Gay Traditions: Texas Songwriter Emily Herring’s Honky Tonk Pathways
Texas songwriter Emily Herring‘s new album, Your Mistake, came over my desk about a month ago and I fell for her ice-cold honky-tonk songwriting almost immediately. She sings with such confidence, and nails hard-lived country songwriting like nobody’s business. And she gets the culture of Texas dancehalls too. “Your Mistake” could be a barroom classic pretty much anywhere. But there was something else going on as well. “Your Mistake” is a powerful song about high tensions on the dancefloor and a brewing fight, but it’s also the story of a drunken man accosting two women dancing together. As you listen you realize it’s a song that was written by someone who’d clearly been terrified by this or a similar encounter, and wanted to rescue some of her dignity with a sweet telling off to the drunken man. As a gay woman, Herring brings her identity into her music, but doesn’t use it as a calling card. As I looked into the album and Herring’s career, it started to seem more and more that she was torn between two worlds, one world the LGBTQ friendly Portland, Oregon home she’d lived in for years, and in the other world the rougher Texas dancehall world that she grew up in and has now returned to after leaving Portland. I wanted to know more about how and why she had been bouncing back and forth between Texas and the Northwest for years and if her identity as a gay woman played into that. Calling from San Marcos, Texas, her new home where she’s been living for the past year and a half, she graciously explained a bit about the battles between music and identity that she’s been fighting since high school.
This is the second installment of our Gay Traditions series which focuses on trailblazing gay artists who are actively challenging and pushing the boundaries of traditional folk and roots music. Our first article focused on stepdancer and singer Nic Gareiss.
So the new album is really great! I like the new album a lot.
EH: Oh, thank you.
I like that you open with that “Austin (Ain’t Got No) City Limits” which is like a torch song. What makes you love Austin so much? I’ve heard so much hate for Austin after South by Southwest.
EH: Actually, it’s funny because I chose to write it around Austin. I had the idea because of Austin City Limits. It’s kind of a ploy. I had the idea for that but then I decided to write it about venues that surround Austin. So, it has venues from New Braunfels, like Gruene Hall, venues here in San Marcos, and venues in another place outside of town… They are my very favorite places that’s nowhere near Austin but I put them in there anyway.
Emily Herring: Austin (Ain’t Got No) City Limits
Did you spend a lot of time in Austin or have you lived in Austin?
EH: No, I haven’t lived in Austin. I’ve spent a lot of time there growing up… It’s the bluest city in Texas, I would say, although most of the cities are theoretically blue. It’s the most Portland you’re going to get in Texas.
By blue, you mean blue state. Liberal.
EH: Yeah. Texas is pretty red.
So, you were living in Portland and then you moved to San Marcos. What caused you to move to Portland in the first place?
EH: I moved to Portland about 9 years ago, but the reason that I moved out there–and the scene that I was hoping for–was dying out by the time I got there. During the mid-nineties to the early 2000s, there was a big Queercore Punk movement, and I really wanted to go out there and play in a bunch of queer bands and work in a shitty job and go on the road with a bunch of dirty kids playing in basements (laughing).
Live the dream!
EH: Yeah, it was a dream. That scene died out over the first few years I was there.
Why is that? Why did it die out?
EH: I don’t know. I think that in the last few years, now that they have that television show [Portlandia], Portland has become a hipster mecca. I think that people started gravitating towards something different… Everybody suddenly became a DJ overnight. [laughing] Seriously, everybody became a DJ within the period of about a year and the MacBook came along so that you can have your one-person programmed band… It was really big.
Did you play in a lot of punk bands in Portland? What were the bands you played in?
EH: I played in a couple of defunct punk bands. The one that I played in the longest was called: Drastic Plastic.
EH: Yes. [both laughing] It was a project of a friend of mine. The rest of the band did it because we were friends and were helping my friend recognize her dream of having a punk band. We all built the band around her. It was fun! I didn’t have to be a front person. It was fun. I just stood up and played.
