Album Review: H.C. McEntire – Lionheart

Despite being raised on the sound of country music and hymns H.C. McEntire’s musical career actually began with her playing in punk bands, before eventually forming her alt-country group Mount Moriah. This debut solo album comes after McEntire spent time recently touring as part of Angel Olsen’s band. Lionheart is a quiet roar of a record, nine songs of experience which embrace a rich Americana sound.

A few years ago Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna offered to mentor McEntire after seeing her perform live, saying ‘I knew I HAD to work with McEntire the first time I heard her sing’. She understood that this woman was special but perhaps just needed further encouragement to flourish as a solo artist. McEntire was in a ‘dark place’ at the time and was struggling to find her own musical direction. The title ‘Lionheart’ is therefore an indication of how brave some of this music is, and the courage it took for McEntire to step out alone. The record itself was recorded with a little help from her friends, including Olsen, Tift Merrit, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, William Swift and Phil Cook on guitar and Mary Lattimore on harp.

The opening song A Lamb, A Dove is an intense exploration of her sexuality and faith. This is a sensual song about searching for love, with sparse and evocative gospel style vocals over the piano and guitars. When she sings ‘I have found heaven in a woman’s touch/ come to me now, I’ll make you blush’ she is giving voice to her own story as a queer woman, telling truths about lives that are not usually represented in country music. Thankfully the underground queer country scene is slowly growing, with acts like Karen and the Sorrows pushing boundaries.

Baby’s Got the Blues builds slowly into a Lucinda Williams style rocker. There’s a confidence and directness to how she has embraced the country sound of the south where she grew up. Despite the personal nature of some of these songs there is no straight forward storytelling here, the lyrics are still deliberately clouded in mystery at times. Like on Yellow Roses, a lovely ballad with some nice pedal steel, there are lines like I’m the clown who feeds the crow. Odd unusual imagery like this reoccurs throughout, some songs avoid choruses and obvious hooks and cliches, which is no bad thing.

Wild Dogs takes the pace down to a smoky room, with haunting harp, strings and echoing backing vocals. Nobody needs to know, this is yours to hold. Darkness and danger reverb though this song. Quartz in the Valley is almost a straight southern rocker but the little details in the lyrics about lashes tearing, shoulder pads, hair up in a messy bun make this a distinctive listen. Red Silo is a similarly twangy ode to young love, with nostalgia in every note.

The best song on the album, When You Come For Me is rooted in place – referencing the valley of the pines, green river gorge, junkyards and fields which are all typical of the south where she grew up. When death eventually comes for her, she wants to be laid to rest among the mountains. Things aren’t that simple though. This place has rejected her, it ‘wouldn’t let me call it home’. Perhaps this song reflects the difficulties of her own experience of coming out to her religious family and the distance this created between her heritage and her identity. Whatever the inspiration, this song is the most powerfully poignant moment on the record.

The final track Dress in the Dark has an atmospheric opening, and continues to have an unsettling grip on the listener throughout. McEntire’s kind of indie country noir has little in common with the autobiography style of contemporary Americana and is all the more interesting because of how different it sounds.

At one point on the album McEntire sings This gravel road don’t need paving, a rebuke to anyone who can’t accept her for who she truly is and an indication of the confidence she has finally gained in her musical path. Lionheart is a quietly fearless record, one which you should seek out and savour.

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