The Secret Emchy Society:
Queer Country Music Is Country Music For All
Cindy Emch, the singer and songwriter known to most of her fans as Emchy, has built her musical career around a simple idea: If the door opens a crack, that’s an invitation to walk through it.
“I don’t believe in saying no,” says Emch, the leader of the Oakland-based ensemble The Secret Emchy Society. “I’ve loved music my entire life and if someone is going to give me an opportunity to do more of it I am always going to say yes.”
If you look at her résumé, that would seem a foregone conclusion. The website for the Secret Emchy Society includes links to other bands that have been part of Emch’s journey through the Bay Area music scene, such as Vagabondage, Feral, Oakland Wine Drinkers Union and Rhubarb Whiskey. Each band showcased Emch considerably, but it wasn’t until a 2015 show in Sonoma that she finally pushed through a door she’d hesitated to walk through for years.
The show in question was organized by Bay Area singer Carolyn Mark at the end of a farewell tour for Emch’s band Feral. Upon arriving, Emch didn’t even expect to be playing. Then, five minutes before taking the stage, she was informed she would be playing a forty-minute set with the house band.
Rather than back down, Emch threw together a set list, figured out as fast as possible how to transpose several of her accordion numbers to the guitar, walked out on stage, and led the band through her material. The crowd loved it, and her new band, The Secret Emchy Society, was born.
“It was this surprise of, ‘Oh. I can totally lead the band,’” she says. “That was when I really realized I could do this on my own.”
What followed was a series of almost lightning quick decisions that have taken Cindy Emch to the fore of a burgeoning music scene and seen her pivot from a full-time employee with a music habit to a full-blown touring musician with an employment habit.
All of it is emblematic of the nature of Cindy Emch’s musical career — an opportunity presents itself and she goes headlong into it. And the echoes of that headlong charge reverberate through the scene that surrounds her. After years of pushing queer voices to the margins, country music is finally waking up to the number of artists who have found a way of reclaiming their experiences in a musical form that, in its mass market branding, has largely shut them out.
In chronicling the difficulties of coming out in country music, much focus has gone to the stories of those who were already established. Billy Gilman, the child prodigy singer who came out as gay in 2014, claimed he couldn’t get a major label to sit down with him despite selling millions of records earlier in his career. Chely Wright lost legions of fans after coming out in 2010, and began receiving daily hate mail.
But if the road was difficult for established country artists to come out, it was almost completely out of service for queer artists just starting their careers. A trailblazer like Patrick Haggerty, who with his band Lavender Country released the first openly gay country album in 1973, was a rare exception in the long history of a musical form that has always seemed to further marginalize the most marginalized voices.
“Country music has always tried to wrap itself in the flag while carrying a cross,” says Emch. “Which is ironic if you look at the lyrics at the same time. You’re never going to find more songs about cheating and drinking and murdering people than you are in country music. Where it does get hard is that it’s soaking itself so much in that ideological soup that it’s excluding people that are part of that. You can focus on the family. But your queer children? You’re kicking them out of the house.”
Emch herself, despite having a lot of rural influences during her childhood in Michigan, had very little interest in country music until hearing an alternative country show while working as a radio DJ in college.
“That was the first time I heard country music that wasn’t being listened to or being played by people who I thought would want to kick my ass. I didn’t feel like that music could be for me until I listened to that show.”
The question of why anyone should feel like an outsider in a style of music they’ve always enjoyed is now being answered by a wide swathe of musicians who are slowly prying the door of country music open. Emch sees their growing numbers as a form of reclaiming history — a push back against the constant shutting out of people who, like herself, have these stories, too.
After four decades of obscurity, Patrick Haggerty and Lavender Country are performing again, and their record has been re-issued. Other young artists like Sarah Shook, Karen and the Sorrows, My Gay Banjo, and Amythyst Kiah continue to call new audiences to their music. And this year’s Americana Fest in Nashville had a showcase of queer country artists, which was presented by Rolling Stone Country.
“The crowbar is in there and (the door) is opening a little,” says Emch. “But it’s there for sure.”
Of course, it’s not just about opening the door. For Emch, it’s about the songs, and about making great music that everyone can enjoy.
“That’s the point — to tell a good story in a good song,” says Emch. “We’ll have those two older straight couples at every show who get up and dance, and they don’t care that I use female pronouns in my song. They just want a good song to dance to.”
And good songs she’s got. The Secret Emchy Society’s debut album, The Stars Fell Shooting Into Twangsville, swings beautifully from accordion-drenched waltzes to slow ballads to high-tempo roof shakers. And the lyrics are soaked in long-standing country tropes, from day-drinking to painful love to oversized ambitions.
But Emch’s own tale is woven in thoroughly. The stunning “Jagged Edges” was written as a love song to her wife. And in the gorgeous “End of Pretty,” Emch takes a classic country style defense of being the woman you are and extends it into a deconstruction of beauty myths and fame, proclaiming:
Cause I’m just as pretty as my songs
Need me to be.
My songs are so much prettier
The album received great reviews (Huffington Post called her “The First Lady of Queer Country”) and set the stage for increasingly extended tours. And there’s more on the way. In the next eighteen months, Emch plans to release another studio album of original songs, a live album taken from a recent performance in Seattle, and an album of “campfire songs” inspired by the backyard sessions that take place at the home of her friend Carolyn Mark.
But for all the praise Emch gets for her work, she’s quick to deflect and spin it onto others — her collaborators, producers, and other musicians who inspire her work. She speaks at length of Karen Pittleman (of Karen and the Sorrows, who co-founded the Gay Ole Opry), Patrick Haggerty, Carolyn Mark, Sarah Shook and others who helped pave the way for her. But her own role in the current growth of the queer country scene can’t be ignored. After years of connecting queer country artists with each other via Facebook, Emch helped inspire Kevin James Thornton of Indiana Queen to put together a queer country publication called Strange Fire Magazine, which Emch writes a regular column for called “Queer Cuts” that aims to put more voices like hers on the map.
“America loves outsider culture,” says Emch. “I wonder if one of the reasons that queer country is getting a little more traction is because so many people in country (music) get to sing their truth more. If you’re trying to write a love song and you don’t have to hide who you are, you’re going to write a better love song.”
Different artists draw their fire from different sources at different times. And the times have changed. Patrick Haggerty has spoken of anger being a driving force behind the production of Lavender Country. But for Emch, at this point, it’s about opening up to an audience that might respond in the most unexpected ways, even when she questions her own work. As she speaks, it becomes apparent that this feeling is a driving force behind not just her work, but the fact that she is always willing to push ahead, diving into the uncertainty, work past her discomfort, and lean into risk.
“You never know if you’re in the perfect moment that can help someone get through a really difficult time,” she says. “I did this show and three people came up to me and told me something about how it was a cathartic moment. And I thought I did just an okay performance. (But) just by performing, it felt like I’d made a big difference in at least these three people’s lives.”
“If the music can affect or help anyone, then it’s my job to sing it. It’s not my job to be too insecure. My job is to perform.”
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