Being openly gay in London is a relatively simple affair these days – at least compared to in the past. The debate and zeitgeist has mostly moved on to allow for myriad non-hetero-normative and non-homo-normative queerness, and increasingly non-binary gender, such is the acceptance (not just tolerance) and relative legal parity that we homosexuals now have. That is not to say that there aren’t still rights issues, discrimination, and violence against the LGBT community in London and the wider UK. But let’s just say there have been worse times to, at the very least, be a white gay and (probably crucially) middle-class man.
What’s so striking about the debut solo album from HC McEntire, Lionheart, is that it shows the tender pain and difficult reconciliation that LGBT people still face in communities more hostile. Though the US can often seem like our cultural cousins in terms of music, the arts, and identity politics – particularly in the cities on the coasts – there are of course deep swathes of that massive bulk of land where things couldn’t be more different. In the Deep South, Bible belt swathe that McEntire comes from this is certainly true, and her music pays testimony to the rejection she has faced from her community as an openly lesbian songwriter.
Taking time away from her alt-country rock band Mount Moriah, her debut album sounds like an attempt at reconciliation. Not that she’s necessarily trying to reconcile herself with the hostility and people who have rejected her, but more she’s attempting to reconnect with her routes, with the geographical land she hails from, with a place she once called home.
On ‘When You Come For Me’ she sings “Mama, I dreamed that I had no hand to hold / And the land I cut my teeth on wouldn’t let me call it home” with the chorus, “When you come for me, let the mountains hold my bones / There’s a place for me, let me lie down with you in the cold”. On “A Lamb, a Dove” she sings of a promised kingdom mixing her sexual desire with the Christian symbolism that shaped her Southern Baptist routes. “Baby’s Got the Blues” and “Dress in the Dark” both reference transgressive love affairs – or at least they’re viewed as transgressive in the normalizing Southern Baptist lands she is singing about.
And yet tying it all together, on record, is a deeply accessible Americana and country thread. ‘Baby’s Got the Blues’, ‘Yellow Roses’ and ‘Quartz in the Valley’ both swoon along, road-like. ‘A Lamb, A Dove’, is unsurprisingly biblical sounding, drawing on the rich gospel traditions of the Deep South, with her voice’s frailty clearly alluding to Dolly Parton. And on ‘Red Silo’, as she sings “Back when this whole town smelled like tobacco”, you can’t help but be transported to the bars and salons of the south.
Nashville guitarist William Tyler is one of a few Americana stalwarts who contribute to the record, along with songwriters Angel Olsen and Tift Merritt. It’s a deeply personal album whose only potential downside is the perhaps over-polished feel of the recording, which could allow the more casual listener to gloss over the emotional intensity of the lyrics and pigeonhole it as a routine country album.
Seeing her perform tracks from the album live at The Islington was another experience though. Stripped back to just herself on guitar and vocals and an accompanying guitarist, the HC McEntire we get on stage here is more raw and yet also more pure. Her voice is impeccable and the emotions of her lyrics feel more immediate and defined without the whole band setup. Sliding guitars and gentle strums do enough to transport you into the arid heat of the Nashville, and her gentle southern drawl and self-mockery can’t help but stir affection.
While on record ‘Baby’s Got the Blues’ and ‘Red Silos’ come across as real toe-tappers, here they are slowed down, and given a more emotional dimension that focuses on the album’s main themes of rejection, transgressive love, and harking back. ‘A Lamb, A Dove’ and ‘Quartz in the Valley’ also gain a greater melancholy with the stripped back setup, while the lyrics on ‘When You Come for Me’ are given a greater focus and an effect that can’t help but stir an intensely warm compassion and empathy.
The performance is greeted with a real fondness by a wonderfully eclectic gathering of affectionate sympathizers – older white country fans mixed with your young LGBT Pitchfork types. The Islington is transported to Nashville and HC McEntire’s fraught and complicated relationship with the home to her music, but sadly not to her love. Yet as she asks for tips from the crowd on holiday destinations, you get the sense that through her music she still does have a home to hark back on, and one she can reconcile with new found loves she now finds on the road away.
Photo Credit: Heather Evans Smith