The mainstream country music business sometimes resembles a soft-serve-ice-cream machine, churning out songs about holding hands on the front porch, pickup trucks, and the purity of rural life (minus the meth) sung by hunky guys in cowboy hats or super-bleached blonds.
As a Black queer woman from Princeton, New Jersey with a degree in literature from Stanford, Lizzie No breaks most of these stereotypes. Her alt-country songs contain the romantic simplicity of the best of country music old and new, exchanging the boilerplate for lyrics that rely on human emotion and life experience. Yet her life and music also have a strong political viewpoint, singing and speaking about LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and racial equality.
So the obvious question to a woman who is “young, gifted and Black” is—Why country?
“I have been into roots music since high school, playing and singing in bands,” No says from her apartment in Brooklyn. “But all throughout my childhood I had vocal issues, nodes, bronchitis, raspiness, not the quality of voice for a pop singer. But I also admire much about country, the storytelling, the message of work, family, hard times, often geographically specific, it can be very powerful.”
No’s 2017 debut album, “Hard Won,” garnered immediate attention and praise, as Billboard called it “simultaneously understated and fervent.” Her second album, “Vanity,” (2019) furthered her career, earning praise from Rolling Stone and leading to performances at the Newport Folk Festival and South by Southwest. But instead of veering toward commercial fame, No turned her talents toward many political causes.
In 2017 she released the single “Sundown,” directing the proceeds toward Black Lives Matter. No lends her time to Abortion Care Tennessee, which provides funding for women exercising reproductive choice. She is also involved in Black Opry, an organization for Black artists in country, folk and roots music, and helps to organize events like Queer Country Line Dancing in her neighborhood.
“The queer country line dancing is incredible,” No says. “It provides a link between country and queer culture, and everybody in one room all singing and dancing together gives us a sense of community and belonging, a place where we can be ourselves.”
No has just released her third major album, “Halfsies.” The first single and video, “The Heartbreak Store,” is a song about a place where people suffering from lost love and heartbreak can gather and trade them in for hope and redemption. With simple acoustic guitar and light production, it harkens back to the early roots of country. “Deadbeat” follows this same tradition. It also features No playing classical harp, another one of her many talents. “Done” and “Mourning Dove Waltz” also cover the territory of broken relationships, while “Lagunita” and “Getaway Car” groove to more of a rock beat, painting a picture of new horizons and change, themes that matter to No.
“It would be nice to win awards and get platinum albums,” No says, “but it’s much more important to me to be part of the revolution of the working class, and hopefully my music can energize people who are doing the work of the revolution.”
Lizzie No will perform as part of the Cosmic Country Showcase at Sleeping Village, 3734 West Belmont, on January 26; doors 7:30pm, show 8:30pm. Tickets $17 here.