What brought you to vintage country and honky-tonk? I’ve heard there’s a lot of cross-over on the punk scene, right?
EH: Yeah. I went to music school and I hated it so much. I graduated but I hated it so much. I started looking for things that were not at all classical or jazz, in order to bring any sort of love I had for music left and I found punk and country. There was a really big rockabilly scene when I was in college and I got into that. I realized after the first week in Portland that I really wanted to play country music but I wouldn’t admit it to myself. I wasn’t there yet. I started, on my own, writing country songs and not playing them out that much until I quit my last punk band and I was like, “Okay, now I’m going to do my own project.”
You came out of the country closet.
EH: Yeah, I totally did. It’s been a bumpy road, being out of the country closet. Being out of the country closet, around this big queer scene. It’s a lot like being out of the closet and being in the country scene. It’s the polar opposite.
Could you elaborate on that? I had never thought about that.
EH: Part of the reason that I ended up leaving… It wasn’t the whole reason… My bandmate said that he couldn’t play dobro with me anymore and we had been trying to revive this country idea. I started this queer live country band night. Once a month at the Egyptian Club in Portland (which has closed down now), and I called it, “Light in the Ropers.” At the time that I started it, coincidentally, this trend of country line dancing had swept through town but they focused on newer country, like Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney and that sort of thing. I tried to bring out the Texas country music stuff that I liked and it just didn’t go over. People were not that interested and I was like, “If there’s a fad in Portland for country line dancing and I cannot develop a fan base doing that, then I’m in the wrong place. If this is not my moment to be building on my fan base in a queer society, then it’s not going to come around again. This is it!” So, I packed everything up and after my dobro player said that he couldn’t play with me anymore because he had other obligations, I was like, “Well, I’ve gotta go. It’s time to go.”
Why do you think that the queer community didn’t get behind vintage country? Because there’s a long history of gay country music, in line dancing, square dancing, in bands…
EH: I think it was a younger community than that. When I originally had conceived the idea of having a dance night, I hadn’t known or expected that there would be a trend for that. What I was really hoping was to draw in people from Milwaukee and Gresham [Portland suburbs] and places where the older, more settled and country-loving queers were. I imagined having a much older crowd than it ended up being. Portland is a great town and I loved it. One of the things that defines their community is picking up on something and loving it for a a short time and then putting it down and picking up something else and loving it for a short time because everybody is in and out of there. It is a mecca and people come in their youth and then, they take over the popularity of the scene and then they’re like, “Off I go… to San Francisco or Brooklyn or somewhere.”
EH: I did, a lot. When I was growing up, Texas was the world, in my mind, and I grew up on Willie Nelson, really. I really thought that his music and his songs were national anthems. As a child, I just assumed that the whole world knew them. But my dad was not a huge country person and neither was my mom… They both loved Ray Price a lot. But I got myself into country music.
At what age did you really get into it?
EH: I started getting into it with Willie Nelson in the end of my high school years. Then, in college, that’s when I got into rockabilly. There’s a nice blend with some bands, like BR-549 or High Noon, which is a great band here in Austin. It is rockabilly but it’s really leaning toward country and a little bit of swing. So, I got into that and that’s what took off for me.
How did your interest with country and honky-tonk fit with your sexual identity when you were coming out? Were you finding an identity in the music or did the music seem that you wouldn’t be able to fit into it?
EH: When I was in college and I started being a rockabilly singer… just my college life in general, I didn’t really fit in with the queer community that I was living in. It was a lot more conservative than I was. I went to UNT, right next to Texas Women’s University. There weren’t any people in that community that were into that kind of music and into that scene, so I separated the two completely. I would go out and I used to have like a pompadour, and I had creepers and I would wear a suit. I would go out to rockabilly shows with my friends and I had a friend that was a phenomenal dancer, and she and I would go out and she would dance with me for a while. She was straight; we were really close friends. She would dance with me until she found a guy that was a better dancer and could throw her around because that’s what rockabilly is all about: swinging the girl over your arm and around your back. I wasn’t good enough with that. So then, I would just hang out and watch the show.
