Dubbed the “queer country trailblazer,” Karen Pittelman is carving out a safe space for country musicians who feel ostracized from the genre that drives their work
It wasn’t immediately clear to Karen Pittelman what her new album would be about.
But when she played “Guaranteed Broken Heart” for a friend, she suddenly knew it would set the tone for the entire project. “What I most want to do is connect to what everybody’s gone through,” Pittelman says. “I want to find the ways that all of our hearts are broken so that they can break open together.”
From Guaranteed Broken Heart’s opening twang through the wistful ending of “You’re My Country Music,” the album is about accepting the uncomfortable can’t-stand-to-be-in-my-own-skin feelings that coincide with heartbreak and finding resilience through the process. As much as the album confronts the struggle Pittelman faced in the wake of a breakup that resulted in losing a partner and bandmate, it also engages with one of the biggest battlegrounds in music in this moment.
Every genre can be boiled down to a social construct that was real or imagined at its genesis: the punks have a problem with authority, the goths revel in emotionally dark spaces and crooners are hopeless romantics. It’s too simplistic to boil a genre down to one generalization like this, but that’s what we as listeners tend to do: When we think of dance music, we think of a room full of pulsating lights with a DJ bopping alone in a corner; when we think of classical music, we think of a conductor guiding a cluster of tidy-looking musicians in a concert hall. And when we think of country music, odds are good a cowboy hat and pickup truck factor into the image that comes to mind.
All that is part of a larger conversation about the pros and cons of assigning a song, album or artist to a genre. What concerns Pittelman is what happens later, when an artist has pledged their work to a musical style but feels unwelcome to create within that space. As a queer woman in country, Pittelman feels that estrangement on several fronts.
“When you have that relationship with a song or album or artist, it’s devastating to then realize that person doesn’t see you or care about your existence,” Pittelman says. “If you never see anybody making art who looks like you, who’s had similar experiences to you, it does start to feel lonesome.”
The deep-rooted values of country music make it perhaps the trickiest genre in which to start a revolution. But the recent rise of The Highwomen and the public coming out announcement Lil Nas X made after topping the charts with “Old Town Road” earlier this year indicate the genre is open to change. From Pittelman’s perspective as an underground country artist who proudly—if humbly—declares herself a “queer country trailblazer,” she certainly thinks there’s room for growth.
Pittelman began her group Karen & the Sorrows in 2011 and released two albums with former bandmates Elana Redfield and Tami Johnson before parting ways with them last year. Pittelman has always been the band’s lyricist, so the biggest thing that’s changed in the studio since forging her own path is the strength of her veto power.
“I got to be selfish,” she says with a laugh. “From the moment a song came to me I got to keep imagining it all the way through.”
Pittelman is the kind of person who radiates positivity and is quick to laugh at herself and the things that strike her as ridiculous. Her opinions are carefully considered and well-researched—Pittelman calls herself the “Leslie Knope” of the recording studio and brings that style akin to the fearless leader of Parks and Recreation in her approach to seemingly every task she tackles, from her organization of the queer country community to the articles she publishes on culture and politics. She describes her personality as writerly, aided by index cards, binders and charts. She also admits to hanging photos of singers and producers she admires from the 1990s in the studio to keep her inspiration for Guaranteed Broken Heart focused.
Pittelman is an active organizer within the queer country community: she launched the Queer Country Quarterly concert series and works to create a safe space for musicians who feel left out by the genre so that when their time to tour comes around, they have friends upon whom they can call. “Tour is definitely a time when you can feel very vulnerable,” she says. “It makes all the difference to have friends in the states you’re going to who are in the queer country community.” She sees herself as a nuts and bolts kind of coordinator—as she points outs, “someone’s got to make the binder”—and appreciates the small successes behind a movement that are often overlooked. But in reality, she’s operating on all levels to bring about change.
In an article titled “Another Country” that Pittelman published last December through Medium, she picks apart several problems she associates with country music, most significantly the way the genre fosters a culture in which white supremacy is ignored, successful women are seen as threats to the status quo and queer country doesn’t exist. Pittelman’s main focus in “Another Country” is how the racism that thrived in the Tin Pan Alley years enabled those in power to dictate who the music was for and who made it, regardless of how truthful those terms were. “That’s the problem with country music: usually it’s implicit, who’s welcome there,” Pittelman says.
