If you have been anxiously anticipating the solo debut by North Carolina-based queer singer/songwriter H.C. McEntire, best known as a member of the band Mount Moriah, your wait was over earlier this year when it was released on Jan. 26. “Lionheart” (Merge) not only ranks as one of the earliest contenders for best album of 2018, but also as a spellbinding re-introduction to an artist. Unapologetically queer, beginning with the gospel-inspired opener “A Lamb, A Dove,” McEntire will have listeners from all walks of life testifying to her talent. “Quarts In the Valley”, “Yellow Roses”, “Baby’s Got The Blues” and “Red Silo” are easily some of the best modern country numbers you are likely to hear, and deserving of attention from all fans of the genre. At only four lines in length and clocking in at two and a half minutes, “One Great Thunder” is one of the most memorable songs on the disc.

Gregg Shapiro: After three albums with Mount Moriah, you released your solo debut, “Lionheart” (Merge). Why was now the right time to do so?

H.C. McEntire: I think there are a few reasons. For one, I could feel Mount Moriah slowing down or shifting gears. Jinx, who is one of the songwriters in the band, has been planning to have a kid. His wife … had the baby [in January]. I knew that was coming. Trying to be strategic, a little bit, we hired another guitarist to fill in. I think that album cycle, for the last Mount Moriah record, just ran its course. I had just taken this job singing with Angel Olsen in her band. I toured with her for 18 months. I was away from my primary Mount Moriah collaborators. The time I did have to myself, I ended up writing on my own. Things kept piling up. The biggest element of this was meeting (musician) Kathleen Hanna. In terms of the timing, she’s really the one who lit a fire under me [laughs].

GS: I’m so glad that you mentioned Angel and Kathleen because “Lionheart” has one of the coolest lists of high profile female guest artists. In addition to Angel and the “special guidance” you received from Kathleen, you also worked with Amy Ray and Tift Merritt. Please say a few words about working with these amazing women.

HCM: They are all my mentors. Amy Ray has been for years. Also, they’re my friends now. We have a very trusted relationship. I think I gravitate towards independent, vision-driven female leaders because you don’t see them too often. When you do, it’s like, “I want to see what kind of formula you’re working with [laughs].” They’ve all been my teachers in a certain way. I really look up to them creatively. I’ve loved what they’ve done independently for years now. Getting to put them all on one record is a blessing.

GS: I detected a strong animal presence, from the album title “Lionheart,” to the songs “Wild Dogs” and “A Lamb, A Dove.”

HCM: [Laughs] Animals are a very big part of my life. I’ve been a vegan for almost 18 years. I also walk dogs [laughs] as a part-time job. I wrote some of these songs when I was on walks with my little furry friends. I live out in the country, and it’s what I see. I live next to a state park, in the woods, and I see more animals than I do people [laughs].

GS: “When You Come For Me” contains the line “the land I cut my teeth on/wouldn’t let me call it home” — is this in reference to recent anti-LGBTQ sentiments in North Carolina?

HCM: Yes, absolutely. It’s been a complex time to be queer and in the South. Especially since a lot of eyes have been on North Carolina politically. It’s also very personal. I’m kind of writing to my family. I grew up in western North Carolina; I’m very close to the land there. I’ve never been totally accepted by my family; my sexuality. I’m demonstrating some pain there.

GS: It definitely comes through. The previously mentioned “A Lamb, A Dove” contains the line “I have found heaven in a woman’s touch.” What are the challenges and rewards of being a queer artist working in the contemporary country music genre?

HCM: It’s a mixed bag. There are a lot of challenges. I really tried to channel that pain on this new record. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but it was a way for me to connect with other queer southerners. And other minorities in general who have faced some sort of adversity or struggle. I needed that for myself. To feel like I wasn’t alone. Maybe it’s a symbiotic kind of thing. I wanted to do it in a poetic way. That was really important to me. How can you be sociopolitical and still maintain your poetics? Have imagery that brings people in from all different walks of life. Maybe the politics goes over the heads of some people, initially. But that’s fine. That’s actually good [laughs].

Photo Credit: Heather Evans Smith

GS: Amy, who you mentioned, and her Indigo Girls cohort Emily Saliers have done something similar throughout their careers. Mixing the poetic and the political.

HCM: It is so complex being a queer artist in the South. My heart is pulled in a lot of different directions. At some point, it’s like, “I’ve got to have peace with this because I’m not leaving. This is the land I love.” Maybe I’m put here to tell some of these stories. It can be very frustrating. When I first met Amy and Emily, I felt very kindred with them. They’re in Georgia, not too far away. Of course, they faced a lot of this, a lot earlier than I did. I’ve watched them very carefully. They’re so graceful in how they approach politics. They don’t back down, but at the same time, they understand that people come from where they come from. The most empowering part of this is just putting myself out there. It’s also the scariest. There’s a really cool Instagram handle, queerappalachia. It is so fascinating. I discovered it after I had made the record. They had posted something “Lionheart.” I found this community of people. Oh, my God, these are my people. Camo-wearing [laughs], outdoors queers that are determined not to be pushed out to a big city. That resonated with me a lot. I can feel that happening around here. There’s more a presence. I feel like there’s a pride that Southerners, especially in rural areas, are exhibiting now. There’s also a really great organization called Southerners On New Ground to which I try to donate proceeds of music sales. I’ve been inspired by that. If those activists can take their time and go door-to-door to people they’re completely endangered by and most likely have incongruent politics with, it seems easy for me in the comfort of my home to write a narrative [laughs] about it.

GS: Finally, Merge Records has a history of LGBTQ artists on its roster, including Stephin Merritt and his various projects including The Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes and The Gothic Archies, Bob Mould, Mark Eitzel and Imperial Teen. What does it mean to you to be associated with such a label?

HCM: First of all, they’re a local label. They’ve always had a strong presence here. Obviously, those people came to the label before me. Just seeing how they were accepted and embraced and really championed by Merge. I think Merge prides itself on including a lot of minority artists. For me, it felt safe. It felt like I was being welcomed because of my art, and not necessarily all these other layers. Being a token queer country artist or whatever. I felt like it didn’t matter to them because everyone was on an equal playing field.