The music that you’re making now seems to have reconciled your identities. The songs you’re singing on the album clearly are talking about issues within your own community and the LBGTQ community but through a country lens. How did you end up blending the two so well?
EH: I started talking about my life. A lot of those songs were written when I was in Portland. Even though I wasn’t performing in front of queer audiences, I was in a safe place. You live in the Northwest… Portland is very, very, very socially conscious and no one cares… That’s why I moved there! No one cares about your sexuality; it’s a non sequitur. I wrote all the songs on that album in Portland, until the last 3 that I added when I moved here, which were: “Austin (ain’t got no) City Limits,” “Don’t Waste Time,” and “Prairie Lea” and none of those are queer at all when I think about it… I wrote all of my openly gay stuff when I lived in Portland. Living here, the focus has pulled away on that. I decided to name the album, “Your Mistake” which is the most up-front, in-your-face gay song that I have, if you listen to it. I wrote it for that dance night [in Portland]. I was listening to a lot of Dwight Yoakum and I was like, “I want to play more of this.” That song, it’s a tribute to his style of music. I had a guitar riff that I liked, and I was in a small town with my girlfriend and we were being followed around by a police car. At the time, it felt like he was policing us, but there is a possibility that he was worried about our safety. So, I wrote this song about being in a gay bar with a group of queers and what the ultimate confrontation would be like.
Emily Herring: Your Mistake
The song has this scary character in it who comes up to you in the song. Is that based on what you’ve experienced in the dance bars?
EH: Not in Portland, no. It’s based in reality. I haven’t had that particular, exact scenario happen, but I’ve definitely had my moments…
So, how is it being back in Texas and being out and connected to some kind of LGBTQ scene? Is it difficult to be on the dance floor and be interacting with members of the same sex or you just don’t do that?
EH: Oh I don’t do that. I love the town I live in and I love my house and I don’t want to move to Austin, but I have no gay life here. I have a couple of friends that I know from Portland that live in Austin but all of my socialization is the honky-tonk. As a result, I know a lot of musicians, men over the age of 50, and I know some people at my favorite hang-out, but I don’t have a gay life here. I moved here with my girlfriend, about 2 years ago or maybe a little more. It was very difficult and she ended up moving back to the Northwest. That was not all of the reason though. I’d like to be clear that that’s not all the reason.
It’s a stress on a relationship though, it sounds like. If you’re not comfortable being yourself in your most public world…
EH: Yeah. I’m comfortable being myself, physically. I’m not going to lie about who I am. I assume it’s obvious but, at the same time, the openly gay culture that I had before, where you can walk down the street holding hands all the time, and you can dance anywhere you like. Theoretically, I feel like I could go to places [in San Marcos] and I wouldn’t necessarily have a conversation, but it would be uncomfortable.
It’s not necessarily a question of safety, it’s just a question of… it’s not something that is really seen or acceptable in that area?
EH: Yeah. For instance, one of my favorite places to go, I’ve been going to this one honky-tonk place for about 15 years, hanging out and playing with musicians there. It’s a place that I go out of my way to visit and hang out with friends and play music. I came out there with my girlfriend and that was a first for everyone. I’d been going there for years and I was in this relationship, but they never knew or I never talked about it. When we moved here, we would go out there often. Honestly, it’s a point of pride… Once people figured out what was going on, there was a short period of discomfort but not any more. I think that’s what is great about society right now; we live in such an exciting time to be in my position, to be like an ambassador of the gay community in honky-tonks in Texas. It really is! I can look back at my life at some point and say that at the very least I’ve changed or my relationship changed this one place for the better. It did! People know that my girlfriend doesn’t live here anymore and they ask me how she’s doing, when she’s coming to visit, and these people have never known that they’ve met a gay person before. Is everybody rooting for us to get married? Probably not… but some are. I’m sure some would be totally happy about that. I have some amazing experiences with that.
That honky-tonk is in San Marcos? Is that right?
EH: No, it’s not. I don’t want to mention the place by name… I travel out of my way to go to this place.
