.Secret Emchy Society: Queer country music from Oakland’s Honky Tonk Heroes

Cindy Emch, songwriter, guitarist and lead singer of the Secret Emchy Society, opens her band’s latest album, Gold Country/Country Gold, with a radical reinvention of the Willie Nelson hit, “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond Of Each Other.” It’s a fitting introduction to the album and another essential track from one of the Bay Area’s leading queer country bands. 

“That song has a long, hidden story behind it, not unlike much gay history,” Emch said. “Wille made it famous, but I’ve been digging around to find the story behind it. It was written by Ned Sublette, a Latino country music songwriter. It’s one of the only songs he’s written that’s widely known. I thought it would be great to start the album on a familiar note, and bring my own sense of pathos and drama to it. It’s a well-known tune, but the way I do it is different than Nelson’s sparse, ballad version. I’ve gotten feedback in the past that, despite the fact that I’m a queer person making country music, my music wasn’t queer enough. This seemed like the perfect answer to that. I wanted to revisit the song and make it the anthemic first track on the album. The way I do it, it brings a bit of gay melodrama to the old west.”

The rest of Gold Country is just as compelling. The band’s core members—Emch on electric and acoustic guitar, Tolan McNeil on lead guitar and backing vocals, Hans Winold on upright bass and drummer and backing vocalist Michele Kappel—are joined by special guests to fill out the arrangements. “We leaned into a kick the door down sound in places, for a harder edge,” Emch said. “Something About the Moon” is a rocking ballad, with distorted guitars and a backbeat with a taste of funk. Emch sings it with a simmering passion. “I Wish I Was in Texas with You” is a love song in waltz time, with bright, twang heavy guitar fills. Emch yodels the tag line of “Think I Do,” a country flavored blues, with an exuberance that suggests a radio hit from the ’50s. Winold’s cheery acoustic bass and Emch’s bright vocal make “Oceola” perfect for line dancing. It’s Emch’s sentimental look back at her childhood home. 

“Early in my college years, I came out to my friends as queer. I had crushes all along the gender spectrum, but I was primarily lesbian identified. No one was surprised. Friends and teachers told me they were glad I’d figured it out. They said they always knew I was gay. Once I knew there was a word for what I felt, I never shied away from being out, in every situation I was in. When I began performing music and putting bands together, the music always came out Americana and folk influenced, ultimately landing in country.  

“Maybe it was growing up on Willie Nelson and Leonard Cohen, but when I go to write songs, they always start in a quiet, vulnerable place. This is a bit hilarious, in a way, since once things are ready to go at shows, and I perform on stage, I tend to be more raucous. I’ve been in a bunch of bands. Vagabondage was an Americana/Roots band with old timey leanings; Rhubarb Whiskey, Feral and the Oakland Wine Drinkers Union were solidly country. It seems like no matter what the inspiration or spark for a song is, once the music goes through my creative heart, it’s going to end up country.”

As she gets ready for the May 20 release of Gold Country, Emch is ready to embark on the next phase of her musical  journey.  “Right now, the greatest challenge in my life is trying to balance everything. I have a day job that takes up 40 to 60 hours a week, writing music and rehearsing with the band takes up about 25 or 30 hours. I also program a monthly radio show on Gimme Country radio—Emchy’s Outlaw Americana. That takes time. The band is starting to tour and play dates again, which takes up a lot of my attention. Plus, I have my wife and friends, and chosen family to keep up with, so it’s pretty hard. I wish I could clone myself a few times over to get more sleep. Since the band is still up and coming, it’s a constant hustle to get the music out there and stay connected to people. Now that we are on Broken Clover Records it helps, but we are always working, all of the time.

“That’s why I’m glad I live in Oakland. I’m close to the ocean and the redwoods and I love the diversity of the population. The art, music and LGBTQ2+ communities are accessible and amazing. The feeling of friendship and community feeds me, personally and artistically. As things open up, and I’m out in the world more, interacting with people, it gets my wheels turning, creatively.” 

One can find The Secret Emchy Society at emchy.bandcamp.com and listen to Emchy’s Outlaw Americana at gimmecountry.com. 

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