HC McEntire
Words by Erin Lyndal Martin

On her solo debut Lionheart, H.C. McEntire blends the country music and hymns of her youth to create a winsome album full of the queer narratives she long craved in Southern music.

For the singer-songwriter, the album is a homecoming in which she revisits the musical traditions from her youth. “I grew up in a really small town in western North Carolina. Country was the way of life in all forms,” she says, recalling how her family’s farm situated everybody close to one another. She’d accompany her uncle to work on cars and soak in contemporary country. “I would always gravitate towards both the country he was playing, which was '80s mainstream Randy Travis, Reba, and then what I heard in church. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, which was maybe two miles down the road.

“Whatever was in close proximity was what I absorbed. A lot of hymns, a lot of country,” McEntire continues. There are some straight-up country numbers on Lionheart like “Quartz in the Valley,” outfitted with honky-tonk piano and twangy guitar. And there are misty love songs like the album opener “A Lamb A Dove,” full of all the melody and cadence of a Southern Baptist choir.

Much as rural life informed the singer-songwriter, she’s rebelled against it in adulthood, running straight to punk rock after coming out in college. McEntire, 37, received a B.F.A. in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Having such practice with words has long put her in good stead as a songwriter for her bands, the punk band Bellafea and indie folk band Mount Moriah, yet, she never forgot the music of her rural upbringing. Country and punk both tugged at her, and in her mid-30s she reached out to Kathleen Hanna for advice. Hanna advised listening to Wanda Jackson, an endorsement that helped McEntire make peace with moving further away from punk.

It’s only recently that she learned how to preserve what’s sacred about Southern culture while also making room for who she is now.“You start to return to the essence of who you are. I've always wanted to live out in the country. I've always identified with rural folks. I was a little homesick in a spiritual way. I slowly started walking back towards it and realized it wasn't so scary.”

McEntire’s most striking revision to the country canon is the inclusion of her own narratives of queerness. And not in a “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” way either. “I have found heaven / In a woman’s touch,” she sings on “A Lamb A Dove.” Her love for women is as sincere as her love for country and the Baptist music that first stirred in her.

And, like other musicians of the New South who maintain regional pride alongside progressive values, McEntire deems it necessary to help expand the idea of country music. “It's important to keep those narratives that may be hard for traditional country radio or people like my family who are southern Baptists. It's important to keep pushing those boundaries of what it means to play country music.”

McEntire realizes that country music is not the go-to for much of the LGBTQ community. But she is heartened by the response to Lionheart in rural communities. “I just played this hometown show and I had a therapist come up and tell me that she gave my music to one of her clients, this younger queer kid who was from a rural area. People are saying that I helped them come out. I'm just trying to tell a story that is such a real, vibrant story among that community but not at large. This music is what I wanted when I listened to country music and didn't hear stories about myself.”

McEntire will be bringing her lush, lilting brand of country music to Café du Nord on February 28. She feels a certain romanticism for San Francisco, and part of that fondness comes from a number of her friends moving there after struggling with life in the South. She hopes the concert will capture Lionheart’s songs, but touched with the magic of live performance. “Our live shows are really different from the record. I’m really proud of that,” she says, adding that her current band is “just incredible. It’s a good time to see us perform these songs.”

H.C. McEntire, Foxtails Brigade, Sour Widows
Cafe Du Nord
February 28, 2019
8pm, $12 (18+)

Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer whose music journalism has appeared in Salon, Bandcamp, The Week, No Depression, and elsewhere.