The result of those early efforts was a genre dominated by white men that allowed the stereotypes listeners commonly associate with country today (boys in cowboy hats, girls in faded blue jeans, pickup trucks and hearty meals with apple pie desserts) to fester. On the surface, a lot of country music implies “good American values”—but as Pittelman points out, there’s a lot of racist and sexist power dynamics rooted beneath those advertised values that make it difficult for people who operate outside of the genre’s narrow lanes to fit in.
Pittelman believes country’s premise is at odds with a significant chunk of its audience—and that leaves just enough wiggle room for change. “There are a lot of women in country who are being really vocal, and I do think that helps push the needle,” Pittelman says. When she began her work with Queer Country Quarterly, she was surprised by the strength of the response. “As soon as I started, it was like everybody had just been waiting,” she says. “Right away people started coming up to me, being like, ‘Oh I have a queer country band.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean? We just made that up!’ Of course there’s always been LGBT people in country music from the beginning; there’s a long history of that. But I couldn’t find anybody explicitly creating a space like this.”
The genre’s widely-recognized stereotypes also factor into Pittelman’s belief that change is possible. “Country was constructed as a genre about being connected to the past, about that sense of nostalgia and longing for home and timelessness. But those elements are totally artificial and constructed,” she says. “That’s why you have to work so hard to create that kind of nostalgia, because it’s always a lie. And it’s so useful politically. If there’s stuff you want to cover up about the past, what better way to do it?”
VIDEO: Karen & The Sorrows “Guaranteed Broken Heart”
In some ways, country is music’s version of “things were better in the good ’ole days.” And while many genres are built off the loosely defined notions of the few, it’s incredible how easily listeners of all social, cultural and political backgrounds swallow those constructs. The danger comes when history is rewritten, especially when it happens in service of an outside power. Country certainly isn’t the only genre in which these unbalanced power dynamics play out, but it is one Pittelman believes could be accepting of new voices—so long as its tightly-held values are open to some simple rephrasing.
“If you just believe that you shouldn’t judge your neighbor, we’re golden, right? You can get pretty far with that,” Pittelman says. “You don’t have to be red or blue or have some political theory. You just have to believe in hillbilly humanism and believe it’s not for you to judge others.”
After all, there’s a reason Pittelman chose to create country music. A lot of the tropes the genre embraces resonate with her, too. “I love all kinds of classic country,” she says. “Everybody sitting on their porch with their mom and their dog, eating apple pie, looking at the trees and talking about trains—all of those things are great. It’s just, I’m not interested in getting behind that erasure of our actual history. I think there’s a version of country music that tells the truth about our history, and I actually think that’s more organic to what country music really is. It’s about telling the truth about our lives, which includes all of that violence and struggle.”
Pittelman describes the moments she spends onstage playing to an audience as the “best feeling in the world,” the time when she’s able to connect with others through shared appreciation of music. She knows that forging connections with strangers of all different backgrounds is possible because she’s seen it happen; we all have. Music can be a powerful unifying force; it can break hearts and stir hope and inspire just as forcefully as it does for the artists who create it. But it can also be used to draw boundaries and exclude those who are made to feel “other.”
“It hurts my feelings to think about all the country music we don’t get to hear because of the way this industry is constructed, the way country talks about itself and about who it’s supposed to belong to,” Pittelman says. But she’s seen progress in the eight years since starting her band and she believes the genre will continue to grow more accepting of new perspectives. “I just think there’s so much potential in country music. It has this radical tradition that we are not tapping into as much as we could. The right and conservatives have tapped into country music’s power, but we can do it too! It belongs to us just as much.”
Pittelman may not be the loudest voice in country now, but she’s certainly one the genre’s best advocates. Her extensive criticism comes from a genuine love for the sounds and styles that she relates best to as a musician. That tenderness comes through clearly on Guaranteed Broken Heart, an album that embraces the self-growth and human connection values that Pittelman wants to stick with the genre amid the structural changes she’s proposing. At the end of the day, Pittelman wants a safe space in which she can create music and enjoy it with others who seek solace, as she does, from life’s struggles. She may not have envisioned herself the architect of that space, but she embraced the task and decided to continue pushing one show and one album at a time, the vision of something better clear in her mind’s eye.
“I would like this album to be able to keep people company,” Pittelman says. “That’s what I look for from the music I love. I don’t expect it to necessarily make me feel better, or certainly not solve my problems or cheer me up. I expect it to walk with me through a hard time, keep me company and let me know I’m connected to something bigger than me.
“There are a lot of conversations I want to have about country music,” she says. “But what I most want this record to say is, you don’t have to go through your heartbreak alone.”
AUDIO: Karen & The Sorrows Guaranteed Broken Heart (full album)