It’s just your favorite honky-tonk in Texas.
EH: It’s just my favorite honky-tonk. It was just heart-warming to see how people came to the realization of what was going on in my life. I had this one friend in particular who, when I first met him years ago, we actually got in a confrontation because he said something that was really accusatory about my appearance and my being gay and I lit into him which is something that I never did in my whole life. Then, about a year ago, he sees us at the bar and comes up to me and says, “Is she something special to you?” And I said, “Yeah. She is.” And he just said, “You know, that is wonderful. That’s wonderful!”
Do you think that there’s a cultural change in society that’s more accepting of gay couples and obviously gay marriage as well? Do you think that you’re feeling the reverberations down in Texas of that?
EH: Yeah. It’s really exciting. I definitely miss the aspects of being surrounded by this big queer bubble that you can live in where you never see confrontation, you never see people disagreeing with who you are, but it’s changed sooo much here in the last 5 years. I can go to the grocery store in town and I’m not the only one there. In the past, if I had gone out someplace mundane like that and I would see somebody that was probably gay, I could tell immediately that they were “closeted” and we wouldn’t make eye contact, but it’s changing. Here we are and we’re in Texas and it’s not the biggest gay-loving state but it doesn’t matter. In the world we live in now, we have basketball players coming out and people are realizing that they have family and friends that are gay and that is changing the world. It’s changing our country so fast.
I think it’s interesting talking about how you didn’t fit in in Portland even in the queer community because of the music. It seems like you’re torn between these different worlds and that’s your lot– being in between two worlds.
EH: Yeah. It really is. I moved to Portland because I wanted a gay life, where it was normal to be gay. It was easy to meet people anywhere. You didn’t have to go to a sad gay bar to meet somebody. You could actually date. It was not serious. You could go on a date with one person and know that if it wasn’t fun, that wasn’t your only chance for true love. And now, I’ve chosen the music over it. Being a Texan, and being a musician that loves Texas music, that is what is most important to me right now. That’s where I belong.
Where have you been playing in Texas? Where have you been performing?
EH: I’ve played a lot of places. I’ve played… Most recently, I’ve played at the Bastrop Brew House and I did my CD release at Cheatham Street Warehouse which is a great historical spot. A lot of great Texas musicians have come out of there. I’ve played in so many little towns, Fredericksburg, Johnson City, and some in Austin. I would really like to do 2 things: I would like to tap into playing the older honky-tonks, like The Broken Spoke and Gruene Hall but, at the same time, I would really love to figure out how my music could reach the queer community. I really would love to do that. It would be wonderful! I just haven’t found the recipe yet.
When you’re playing the honky-tonks circuit in Texas, you don’t obviously say that you’re gay and it’s not your calling card but do people realize when you’re performing what’s going on and what’s behind the music?
EH: I think that some people do but I think that you would be surprised at how many people look right over it. Literally, people I have known for years, look right past it. It’s amazing! But, at the same time, one of the things that I love more than anything is, going to someplace like that and walking in with my guitar and I get looks! I used to really get looks when I had platinum hair that was shaved in the back. I was a crazy, new wave-looking, punk kid. And then, I would get up there and I would sing Ray Price. I loved playing the old standards and people stood up. Once they see that you appreciate something that is important to them, they are so appreciative and grateful, especially because I’m younger and they’re like, “I thought this music was gone forever.” And I’m like, “No, I do this all the time.” All my fan base is 30 years older than me, but there’s still some of us out here who love that kind of stuff. I do enjoy the high that I get off of having somebody read me wrong on my appearance, then hear me play, and I just watch their faces transform. It’s wonderful! It really is! I don’t know why I love that so much because it’s not typical. I love that feeling. If I walk in there empty-handed, I’m going to get looks all night long but, if I happen to be playing or people have seen me play, it really changes.
Emily Herring: One Sip of Water
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Special thanks to Emily Herring for being so open and willing to talk about her life and her music. We hope you’ll take the time to enjoy her music as much as we have.