One of AmericanaFest’s most uplifting off-campus offerings was Queer Roots, a first-time showcase celebrating the diversity of sexual and gender identities represented across roots music. Held at East Nashville bar the Crying Wolf, the event was presented by Change Project, BriteHeart, Strange Fire, Hearth PR and Rolling Stone Country.
Nashville’s Mercy Bell performed first, starting her set with her 2011 All Good Cowboys cut “Icarus.” She played a couple other tunes from that LP, including set standout “Black Dress,” a song that shows off both her knack for an evocative lyric and her dynamic vocals, before closing with new single “Home,” a cinematic country tune about reunion and redemption.
Following Bell’s set, Shawn Reilly, National Field Organizer for LGBTQ advocacy organization the Change Project, asked the crowd, “Where do you think Tennessee ranks in voter registration?” (For those of you playing along at home, the Volunteer State is dead last.) There would be more of these asides throughout the evening, which, in addition to showcasing queer talent, encouraged activism and community involvement.
Next up was Eve Sheldon, a solo singer-songwriter who spent years playing in the Kansas City cult favorite Americana band the Wilders. A trans woman, Sheldon emotionally told the crowd, “I’ve never been in a room of queer people to play music before. It’s a big deal for me.” She played a couple of the band’s best-loved tunes, like 2008’s “Hey Little Darlin” and “Sorry I Let You Down,” solo acoustic, with harmony vocalist Gina Ricci joining for part of the set.
Johnson City, Tennessee-based Amythyst Kiah put on a powerful set midway through the show, performing solo and alternating between playing a banjo and an acoustic guitar. She wowed the room with a cover of the Dolly Parton classic “Jolene,” as well as a haunting take on the folk standard “Darlin’ Corey.” She debuted a couple of new tunes, too, hinting that a new album was coming soon.
Nashville’s Little Bandit was the penultimate act, filling the small stage with a full band. Led by Alex Caress, the band is a local favorite, having won the Nashville Scene‘s Best Country Album honor in 2017 for Breakfast Alone. They played a handful of tunes from that album, including a stunning take on “Bed of Bad Luck,” which Caress introduced by saying, “This next song is about falling for a make-out partner who happened to be straight.” The band also debuted a new song from an as-yet-unannounced album. Called “Rhinestone Gay Bar,” the song, performed mostly solo by Caress, is an aching country shuffle, each verse punctuated with the line, “In a world where the arrows point straight, I will always be gay.”
The final act to take the stage was Lavender Country’s Patrick Haggerty. An elder statesman in queer music, Haggerty was front and center dancing along to the younger acts’ performances. It was clear that the love and respect was mutual as folks gathered around the front of the room with rapt attention for Haggerty’s set. “It only took 50 fucking years, but I made it here,” Haggerty said, taking the stage. “And what’s more important, we made it.”
Joined by a band of young musicians, Haggerty moved through Lavender Country songs like “Back in the Closet Again” and “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” with spirit and ease, often introducing songs with bits of his personal philosophy, like, “We have to be united in the working class. And we’re all the working class.” He closed with “Lavender Country,” which sparked a dance party in the crowd and between Haggerty and his husband of 31 years, J.B. Broughton. It was a joyful way to end an inspiring evening, one that will hopefully inspire even greater representation within the Americana genre in years to come.