HC McENTIRE –Lionheart (Merge MERG602)

LionheartWhile still fronting Mount Moriah, Heather McEntire has taken time out to record a solo album, Lionheart, recorded in the living room of her house and featuring guitarist Phil Cook and Mount Moriah bassist Casey Toll, but otherwise predominantly female musicians, among them Amy Ray, Tift Merritt and Angel Olsen, as well as ‘special guidance’ from her mentor, feminist activist and former Bikini Kill founder Kathleen Henna.

It’s an album that addresses some very personal matters, not least her sexuality as an openly queer country singer with both her Appalachian upbringing in the Baptist faith and the genre’s proclivity for hetero male subject matter.

She gets right on in there with such contemplations in the almost hymnal opening track, ‘A Lamb, A Dove’, a number, laced with Biblical imagery, about unconditional love where, accompanied by piano, Wurltizer, pedal steel and harp with Merritt on backing vocals, she sings about having “found heaven in a woman’s touch”, but also of her belief in “a kingdom full of mercy and faith.”

That sense of being an outsider or an outcast is there too on the mid-tempo sway of ‘When You Come For Me’, Allyn Love’s pedal steel aching behind a song about eventually being laid to rest in her Appalachian soil and of dream that “the land I cut my teeth on wouldn’t let me call it home.”

Having touched on death, she returns to it on the album’s shortest track, ‘One Great Thunder’ just acoustic guitar, piano, cello and Angel Olson’s backing lamentations, a tenderly melancholic tribute to her grandmother.

But, the central point of the songs and, indeed the album title, is about coming to terms with who she is, there on ‘Yellow Roses’, keening pedal steel complemented by Luke Norton’s dramatic electric guitar lick on a song where, its title referencing a symbolic referencing of friendship and optimism, she’s “the clown that feeds the crow”, “the fool who steals your time.”

There’s several numbers that allude, directly or otherwise to, her sexuality. The lengthy mood desert dry album closer ‘Dress In The Dark’ unfolds its sensual lyrics of seduction as she sings “I can only feel your heart through your dress in the dark” or there’s the cello and harp adorned slow waltz ‘Wild Dogs’ with its line about “when I held for you that lust” and also probably the only song to ever include a symbolic reference to ‘albedo’, a measure of the solar radiation reflected by the surface back into the atmosphere from where it came.

Or there’s the rolling rhythms of classic styled country-rocking ‘Quartz In The Valley’ with its memories of home, the hosiery store where her gran worked and a wedding gown “hidden in the attic with a plastic crown” set against the sexual recollections of “when your lashes tagged all my pillows black” and “my teeth pulled off all your shoulder pads”.

Bolstered by Wurlitzer, William Tyler’s plangent guitar chords and a fluttering pizzicato acoustic, giddy with euphoria (“I dance in the rain…when they say your name”) the driving Southern country soul groove ‘Baby’s Got The Blues’ finds her “asking for a shepherd”, singing of a swelling emotion that’s “a levee on the rise” that you can either deny or surrender to as fate or, as she puts it, “call it off or call it God”.

Ray joins her for harmonies on the remaining track, the country chugger ‘Red Silo’, here guided by Ryan Gustafson’s twangsome guitar and James Wallace’s organ, a bittersweet nostalgic reminiscence of a youthful past relationship conjuring memories of “back when this whole town smelled like tobacco” and “we thought this would last forever.

In speaking of making the album, McEntire says “in music, there are no rules. You make your own language.” And she speaks it eloquently.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: https://www.mergerecords.com/hc-mcentire

Listen to ‘Quartz In The Valley’: