H.C. McEntire’s Gnarled, Tender ‘LIONHEART’ Is A Country Debut Like No Other

Heather Evans Smith

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I’m drawn to anything that’s hard to unravel, or that ties itself in knots as it goes along. I’m drawn, mostly, to music that grapples with pain, with mistakes, with settling into life’s weird twisted grooves, and smashing your way out. I’ve been drawn to H.C. McEntire’s songwriting — both in Mount Moriah, and now, as a solo artist — for years now, because it doesn’t give way to easy answers or easy analysis. Her songs are rich and gnarled, like the roots of a tree, or the southern country tradition she readily pulls from. On her formal debut on her own, LIONHEART, McEntire names her own strength where no one else could. Sometimes the only voice you can trust is your own, this is a record about that feeling.

The term roots music has long been a catch-all term for anything nestled into the country/blues/folk/Americana tradition, but on McEntire’s debut it has never felt more apt. As a queer woman living and creating in the south — Durham, North Carolina to be specific — McEntire has reconciled her faith, her family, and heritage with an innate sense of her ability to love who she loves. It is a singular work of triumph and trouble; there is no solution laid out other than the one that timeless, essential art always arrives at: Love. But the journey toward or nearing this resolution is constructed on LIONHEART with a stubborn, southern charm that hews close to Mount Moriah’s foundation of Americana, and builds even higher.

Surely, McEntire is not the first openly queer artist working in the country milieu, the classic reissue of Lavender Country’s self-titled debut by fellow North Carolina compatriots Paradise Of Bachelors is an initial companion album that springs to mind. However, that band’s frontman, Patrick Haggerty, was working in the first wave of gay activists and liberation movement, McEntire’s album is entirely of now, and, it’s more personal than political. As any marginalized artist working on the fringes of mainstream knows, the two are inextricable, especially when it comes to things you feel unspoken in your heart and bones.

McEntire manages to write incredibly intimate songs about her heart’s experience with explicit, poetic lines that sink right in and keep moving down deeper. Though many moments on LIONHEART have stopped me in my tracks as I trekked back and forth through this dense, heady album, the rollicking and tender “Quartz In The Valley” remains its clear centerpiece. A song ostensibly about working the earth to find treasure, the track expands outward like the rings of a planet until it’s about something cosmic and common, moonlight or mascara, or a third, sacred thing rendered by the collision of both.

Listening to this album does feel like taking a journey, or diving into a homeland that will never quite be mine but that feels familiar in tone and history, like on the swelling “Baby’s Got The Blues,” or the stunning, somber opener, “A Lamb, A Dove.” It’s held together in small moments, the slight remnants of southern rock, heavy acoustic strumming, lamb-bleat harmonies, hints of gospel, and spells of Biblical allusion, all waltzing together in country stillness. “Red Silo” remembers a town that smelled of tobacco and small dreams; “Wild Dogs” is a fierce ballad rendered quiet with the help of Angel Olsen’s echoing shadow harmonies; “Dress In The Dark” is an epic gunslinger showdown reupholstered as a shivering, velvet love story. None of these are overtly political, but they are wise, strong, and subversive country songs, neatly turning the genre’s tropes inside out, and living inside the seams.

Clocking in at 34 minutes across just nine songs, LIONHEART gives the impression of a brief document while bringing the heft of a double album. Every single word is accounted for, leaving a calculated impression upon every listen. Not for nothing — this album was edited and shepherded by none other than Kathleen Hanna, a woman dedicated to providing the female mentorship that women in music desperately need, since we’re told at every turn that we are lesser — that goes double for queer and trans women, women of color, and those who aren’t spontaneously elegant or wildly beautiful within the same old confines that straight men have dictated for centuries now. In many ways, LIONHEART imagines a world outside of those walls, and plows right through them, quietly roaring, a heartbeat of small strength.

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Throughout the record, McEntire is supported and carried by a cast of musician friends who are legends in their own right — not just Olsen, but Phil Cook on acoustic guitar, Mary Lattimore on harp, Tift Merritt on backing vocals, and William Tyler on electric guitar, plus many more. It doesn’t matter who shows up, though, they’re all just figures rotating in and out of McEntire’s universe. Her spirit unfurls on this album like a bird taking flight, fresh wings ready to float no matter the weather. The rest of the cast, as talented as they are, remain just weather in her sky.

The album’s simplest, penultimate song best exemplifies the record’s entire form; on “One Great Thunder” she sings the same four lines over and over: “I know they called you / Still as a statue / I know they called you / To the sweet by and by.” It’s a two-minute hymn about loss with no bitterness and no resolution. It would be a lullaby if it wasn’t so sad, it would be a prayer if it sought any kind of peace. Instead, it exists, just between the two, or perhaps, carving a new way to sit with the power and the pain, not just of what it means to love, but what it means to come up against losing it all, and keep singing.

LIONHEART is out now on Merge Records. Get it here.