quilt of prophets, diviners of the way; stitched as one by our collective joy and pain/we are each of us children of the same great light” — this one goes deep.
CQ also reviewed Semler’s album “Preacher’s Kid” last month, and what an interesting story it is–Grace Baldridge, who performs under the name Semler, decided to see if a queer person’s Christian music could make it in that genre. What started out as an experiment turned into a success, as Semler has now topped the charts! This track is one heck of a scathing indictment of organized Christianity, reminding the hypocrites that the singer is “A child of God, just in case you forgot/And you cast me out every single chance that you got.”
Mya Byrne, “Power of the Lord”
This grew out of my background as a rabbi’s child; its repeated questions beginning with “Who” are intended to reference the Jewish liturgy in a non-denominational fashion, using a call-and-response gospel format to channel acceptance and also call out religious hypocrisy (“Who’s gonna teach you about the dime store prophets?”). I wrote it while I was transitioning; it took a lot of faith to get through that. It’s been sung at churches, synagogues, and spiritual gatherings, and features a chorus of my Folk Alliance friends.
Ryan Cassata, “I Met Jesus at the Gay Pride Parade”
Ryan wrote this song soon after the Capitol insurrection, and it’s really powerful. It also calls out hypocrites, and also how even the best of us can make mistakes, almost channeling Woody Guthrie in verses like “I met Jesus on Sunset Boulevard/ On a sidewalk of tents and poverty / He said young brother, why’d you look the other way? Away from the people who are starving and need to eat / They’re people just like you.”
H.C McEntire, “One Eye Open”
In this scathing, beautiful, and enchanting tune, H.C. calls out Christian fundamentalism through the images of a child’s eye in a Sunday school classroom in Appalachia: “That criss-cross flag is lapping in the wind/and the crosses burn til the morning”.
D’orjay the Singing Shaman: “Soul Retrieval”
“My soul is on a journey”–how many of us know that feeling? Alberta’s D’orjay captures that feeling, of finding yourself in the recognition and love of understanding kind people. This song is a journey on its own.
Brian Falduto, “God Loves Me Too”
The fan favorite at the 2020 International Independent Music Video Awards, Brian’s song and this beautiful video, which opens with the singer sitting in a pew contrasting the beauty of the “rainbow walls” of queer-affirming churches with the repressive nature of many others. It’s emotionally adept and a really gorgeous tribute to progressive houses of worship: “I’ve found a place where peace and love abound; I’ve waited my whole life for the truth; It is true–God loves you.”
Ruby Mack, “Milktooth”
On this song, the incredible feminist stringband out of the Massachusetts Pioneer Valley go into the depths of dealing with family and faith while working through one’s gender identity in a small town. Written honestly, this song is very near and dear to them, as we discussed in our review of their debut album. To me, in the repeated chorus (“Holy woman said I deserve what I want / And I told her what I want is you / You’re the only chance I’ve got /To build my sorrow into someone new”), the character is talking to themself, trying to uncover and affirm that person who is there waiting to be found, to be molded and shaped like so much clay.
Blake Haney, “Call You Mine”
This smooth, tastefully orchestrated country ballad gets to the essence of faith and searching, finding it through queer love: “I spent my whole life needing proof/ that a God made everything / you baptized me with your kiss.”
Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”
This song almost doesn’t need an introduction–this was Mary’s breakout hit, which I first heard when it debuted on NPR in 2005, right as she began her rise into one of Americana’s most respected songwriters and most prominent out queers. It’s now a modern classic, yet its message still rings true, especially the third verse: “My church and my country could use a little mercy now/As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out/They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down.”
Leslie Jordan ft. Brandi Carlile, “Angel Band”
Lastly, to leave you filled with the joy that faith can surely bring, here’s queer icon Leslie Jordan duetting with, well, queer icon Brandi Carlile on this traditional country gospel singalong. Sing along!
In writing this article, it became very obvious to me that those who might say that we country queers are a faithless, Godless bunch are full of it. There’s a reason so many religions and cultures over the eons and across the globe–before the narrow, hateful white supremacist and patriarchal version of Christianity was exported by colonizers and slavers — highly valued the contributions of those who expressed their gender, their love, their place in the community in ways we might now describe as trans and queer. We’ve walked through fire and come out the other side, and it gives us a unique relationship to a higher power.
Many of us carry an unshakeable faith that is so deep, and insights that go beyond pre-distilled notions of God and religion. We are creators in God’s image; our experiences in self-realization help us channel a type of faith that allows us to view the big picture, and all artists listed here, in their own way, are attempting to carry out that very Jewish practice of tikkun olam–repairing the world–through our music. Happy listening.
Note: I’d be remiss to not shout out my CQ colleagues, who helped me construct this list. Thanks, y’all.