H.C. McEntire – Lionheart
Merge Records – 26 January 2018
H.C. (Heather) McEntire, best known as the frontwoman for the North Carolina band Mount Moriah, is out with her first solo album, a release where she explores the complex nature of her southern roots. “Lionheart” addresses the challenges faced in coming out as a gay woman in the American South in the context of a profoundly religious background, where she grew up listening to Christian hymns and old-time bluegrass.
The texture of “Lionheart” is somewhat different from the indie alt-country vibe of Mount Moriah. The album has a traditional country feel, although the lyrics are charged with power and energy. There’s some impressive songwriting on this album, along with stirring vocals, that glide along from vintage to modern. McEntire also gets some “A List” help on this album from her friend and mentor Kathleen Hanna, along with stellar support from Angel Olsen, Amy Ray, Tift Merritt, William Tyler, Mary Lattimore, and Phil Cook.
Thematically, the album opener jumps right into the fray. A Lamb, A Dove is a sweet ballad, full of erotic sparks and religious imagery as McEntire attempts to reconcile her strict Christian upbringing with her sexuality.
“In the desert sun/Under the royal arch/On a spinning wheel/In Los Angeles
I have found heaven/In a woman’s touch/Come to me now/I’ll make you blush”
The always compelling imagery of the American South runs through the album as well. Baby’s Got the Blues is full of snapshots of the South, with the blues revolving around “the levee on the rise” and “the dogwood and the chicory and the silent worst of fear.” Great songwriting indeed.
Quartz in the Valley is a tune ready-made for the dance floor. It’s got a driving cowboy hat chorus and sing-a-long lyrics – “can you feel it, can you feel it in your bones.” But the intimacy of the story is profound…
“When your lashes tear/On my pillows black/Moonlight grind the hours back
When my teeth pull on/On your shoulder pads/Hair up high in a messy stack.”
That’s a shout out to Lucinda Williams’ sensual poetry – certainly an influence on this song lyrically. She sings “This gravel road don’t need paving/This kid ain’t done kicking the blues.”
There’s also space for a little nostalgia on this release, most evident on Red Silo, a tune that brings the listener back to a time that’s hard to imagine in these days of economically depressed old towns scattered throughout the South. The song brings the listener back to a time “when this whole town smelled like tobacco/back when we thought this would last forever.”
McEntire explores various styles – Yellow Roses has a Freakwater inspired alt-country feel. Then there’s the gospel-tinged dirge One Great Thunder “I know they called you/Still as a statue/I know they called you/To the sweet by and by.” The album closes with the swampy Dress in the Dark, a song that bends like the winding country roads this artist has travelled to get to this point.
Talking about the album McEntire explained, “In music, there are no rules. You make your own language. You can be both the Southern rock outlier and the twangy gospel conduit. You can be both the cherubic, honey-tongued innocent and the ardent punk. To get here—to find my lion heart—I had to become them all.”
It’s a great characterization of the music on this album, as well as her own personal journey from a place where coming out as gay “wasn’t even an option”.
“Lionheart” stands tall on its own, but it’s also part of the movement of female country artists who are trying to reclaim traditional country music from the clutches of the establishment dominated “bro- country” sound. This album is a step in the right direction.
Catch H. C. McEntire performing on 2 May 2018 at The Islington, London. Ticket link.
Photo Credit: Heather Evans Smith