H.C. McEntire’s Solo Debut ‘LIONHEART’ Reclaims Country For Queer Southern Women

Heather McEntire has a voice time out of mind. She’s the kind of performer that makes seasoned veterans like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats dub her “unbelievable” as far back as 2006, when he tapped her first band, a noisy punk two-piece called Bellafea, to open for him on tour, adding “I think you don’t see a stage presence like Heather McEntire’s more than a few times in your life.” McEntire is the kind of songwriter who inspires living legends like Kathleen Hanna to drop everything after and actively pursue a mentorship until she released a solo album of her own.

Spurred on by Hanna, and tempered by a long stint on tour with Angel Olsen, McEntire’s formal debut as H.C. McEntire is finally here, LIONHEART will be out next year on January 26 via Merge Records. In many ways, LIONHEART builds out the southern country sound that McEntire has been honing since 2011 when she and longtime collaborator Jenks Miller released their first full-length as the trio Mount Moriah, along with Casey Toll. But it also finds roots in the two other projects that she worked on before then.

Since McEntire first came up in the punk world, when Mount Moriah first emerged critics couldn’t stop marveling that she’d left behind the “spartan postpunk” of Bellafea, and leaned heavy into a honeyed country bleat. To hear her tell it, though, punk arrived much later in McEntire’s life than the bedrock of country and hymns she was raised on.

“Bellafea was the first band I was ever in,” she told me by phone last week, sketching in the details of all the projects that culminated in this first, great solo album. “I had just started working at this local college radio station and I discovered punk music. It definitely fueled a lot of my early twenties, and was a great vehicle for a lot of the confusion I was having. It allowed me a way to be loud and angry and defiant. Before then, all I knew was mainstream country and hymns.”

It’s easier to hear hymns and mainstream country in Mount Moriah than the punishing riffs of Bellafea, which eventually became a three-piece, but never grew into the fleshed out project garnering mainstream attention that McEntire’s country trio did. Similarly, she and Miller played in a bedroom pop project called Un Deux Trois for several years, at first simultaneously with Mount Moriah, and then, finally, the country trio won out over that, too. But in recent years, as Miller started a family with his partner, and McEntire found herself immersed on a massive tour with Olsen, a growing number of demos that didn’t fit with Mount Moriah began to pile up.

With the help of Hanna, McEntire parsed through this pile and began to consider a solo record in earnest. On her own for the first time, she turned to her community to flesh out these deeply personal songs, many of which were written to encompass her experience growing up as a queer woman in the south, who met with disappointment when she came out to her Southern Baptist family, all while legal battles about the lawfulness of her sexuality were being fought in her home state of North Carolina.

Eventually able to reconcile her faith with her sexuality, LIONHEART is shot through with songs that grapple with that transition, unfolding in southern rock riffs, ominous, Biblical lyrics, and sweet country longing. It’s a brave record, yes, but it’s also the living testament of a queer woman who refuses to let the shining tradition of country music belong solely to the bros. With contributions from harpist Mary Lattimore, guitarist William Tyler, harmonies from Amy Ray (of the Indigo Girls), Tift Merritt, and Angel Olsen, along with harmonies and guitar from Phil Cook, LIONHEART is an unbelievably rich document of some of the greatest living players in the country and folk tradition.

Kicking off the release today, we’re premiering the first track, “A Lamb, A Dove.” Listen to it below, along with an edited and condensed transcript of a lengthy phone conversation about the role of Kathleen Hanna in this process, how she’s coped with a southern heritage that’s often downright unwelcoming to queer folks, and the interplay of her relationship with Angel Olsen as southern female creators. Read and listen below.

After being involved with some of the other projects, and having Mount Moriah become really successful, what was it that prompted you to want to release your solo record under your own name?