BB EXCLUSIVE! Interview with Karen Pittelman of the Gay Ole Opry

Karen Pittelman is a writer,  a singer with Karen and the Sorrows, and  a co-producer of the Gay Ole Opry (which is exactly what it sounds like). I was lucky enough to ask her a few questions about country music, Brooklyn and the South, and  plans for expanding this downhome DIY event.  Read on as she deconstructs a very successful, and happy, homo hoe-down. 

BB:  I understand you all held a very successful country music event recently in Brooklyn and I want to hear more about that in a bit. But the first of my pressing questions is, how did you come to appreciate country music?

KP: I’m not the typical country music lover in some ways because I grew up in New York City. My father started a company called Heartland Music that made compilation albums sold on tv, and so for a good part of my childhood he was traveling back and forth to Nashville making commercials with people like George Jones, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Don Williams. He would put on the country station and play me all of these albums, and I HATED it! I wanted to listen to the Cure. Still, it became a deep part of my musical DNA. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, after suffering a great heartbreak, that my country music upbringing finally hit with its full force. Suddenly country was the only thing I wanted to hear–and the only thing I wanted to write.

BB: You enjoy the glamorous country music lifestyle so much you started a band. Tell me about it.

KP: Well, it was a little awkward when country music came for me because at the time I was singing in a punk band. But all I could think about was wanting to hear the pedal steel guitar. So about two years back when my old band wound up playing a show together with the Brooklyn country group the Low & the Lonesome, I asked their pedal steel guitar player, Lana Carroll, to sit in on one of my new songs. From that moment there was really no going back, and Lana helped me start the Sorrows.

But I have to admit, the rest of my band is much better at the glamorous country music lifestyle than me. I pass out after one shot of whiskey.

BB: What is your favorite line from a country music song: yours or anyone’s.

KP: It’s so hard to choose! I especially love the lyrics to The Grass is Blue by Dolly Parton. Everything about that song is just perfect. It always makes me cry. I think I’m cheating a little, since this is really more than one line, but…

And the rivers flow backwards
And my tears are dry
Swans hate the water
And eagles can’t fly
But I’m alright now
Now that I’m over you
And the sky is green
And the grass is blue

I’m also super-obsessed with the band Mount Moriah right now. Their song Lament opens with this amazing line: “If this will be anything, than let it be over.”

BB: Punk bands and country bands often tap into very different emotions and audiences. How did your songwriting change and what is one of your own favorite lyrics?

KP: I think punk is probably better for tapping into anger, as opposed to country’s ability to tap into sadness. Though is there anyone more punk than Johnny Cash? The truth is that almost all of Royal Pink’s songs were about sex, and both country and punk do a good job with that one. It has been a completely different songwriting process, though. These songs are much more personal. Especially since in Royal Pink I only wrote the lyrics, as opposed to now where I write both the music and lyrics. Which I love, probably because I’m a control freak. But I feel a little too shy to quote myself. Especially after I just quoted Dolly!

BB: As a Southerner who had to leave the South for many years before I could get back to fully loving some aspects of it, I have my theories about why it took a bunch of Brooklynites to reinvent the most iconic country music venue into something that embraces gay musicians. My theory being  that sometimes when you live too close to something, as we do down here, it can be hard to work around all the negative historical connotations of it, and find the good parts and the parts that have actually evolved without you knowing it. Having said all of that, tell me about how the idea of a Gay Ole Opry came about: who were the organizers, what did it look like and how was your first event received?

KP: That theory makes sense to me–though I think any kind of reinvention must be done with great love, care, and respect, especially in a place like Brooklyn. Otherwise you venture into the territory of ironic appropriation which I have zero interest in. Actually, a lot of the people working on this are from the south or the midwest–I’m one of the few native New Yorkers–so they’re bringing that culture and history with them. But it’s probably a lot easier to start carving out a space like this here where the country music scene itself is so small and non-territorial, and there’s a large, supportive queer population.

Originally, I just thought it would be fun to play a show with one of my favorite bands, My Gay Banjo, and to make it a big, gay country show. I figured if I threw in a bake sale, a raffle, and some dancing, maybe a few people would show up. It was my co-producer, Gina Mamone of Riot Grrrl Ink, who took everything to another level when she got involved–brought in DapperQ to put together the fashion show, made the merch, put her whole Riot Grrrl Ink army to work on promoting it. Then we started working together with the Big Apple Ranch, the city’s long-running queer country western dance party, and it all clicked. We had about 300 people there that night, and–this might sound sappy–but people just seemed really happy.

BB:  Well it sounds like an awesome amount of fun, and there is definitely something to be said about making people happy. There are gay country music fans all over the country, what are your plans to expand it?

KP: The Opry was such an amazing experience that I knew we had to try to keep it going. What that means, I’m still figuring out. We just started the Queer Country Monthly at the Branded Saloon, and Humble Tripe comes in from North Carolina to play at the next one on August 27th, which I’m super-excited about. We had an Opry in Philadelphia this weekend, and about 100 people were there even though we had no air conditioning! Plus, the next Brooklyn Opry is coming up on October 14th, and I want to make that a big extravaganza. But most of all, what I really want to do is to help create a network of queer country musicians across the country, so we can put on shows together and support each other. And so that there are more spaces where we can play music for all cowpeople. So if you’re in a queer country band–or you’re a queer country music fan and you want to help set up a show–email me!

You heard the lady, if you want the Gay Ole Opry in your town, get busy and email her with info about your hot country band, two-stepping group or venue. Come on, Atlanta, don’t make me fly to Brooklyn!

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