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Music

H.C. McEntire's 'Lionheart' Challenges Country Music Standards

Photo: Heather Evans Smith (Merge Records)

Lionheart is an album by an empowered young artist with a seeker's heart made for a time of growing female empowerment.

Lionheart
H.C. McEntire

Merge

26 Jan 2018

Heather McEntire's idiosyncratic songwriting focuses consistently upon the spirituality of place. For her, that place is Southern and rural, an Appalachian landscape of named features that evoke a past still felt in the present, and that is identifiable, even, to anyone who would venture into the central regions of North Carolina and its environs. It's not a private landscape, but one made deeply personal nonetheless.

McEntire is best known as the lead singer of the retro-folk/country band Mount Moriah, whose 2016 record How to Dance featured on a number of that year's lists of best releases. Lesser known but of equal power is her two collaborations with fellow North Carolina songwriter Michael Rank; their singing on Horsehair (2014) and Red Hand (2015) evoke the great duet partners of the past like Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris or Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.

On Lionheart, her solo debut released as H.C. McEntire she offers up a set of independent, mature, and modern country songs freed from the stale tropes that clog popular country radio. If there's a pickup truck here, it's parked outside, unmentioned, while the song's subjects get on with the job of living. They're probably wearing blue jeans, but that ain't worth mentioning; everybody is. Jeans are the standard, affordable and durable costume for living a rough life. There ain't no cowboy hats or beer-chugging good ol' boys either, or, in the least, they're probably around somewhere, but again, it ain't worth mentioning. In fact, McEntire challenges the heteronormative narrative of standard country music from the album's opening track, singing "I have found heaven in a woman's touch / Come with me now, I'll make you blush." This is highly personal country music about living and making meaning in today's world, not reminiscing over some supposedly better time.

Recorded mostly in her living room and with contributions from a collection of equally independent-minded, mostly female musicians including Amy Ray (Indigo Girls), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, the Julie Ruin), Tift Merritt, Angel Olsen, and Mary Lattimore, Lionheart secures McEntire's identity as a singularly striving lyrical artist, one worth following down any trail or dusty road she chooses to embark upon. The songs here are intimately contemplative and the musical arrangements simple but fulfilling.

McEntire offers herself up unapologetically in these songs. "I'm the clown who feeds the crow," she sings in folk-rocker "Yellow Rose", identifying herself as an outcast who is comfortable within her skin and who demands acceptance without compromise because we are all part of a wider creation. Similarly, in "Baby's Got the Blues", she sings "Call it off or call it God / Call it anything you like / Do you see it in my eyes?", casting all doubts aside in full embrace of self, just as when, in "When You Come for Me", she insists "There's a place for me" speaking both of her beloved Appalachia and to an unnamed lover. Meanwhile, McEntire's duet with Ray "Red Silo" offers the only glimpse of nostalgia on the record and it is characteristically forward-looking, viewing the past solely as a measure against which to chart her growth.

The DIY recording and mixing of the album are surprisingly full and vivid for what is ostensibly a home recording. Only "Wild Dogs" misfires sonically: its foregrounded, click-track percussion sounds artificial and intrudes upon McEntire and Olsen's sweet harmony vocals. But elsewhere throughout the album, the musicians shine, especially the primary backing band of Phil Cook (Megafaun) on guitar, Casey Toll (Mount Moriah), and Daniel Faust on drums.

Lionheart reflects our current times through highly personal songs of place and self-discovery that transcend the individual and reach out to common experience, which is what good country music is supposed to do. That McEntire's self and experiences are uncommon to the standard country narrative should challenge listeners to understand and embrace just what the new common is becoming. This is music with its roots in the past but its branches reaching ever-forward.

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