Heather McEntire didn't grow up intending to change country music. Or her family. Or the South. And yet with Mount Moriah's second album and the band's Merge Records debut, Miracle Temple, the band proves itself ready to take on its unlikely role as the harbinger of future folk.
McEntire isn't a crusader, but in Mount Moriah, the former post-punk singer has found her voice, and a desire to sing the truth — her truth — with prairie-like clarity, unending yellow-gold vistas where everything hides in plain sight. With guitarist Jenks Miller and bassist Casey Toll, the band has crafted richly complex tunes in traditional structures that safely cradle McEntire's confessional lyrics, whether it's about growing up alienated in her small town or the girl that broke her heart.
"It does make me feel vulnerable in a way that you couldn't when singing, screaming punk music," McEntire says over the phone from her home in Durham, a week before Miracle Temple's release. "With Mount Moriah, you can hear every syllable turn. You can hear the lyrics. It's very clear and there's really no hiding. But that's the intention for me. Putting myself in that position is a challenge, and I'm empowered navigating from that place right now."
But, McEntire says, it took time to coax herself into making life an open songbook. "With my own family, when they're excited about a new record, I'm like, 'Great. Wait 'til you get to the liner notes. Maybe it will be too abstract, maybe it won't,'" she laughs. "I think I intentionally have not been vague and that was something, even with our last record, I wanted to share these really sincere moments and it was hard. It was really hard at first. It took a lot of me talking myself into being brave. And I think you can hear that in this new record. It feels more confident when I listen to it back-to-back with the last record, someone who's digging deep."
Mount Moriah frames their contemporary stories within traditional structures like country-soul and folk-rock. That choice creates a "different kind of confrontation," McEntire says. "They present different stories or angles of what it's like to be in the South."
Mount Moriah's songs present a narrative — living as a gay woman in the modern South — that, for the most part, is largely absent from country music. Not surprisingly, many of the stories directly reflect McEntire's experiences, starting with growing up in a Southern Baptist household, mostly devoid of music.
"My mom really enjoyed the silence," McEntire recalls. "It's so strange to think about it now, but maybe that's why I started craving it and looked to it as source of therapy or a way to communicate. What I remember about my childhood and the musical memories, there's always — I grew up on a family farm and there was a little mechanic's shop in the center that my uncle ran and he would always play mainstream country music or just any kind of country, it would always be on the radio dial, and I was a little kid running around, and those were the melodies I picked up, the styles that were formative for me. As well as growing up in the church, all the hymns and harmonies and just the soulfulness and conviction — I definitely took that with me into my young adult years."
But it wasn't until college that McEntire even found out she could sing. One day the creative writing major finally picked up the guitar her mother had given her years before and taught herself some chords and tablature she found on the internet. She moved on to Bob Dylan covers and then put her poems and prose to music.
"I became totally obsessed with it," McEntire laughs. "I found my voice that way. I really didn't sing until that point. I was a very shy kid. I didn't know I had a voice that people liked to listen to."
Fortuitously, she took a job as a DJ at the campus radio station and began her music education in earnest, diving into underground, indie, and punk.
"I felt like I had found this secret door," McEntire says. "When I heard Team Dresch the first time ... [exhales] it just hit me in my center, you know? 'Sing about whatever you want?' That's crazy! And they were these women, queer women — it just took me."
Empowered to write her own narrative, McEntire spent her formative years in the post-punk band Bellafea before dialing down her electric guitar and collaborating with Miller on something with 100 percent more twang than any of their previous bands. And it works, McEntire says, in part because of the bond she and Miller have developed.
"We have a lot of trust in each other," she says. "I feel like I can write very honestly and openly with him and he encourages me to write the lyrics for the band and to express myself. He knows that's important to me, that force of expression, and he really cares about the stories that I have. Because we're so close, he gives me that confidence to tell them."
And in juxtaposing those stories against the melodies and musical inspiration of their youth, Mount Moriah has not only crafted a thrilling new sonic-meets-social frontier, the music has, subconsciously, became something of a reconciliation for McEntire between her past and her present.
"It didn't start out that way, but I can look back now and say oh, Mount Moriah's important to me because it provides this place for me — related to a more historical and traditional South, or my family who are very Southern Baptist — and try to find a way that part of my life intersects with who I am, which is a more progressive artist," McEntire says. "That's kind of the journey for me and Mount Moriah, finding a way those worlds relate and communicate and inspire each other and can be harmonious."