H.C. McEntire plays first Sunset Thursdays show of 2018
I thought about a Tanya Tucker song when I spoke to H.C. McEntire last week. The song, “I Believe The South Is Gonna Rise Again,” came to mind, because McEntire is definitely Southern, having been born and raised in Polk County, North Carolina, in the western part of the state, just above the South Carolina line. She grew up on a farm. Her family was deeply involved in the Baptist church.
But McEntire, who is gay, represents a different view of the South from the one that still percolates through popular culture and through gerrymandered electoral politics. As Tucker sang, “I believe the South’s gonna rise again, just not the way they thought it would back then.” For McEntire, the South isn’t simply defined by Red State policies and the legacies of its past. It’s complicated and has the potential to be inclusive, to be a place where communities of faith embrace the whole “judge-not-lest-ye-be-judged” concept. McEntire is invested, along with many of those who worked with her on her new album, Lionheart, in reclaiming a view of the place where she’s from. At the same time, she’s not keen to further enshrine the region in more mythmaking.
“I get kind of frustrated with the romanticizing of the South,” she said. “As someone who grew up here, I know how complex it is.”
We spoke by phone last week. McEntire was sitting with her dog on her front porch in Durham. McEntire and her band will play the first Sunset Thursdays concert of 2018 at Bailey Park in Winston-Salem on June 14. The show is free and it starts at 7 p.m.
There’s a lovely gospel-kissed song on Lionheart called “When You Come For Me” that has these lines: “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.” McEntire’s songs return in several places to that yearning for belonging, the dream of home, the hunger for acceptance from loved ones and family.
McEntire also fronts the band Mount Moriah, and this is her solo debut. Some of these songs were conceived while McEntire was out touring as a member of Angel Olsen’s band.
“I’ve been on the road with Angel for the last two years, and she hit it pretty hard, and we were all over the world a few times,” said McEntire of her time working with Olsen, who makes a guest appearance on Lionheart. (McEntire played her last show with Olsen, for the foreseeable future, back in April.)
That experience of travel may have strengthened McEntire’s connection to her home state.
“We toured so much in Angel’s band, and I was going to these amazing cities that I never would have gone to, or going to countries like Finland or Australia, and all I wanted was to just be sitting here on the porch like I am today, or out in the woods,” McEntire said. “It wasn’t like I necessarily felt out of place in those places, but I wanted to be in the quiet country.”
McEntire has had the opportunity to pull up roots and leave North Carolina. But she stayed put.
“This is just my home,” she said. “It feels right.”
Before devoting herself to making music, McEntire worked in the book publishing industry, and there were points when a move to New York City would have fit in with that career path, but she didn’t do it, shifting instead to music.
“Writing was my first love,” she said. “In a lot of ways it still is. I’ve just learned how to implement those ideas into songs.”
The community of music-makers and fans in the Triangle reoriented McEntire’s energies.
“The music scene here kind of took me by the hand,” she said.
McEntire was raised on country music and hymns, but she never sang in the church growing up.
“I was terrified of being in the choir, being asked to do anything, any kind of public speaking,” she said. “I was really shy growing up and really didn’t know what kind of voice I had and what my voice could do until my 20s.” That’s when she found punk and connected with the energy, rawness and truth-telling.
“It helped me get out a lot of confusion and angst,” McEntire said. “It felt really good to just wail, you know.”
After about a decade of that, McEntire began “peeling back the layers,” and gravitated toward a kind of country music, with stripped-down instrumentation, clean, simple structures and plenty of story-telling punch.
McEntire sings about romance, belonging, and the kinds of feelings that you sense down in your bones and in your blood on these songs. The music has a slow-burn country tinge, with pedal steel guitar, subtle strings and simmering organ. McEntire’s singing has a power and flute-like lightness that sometimes bring to mind Dolly Parton. In addition to Olsen, atmospheric guitarist William Tyler, Tift Merritt, Indigo Girl Amy Ray, Kathleen Hanna, and multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook all contribute to the record. The album is impressively restrained, suggesting country and gospel without ever tilting fully into any genre shorthand. You can listen to Lionheart a few times before even realizing there are quietly dramatic strings on some of the songs. McEntire said she worked closely with her engineer and co-producer on the project to keep the mood right and the intensity at the right level.
“We didn’t want to steer it with a heavy hand,” she said.
The songs on Lionheart are thick with vegetation. Chicory, gardenias, tobacco, roses, pine trees and prickly pear all show up at different points. Plants, animals, the landscape and the heavens loom in McEntire’s songs, giving them a scope beyond the human narratives at their core.
Describing her bond with the lush landscape and the nearby Eno River State Park, McEntire says this: “The vegetation was inescapable, but it kept me tethered in a lot of ways.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See H.C. McEntire and her band at the Sunset Thursdays concert, Thursday, June 14, at 7 p.m. at Bailey Park in downtown Winston-Salem. The concert is free. For info go to flowhondasunsetthursdays.com