Charlie Ford was right. Last Saturday night, the Iron Post was probably the queerest spot in Champaign-Urbana. The night featured a fantastic line-up of queer country, bluegrass, and roots in a room full of honky tonk angels and lovely cowpeople. The Brooklyn-based queer country band Karen and the Sorrows headlined the show and were bookended by local musical powerhouses featuring Charlie Ford and Friends with Sam Payne on guitar, Dustin Norder on mandolin, and Dan Andree on fiddle and the Relevators, featuring among others Kenna Mae singing and playing the acoustic guitar and Cody Jenson on drums, trumpet and backup vocals.
Charlie Ford and the band brought the hot bluegrass tradition with a side of bluegrass-ified John Prine and Chumbawamba’s Homophobia. After playing a soothing and dynamically subtle rendition of “Mountain Dew”, Charlie with fingers still pressed against the neck of the upright bass remarks smilingly upon all the familiar queer faces that, yes, the Iron Post was probably the queerest spot in town that night. Certainly, the queerest country-est in town. What is queer country, you may ask? As Karen Pittelman of Karen and the Sorrows says, “Sometimes you love a culture that doesn’t love you back.”
Charlie Ford & Friends
Country music at its best touches us with personal, painful realities about love, loss, heartbreak, and shame; but, for far too long many bands and fans have felt excluded from white bro-country or heteronormative narratives that have dominated the genre. Continuing the work bands like Lavender Country began in the 70s, Karen and the Sorrows are bringing forth the traditional human condition country tropes singing from queer perspectives, speaking their truths and opening up spaces for queer country musicians and listeners.
Pittelman’s love of the music and her passion for supporting other queer country musicians and for building a community brought her to find the Gay Ole Opry shows in 2011 in Brooklyn, which then went on tour in 2016. It’s Karen’s work of opening up a space for queer country musicians that called out to Urbana-based musician Charlie Ford. A year ago, Charlie wrote to Pittelman about the queer country shows that she put on back in Brooklyn and asked if there were any chance she might come this way to Champaign-Urbana in the future. So when Karen and the Sorrows started planning their tour after the release of their latest album, The Narrow Place, Charlie was one of the first people that she had contacted to get them booked in C-U.
Karen and the Sorrows
Last Saturday night, Karen and the Sorrows took the stage after a warm welcome from Charlie Ford and Friends. On stage was Pittelman, who brought us the acoustic guitar, the soulful, twangy vocals, politically potent lyrics influenced by musicians like Lavender Country and Neil Young, and overall Gertrude Stein inspiration to poetically guide some of what she has called her queer, Jewish truths. Elana Redfield gave us the hauntingly gorgeous pedal steel guitar and electric guitar. Tami Johnson on the drums and Gerard Kouwenhoven on bass brought forth some surprising progressive rock-tinged rhythms that well suited their all-around dynamic honky tonk sound.
The set-list featured songs off of their recently released album The Narrow Place, which is a translation of the Hebrew word mitzrayim and is also the name for Egypt in the Passover Seder. The Narrow Place references the Jewish people's search for the Promised Land and is expressed in the album as a metaphor for liberation. “What moves me most about that story is that it isn’t so simple to get free. It’s a bitter struggle, and so much gets lost, forgotten or left behind,” said Pittelman, “I was thinking a lot about how those kinds of journeys make us who we are.”
At the end of the show, I asked her about what song struck her the most in the set. She replied, “'I Was Just Your Fool',” which she added that her choice of playing it near the end of the set brought the change in tone that she wanted in the room that evening. “I Was Just Your Fool” captures intimately the heartache of this album using images of theatre production, the stage, and potent literary references to talk about what it means to go through the struggle of loving someone who doesn’t love you back, how it changes you and enacts you to tear down “the stage” that you have built up in relationships to build a new one. Pittelman adds:
"I tell myself that at least what's bad for your life is good for country music. Unlike the last album which equally brought on a lot of heartache, this one got mixed together with some queer re-imaginings of bro-country, how you understand power and your relationship to the struggles of others, and thinking a lot about, well, Moses and also my grandfather.”
Since the release of The Narrow Place on August 25th, Pittelman has been surprised and thrilled at how many people are excited to have a conversation about queer people in country music and about asking country music to take a stand against white supremacy, homophobia, and transphobia. Poignantly named after a James Baldwin novel, Karen started the Another Country festival a month before the album release to further build a community of love and resistance against white supremacy.
Pittelman said about where she wants to go with her work as a booker and community facilitator:
“One of the reasons it felt important to me to put on the Another Country festival this July is that I wanted to be talking more explicitly about country music and white supremacy and what it means to imagine another country that takes a stand against America's institutional racism instead of standing idly by, or worse, standing in to prop it up,”
Continuing that work is important to her. Pittelman is hoping to put together a coalition of musicians and journalists called Country Music Against White Supremacy; making that happen is definitely her immediate next step. Right now, be sure to follow Karen and the Sorrows as they belt out their amazing tour with lightning speed through this past Saturday.
Interested in hearing more queer country music? After the show, Charlie Ford made a Spotify playlist featuring all those who are on the Gay Ole Opry website. You can check out the playlist here.
All photos by Megan Flowers.