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How Karen & the Sorrows Are Making Country More Welcoming for Queer Artists
"If you had to choose one song to send to aliens in space who were going to destroy the earth -- so it has to be something that proves the inherent good of humanity -- which song would you pick?"
This question was posed last week by Karen Pittelman, singer/songwriter and leader of Karen & the Sorrows, who are preparing to release their second album, The Narrow Place, on Aug. 25. "Lately I'm thinking 'As' by Stevie Wonder," she muses. "It shows a possibility for the redemption of human beings."
Pittelman is a walking genre-agnostic musical encyclopedia, and she enjoys these sort of deep dives into pop, exacting about small details and sweeping in scope. During the course of a two-hour conversation -- that grows to encompass the racist underpinnings of genre boundaries along with the greatness of, to name a few, Stevie Nicks, Waylon Jennings' drummer, songwriter Rod Temperton, guitarist George Benson and producer Quincy Jones -- while fighting the din of clattering plates at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a pie place in Gowanus, Brooklyn, she throws out heaps of these juicy pronouncements:
"I feel like Huey Lewis is under-appreciated. Everyone's like, 'he's so hokey' -- he's fucking solid."
Or, "If you can't fucking choose Nile Rodgers always, then your way of life is no good."
Or, "The way people freaked out over [Beyoncé's] 'Daddy Lessons' was fascinating -- there's no argument that anybody can make with any credibility to say that's not a country song. Whatever definition of country you want to use, that fits. Oh, so it has horns? Is 'Ring of Fire' not a country song? That's a bananas argument. Why is there this investment in saying that country music is a white genre?"
This last one is especially important: Karen & the Sorrows make country music, and all three women in the group are openly queer in a genre where few musicians dare to be, so they know a thing or two about the aggressive policing of country's genre boundaries. "When you love something that doesn't love you back, how can you create a space for the people who are making that music and want to listen to that music that's just a little more welcoming?" Pittelman asks.
If you accept a very narrow definition of what country music is -- 40 minutes of listening to contemporary country radio, for example, might lead Pittelman's space aliens to believe it was only music made by white men with innocuous twangs and a zest for whiskey -- Pittelman is an outlier in other ways: in addition to her sexual orientation, she's Jewish, grew up in New York City, and cares little for brown liquor. "I'm a terrible drinker," she says. "I can drink one; after that I throw it up."
But she guzzled country music by the Stetson-full growing up. "My mom was always playing a lot of 1970s country rock," Pittelman explains. "She liked Rosanne Cash; I have this memory of her just playing Seven Year Ache over and over on repeat for a whole night.
"My dad ran a company called Heartland music and he made compilation albums," she continues. "He was working primarily with country artists, making commercials with George Jones and The Oak Ridge Boys and all these greats who were struggling to get the radio access they needed at that moment in the 80s. He would come home and force-feed me that."
This led to, among other things, a deep-seated love for pedal steel. "It's the best instrument in the whole world," Pittelman asserts. "It can do things no other instrument can -- ascend and descend at the same time. And it sounds like the essence of sorrow. When the pedal steel cries, that's the embodiment of all the suffering in the human world to me. I would have an unreasonable amount of pedal steel on every song, but Elana [Redfield, the Sorrows' pedal steel player] is very tasteful."
Pittelman's listening ranged widely, and she ended up back in country by way of punk: she was fronting a punk outfit when, she says, "all of a sudden my heart was broken." After that, "All I wanted to do was listen to country music and write country music. My old band played a show with my pedal steel player Elana's old band, and I was like, 'I'm a sucker if I don't ask her to sit in on a song.' So I did, I talked my old band into letting me play it, and I couldn't go back. It was such a transformational moment. Everything just kept coming out country."
The Sorrows formed in 2011 with Pittelman, Redfield and drummer Tami Johnson; The Narrow Place is their second album, and it's a trim record, with the right amount of sputter and splat in Johnson's drums (pay special attention to all the activity in the second verse of "Back Down to the Dirt"), gluey, unnervingly effective globs of Redfield's pedal steel, occasional jolts from a fiddle and handsome female-male harmonies that include Pittelman, new bassist Gerard Kouwenhoven and Tara Lynne Mallon (who plays in Kouwenhoven's other band, Dolly Trolly). Pittelman's voice, an idiosyncratic trill -- she doesn't like multi-tracking herself for fear of sounding like "scary dolls" -- holds its own smack in the middle of the mix, and "Can't Miss What You Never Had," an early highlight, upshifts into a soft, jabbing hook that could have come out in the second half of the 1990s on a Vince Gill record.
The album's title is a nod to Pittelman's Jewish heritage: The Narrow Place is a translation of Mitzraim, the Hebrew word for Egypt. "I was on a walk [on 7th Avenue in Park Slope] and I saw this plant," Pittelman recalls. "In the light, it looked on fire, and it made me think of the Burning Bush, and it made me think of how shitty it would be to see the Burning Bush and have your whole life get ruined. When you get called, it's basically the end of everything you've ever known." This led to several songs, like "The Wire" and "Nowhere," where Pittelman used Moses' imagined angst as a way of reflecting on her own emotional distress.
"Mitzraim is what you have to go through to get to the other side, but what you have to go through to get to the other side changes you," she adds. "It's not like you just come out on the other end the same."
Adding to the Jewish country canon is just one way Pittelman hopes to continue her work of complicating country's sometimes monochromatic image. For six years, she's been running an event called the Gay Ole Opry in New York City. "I just wanted to play in places where it wasn't weird that the pedal steel player was my girlfriend," she explains. "Now we split up, but it's still true -- I want to play spaces where [it wouldn’t be weird that] the pedal steel player was my girlfriend. The first one we had, there were people coming up to me crying, like, 'I never thought that I would get to hear this music that I grew up on and dance with my partner.' So I was like, I gotta keep doing it."
Earlier this year, this expanded to the first Another Country festival, which featured performances and talks from a wide variety of queer, trans and minority country musicians. "I wanted to broaden who I was bringing together and how we were talking about that," she says. These sorts of conversations around genre -- who creates it, and who gets pushed out by its codification -- are important to Pittelman. "This feels like this moment where Americana is trying to consolidate itself," she says. "It used to be the parking lot for the weirdos who didn't fit in, and now all of a sudden it's going to be this genre with a capital G -- but it's not asking the questions of who gets included and the history and where it comes from."
There's much that troubles Pittelman about country, too: the genre's emphasis on "family values" and the way it's sometimes used in service of Republican policy goals "that are directly responsible for the suffering and death of people I love." "I can't get behind that," she says. "But you can't stop a song from worming its little way into your insides, and then you're singing it. What do you do with that feeling? It's very concerning."
"I was thinking about 'Free Bird' the other day," she continues. "Beyond the usual critiques of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- that all need to be made -- the words of that song: 'I can't change.' There's a lot to that. It's not just a break-up song. Sometimes once it's inside you, you can't get it out, so you just need to remake it. Make your own version of it and say, 'fuck you: You will change. You will change just because you came through me and I recreated you.'"