Heather McEntire on growing up queer in the South, the punk scene and Mount Moriah

Heather McEntire has been a well-known facet in the punk community as the frontwoman of Bellafea, but it’s only in the last few years she’s entered into a new genre with her Southern rock group Mount Moriah. The band’s new album Miracle Temple is out today on Merge Records and it contains Heather’s most personal songs yet, coinciding with her coming out publicly as the themes are largely about being queer in the South and within the limits of her Southern Baptist roots.

The cover of Miracle Temple perfectly expresses those sentiments with a stark image of a barn enflamed in a field set against an overcast sky. “One thing we kept kind of talking about was this idea of burst dams,” Heather said. “We had different pictures of dams and sort of that power of a levy kind of holding something. That was something that felt really powerful.” When the record label’s art director began showing the band photos of burning houses, Heather knew it was perfectly aligned with the songs on the album.

“But a lot of it looked like a metal record, so we found this beautiful photo of burning this barn to make way for this big dam so it just felt perfect in this way,” Heather said. “I grew up on a farm and it speaks to me on so many levels.”

Heather grew up in a small North Carolina town where she said coming out “wasn’t even an option” and it took her until college to even address her sexuality within herself, much less anybody else.

“My coming out involved a lot of various steps, from small and some really big, so it kind of lasted for a while,” Heather said. “For so long, I really I felt like such a weirdo and going to college and having my mind opened and seeing all these different types of people, it allowed me this space to really figure myself out. Luckily I have a lot of great group of friends in college.” It was while attending University of North Carolina at Wilmington that she felt comfortable to come out to her peers, and slowly to her family.

“I had come out to my mom, my dad, my brother — but I kind of had to keep coming out to my family,” Heather said. “I just tried to look for other examples of people who had come out and felt empowered and people who were really successful in that. It took a long time.”

Heather didn’t come out to her extended family until last year North Carolina was coming up on a big vote for Amendment One, which limits the kinds of domestic unions recognized in the state, which already defines marriage as between “a man and a woman.”

“I had been doing so much outreach and been so visible in the queer community, politically, in this bubble where I live and nationally, I’d been on tour with the Indigo Girls and Amy Ray and it’s never been something I’ve hidden from. But I realized I needed to tell everyone in my family,” Heather said. “They needed to know they knew someone. Maybe they didn’t see someone who was queer or lesbian or gay in our little small town where I grew up, but they knew someone now, who was suffering from what this amendment could do. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it felt really good.”

Ultimately the amendment passed, but Heather is glad to have gone through with it.

“This vote on Amendment One really raised a lot of awareness,” she said. “It’s a slow process and I have homophobic people in my family. It hurts and is really frustrating but I know that’s changing and I can see it, even in those situations. At some time in my life I have felt there’s no way their minds will ever be changed. We may never get to the same place, but things are changing. And my hope is that people will let go of the fear that they hold and the hate that they hold. We can’t force it. We can’t change people’s minds or their hearts, we can just be ourselves and keep raising awareness and be visible. I would say it’s going to take some more time and take some more fight. There’s a lot of people who are still very stuck.”

Having come from the punk scene, Heather said she never felt unsafe despite playing “a lot of basement shows for straight dudes.” She credits her male bandmates for being supportive and protective, as they also played benefits for equality causes and felt visibility was important.

“There are a lot of outcasts in the punk community and you all kind of get together and raise your fists, but I wouldn’t say it was the queerest experience I’ve had,” Heather said. “I will say the ladies in the punk scene and certainly the queers, we find each other. And I felt very supported in that respect.”

Heather said she carries “that punk spirit” into Mount Moriah, despite the bands being two completely different sounds. Her voice is made for country, though, and on songs like “Those Girls,” the queer theme coupled with her dominant drawl are both informed and inspired by her multifaceted life.

Those girls have had an eye on you since you moved to town/You can take them home as long as no one finds out./Oh but the morning’s another story/And they’re off to swing their hops for him again.

There’s a clear wrestling of faith happening on Miracle Temple, which is something Heather said she is still struggling with, and that the album’s songwriting process has proven to be cathartic for.

“For many, many years — 10 or 15 years — I kind of didn’t allow myself to be [religious],” Heather said. “I wasn’t aware that there was a possibility it could intersect in that way because of my representation of what it was to be Christian or religious came along with a lot of negativity and a lot of pain. And I didn’t want to look at it and retain that. Part of it is, on this new record, I’m asking for certain people — if I’m going to ask other people lay down their guards, I need to do the same. That’s what I’m trying to do in my personal life and I think you can see that in this record.”

One person Heather credits for helping her see there can be a marriage of queerness and faith is Amy Ray, who has been a mentor of sorts for Heather.

“At first it was very surreal. I remember listening to her music when I was first starting to kind of chip away at the walls of who I thought I was,” Heather said. “So to have her as this very intimate personal mentor who’s really really beyond willing, she was just excited to share and give advice about the industry or just to talk to me about how to talk to my family and how to navigate as an artist who’s sort of breaking out but is also is an artist who has to deal with the complexity of being queer on top of that. She’s provided such a strong presence for me. We talk all the time now and she sang on our record and I consider her a really good friend, and someone who has made it possible for me to be where I’m at. She’s really paved the way for a lot of queer musicians and she’s taken a lot of heat and I really admire and respect her.”

Heather still lives in Wilmington and recorded Miracle Temple in Nashville, so the Southern spirit is very much still a part of her daily life. Despite living “a comfortable life in a progressive bubble,” she still seeks guidance from Amy as someone who has been through the same kinds of things she’s going through now and will continue to face as her story continues to be heard. After all, country music and queers still don’t quite connect on a major level.

“I knew I was going in to write this Southern rock country record and I actually reached out to Amy and she recommended that Chely Wright documentary, and that was really powerful for me,” Heather said. “And this sort of pie in the sky goal would be — it’d be great to have some sort of mass audience where you could kind of trickle into that CMT crowd. But we’ll see.”

The CMT crowd could benefit from some stories like Heather’s, as surely a lot of them have grappled with the same kinds of feelings she has, and might not have even allowed themselves the opportunity to question the things she has and continues to do. Just writing the music has helped Heather grow to understand herself and who she is and who she can be.

“A lot of this record was therapy for me. I dug really deep to try and forgive and describe a lot of fear,” she said. “These lyrics, they’re so personal and I’m just really trying to understand my own life through them. And it’s great when they can impact other people if it reaches them.”

Miracle Temple is out today on Merge Records.

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