It’s the voice that hits you first. It’s big, a bit boisterous. It’s a voice that makes you grin, but it’s also sad and wise, and very observant. It’s a voice that stands you to a shot and a beer, kicks you out onto the dance floor despite your silly misgivings. It’s Cindy Emch’s voice – in every meaning of that word–that comes through on the pioneering queer-country singer and songwriter’s new album The Chaser.
Recorded with her long-running band, The Secret Emchy Society, The Chaser gives Cindy’s funny, deep songs an equally big voice. It’s a record of exact portraiture, country style. Cindy Emch knows how human beings behave when they’re in bars, when they’re lonely, and when they’re in love. And when they’re out of love. The Chaser is the work of an original who looks beyond Saturday night, toward an eternal present.
The Chaser finds Emch – the y was added by an emcee who couldn’t pronounce her name without another vowel – making a stopover in California country on a tour of modern, old-school country. Recorded at Cindy’s home studio in Oakland, California, the album embraces the totality of country: Nashville to Bakersfield, Houston to New Orleans, Tulsa to Oakland.
There’s no exact stylistic equivalent to the detail-packed rendering of classic country Emch & Co. delivered on The Chaser. Opener “Everything Was Fine” suggests rockabilly via the Sun Records licks producer-guitarist Tolan McNeil, who has worked with alt-country chanteuse Neko Case, brings to the table. (Some of The Chaser was done at McNeil’s studio in Victoria, British Columbia.) Secret Emchy Society has perfected their own allusive take on ‘60s folk-country. The Chaser bends the rules and makes you like it, and that’s what the best country music has always done.
The subtly Kinks-like tune “The Good Dog” puts her in the line of innovative songwriters like Ray Davies, Marijohn Wilkin, John D. Loudermilk, and Cowboy Jack Clement, the latter of whom wrote the early hits for African American country pioneer Charley Pride. Cindy’s songs cut to the bone, make you laugh, and – in the case of the aforementioned “The Good Dog,” about a canine who passes into history – might make you cry into that beer you’re having.
On top of that, the band cooks, in the intuitive way of The Beatles, Buck Owens, and the legendary countercultural folk innovators of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like The Holy Modal Rounders, The Incredible String Band and Lavender Country. (The latter group basically invented queer country on their epochal self-titled 1973 album, and Cindy has played shows with the band, which is still active.) The Chaser is also political, like the work of British punk-country band The Mekons. The Chaser is high-level honky-tonk art about Emch’s life as a queer lover of traditional country music, and her love for people – every kind of people.
“My songs are queer love songs about my own experience, and they’re honest,” Emch says about The Chaser. “They have integrity. But they are acceptable enough that there’s always a sweet, straight couple slow-dancing to the song I wrote for my wife. Queer country music can be as universal for straight folks as straight country music is for queer folks who listen to it.”
Cindy grew up in rural Howell, Michigan, and learned to sing listening to her mother, who played standards on accordion. Early on, she was drawn to the music of Leonard Cohen, and she got into country music when she was in her 20s – Yoakam, Cash, Lucinda Williams. As well, she listened to post-punk bands like X and Black Flag. After moving to the Bay Area in 1995, she made Oakland her base, playing in a couple of well-regarded punk-country bands, Vagabondage and Rhubarb Whiskey.
The Chaser builds upon The Secret Emchy Society’s 2017 album The Stars Fall Shooting into Twangsville, which earned plaudits from fans and writers for its take on hardcore country. The follow-up, 2019’s Mark’s Yard, is a sparsely recorded collection of cover versions by the likes of Tom Waits and Hank Williams Jr. It’s a testament to the vision of an artist who embodies the values of queer country via her many other accomplishments. These include editing Country Queer and hosting the popular Emchy’s Outlaw Americana show on Gimme Country radio, along with tour dates with the likes of Sarah Shook, Mercy Bell, and Karen & the Sorrows.
For The Chaser, Emch wrote the title track after talking to her wife – they’ve been together for 22 years – about her life. “We got into a conversation about how I’m always chasing things, whether it be people or dreams, or jobs, or goals,” she says. “It got me feeling pretty introspective about that concept.”
“The Chaser” is cast as a classic country waltz. Another song that reworks tradition is “Hell Is a Hard Place,” a soul-country excursion in 12/8 time that features a brief, Duane Eddy-like guitar solo, played on the low strings.
The album includes the first song Emch wrote for the record, the remarkable “Grackle.” It’s a statement of identity, about a former relationship Cindy had with a man, and her realization that she had to find her true self. Like the rest of The Chaser, the song is both dark and light, ominous and joyous. “Grackle” cruises in the timeless pop-folk-country continuum of Buck Owens, Jack Clement, and The Handsome Family’s similar re-creations of Nashville country. It’s surreal and down-to-earth at the same time.
It’s a bold statement in modern country, and, as Emch says, universal in intent. The Chaser is about the things that tie us together – loving, dancing, losing and getting up to try again – and the eternal struggle to figure out who we really are, day by day.
STREAM “HOWLIN’ SOBER AT THE MOON”