I'm in the midst of finals so I'll keep this intro short!
I have so much respect for Justin Hiltner. I'm pretty sure he's the first musician I interviewed whom I hadn't already met. It was in this weird little hyper-gentrified masala chai shop that was owned by a rich white guy and only played trap music.* Justin was beaming in over Zoom or something, but audio-only and I was terrified I was going to make an ass of myself.
But that was 6 years ago, and Justin's career has taken turns that are just as surprising to him as anyone else. He was The Guy who sang "Silver Dagger" on NPR's hit podcast Dolly Parton's America. He's spent the last year or so in the orchestra of the touring production of the latest Oklahoma revival. Hiltner is also the chair of the board of Bluegrass Pride, a contributor to The Bluegrass Situation, and reprinted his essay about surviving cancer in issue 1 of Rainbow Rodeo. His new album, 1992, is out today.
I last saw Justin play in the Before Times, maybe early 2019, and I've been eagerly awaiting a recording of his powerful protest song "Oligarchs." The studio did indeed do it justice.
So let's welcome him back with a heart halloo in this week's Sweetheart of the Rodeo spotlight.
*The masala chai guy learned how to make it from his nanny. The prices were absurd and it was the only thing the shop sold so the whole thing was clearly a vanity project, but damn if it wasn't delicious.
Does your album have an overarching theme?
I think the throughline, if there is one, is me. That's part of why I wanted to make a truly solo album, just me and the banjo or me and the guitar or just my voice. I've enjoyed so much getting to collaborate in so many different lineups and contexts over the years, musically, but the story I've never told in any of those creative outlets is my own story. I wanted the project to showcase the width and depth and breadth of my musicality, my output, the narratives that built me, but take that story and tell it within very specific parameters – stark, solo, tracked live in single takes whenever possible. I think that's why this sometimes disparate or varied group of songs all make sense together, because I tie them all together. Not just in their telling, but in their writing and arrangement – and definitely their production!
Who would you love to collaborate with? Why?
I've been joking that even though this is a solo album, it's not a solitary one! I was so lucky to work with Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer co-producing and engineering. Anna Frick mastered the record and Laura Partain took the photos. All of that to say, working with these fine folks on 1992 reconfirmed for me that I never want to work on projects that are majority-male ever again. I feel so safe, respected, heard, challenged, cared for by women and femmes in this traditionally male and masculine industry. I would love to work again with my musical bestie Vickie Vaughn, do a duo record or something. The next record that I already have pretty much done and written, ready to track, I really would love to have Kelsey Waldon produce. I want to work with Laurie Lewis again. And, as is my tendency, I always always always want to be collaborating with queer folks in roots music. I've worked with so many as a writer, journalist, and community builder but I'd love to collaborate musically, too, with folks like Willi Carlisle, Amythyst Kiah, Jake Blount, Allison Russell, Hasee Ciaccio, Amanda Fields, and more.
What is your vision for a more just music industry?
I think a just future in music looks like not just being accepted within or re-absorbed into the mainstream – into the industry as a whole but also into normativity and acceptability and with it capitalism and white supremacy – but by building solidarity economies and musical and artistic communities that support and uplift ourselves and each other first and not just the executives or the industry or radio or what-have-you. We can absolutely advocate for better acceptance and representation within the industries we have now while also building a reality in which extractive industry isn't the only way to make a living playing music. Art is not a commodity!
Where are some places you’ve found joy within the country/Americana world?
Definitely in working with Bluegrass Pride, that crew of folks keeps me inspired, always. From its earliest days marching in the SF Pride Parade to now, as a non-profit working nationwide to uplift LGBTQ+ folks in roots music. It was such a joy to program and produce the only showcase of diversity in roots music at the International Bluegrass Music Association's business conference, World of Bluegrass, for five years starting in 2016. I guess I try to build community and center joy in everything I do in music, and I'm grateful birds of that particular feather tend to flock together.
I know this has been a work in progress for a while now! And you've been touring with Sexy Oklahoma. How has that experience been for you? Yes, part of why this album took so long to release was because of the pandemic and the delay of the Oklahoma! tour. I thought being on tour full time would give me plenty of time to release an album – just writing that now makes me laugh and cringe.
I absolutely loved doing the Oklahoma! tour, I basically manifested that gig after ten years of saying to myself, I'd really love to do theatre again and I'd especially love to do Broadway. It was challenging in so many ways and absolutely grueling, but I am so proud of the art that that cast and our band created eight shows a week. It was a polarizing piece of theatre, but I always believed in what it was trying to say, even if at times no one in the process, besides those of us on stage every show, prioritized that message. I think the message in the show and this production specifically is very similar to what I'm trying to ask with this record and my music as a whole: What if these iconic American art forms weren't just a sum of their stereotypes, but actually attempted to do and say something just and real and human?
How do you feel playing in a musical is different than playing in a band?
Wow, was it different. I spent a lot of time actually trying to get it to where it felt like a real band playing real songs to me, but there are just so many moving parts and so many variables, even in a very stripped down situation like this production of Oklahoma! It was challenging enough to make the show and music feel cohesive and real and engaging, let alone trying to make the music feel like a band and not just seven musicians backing up a musical. But I'm really proud of the music we made and the way we all showed up and gave it our absolute best. It was a very musical musical. I don't think it ever sounded canned or tired or like we had done it more than two hundred times. It feels so different to do those kind of reps with the exact same music every night. That's the biggest difference from a traditional band gig.
Do you feel a sense of whiplash between performing as part of this huge traveling community and releasing an album that's so intensely personal?
I think that's why I felt so compelled, so hungry to put this album out even while being spread so thin on tour full time. I missed having a voice, literally and figuratively, I missed purging very emotional and vulnerable and heart-on-my-sleeve songs in front of audiences. I appreciated the sheer volume of music I was able to make playing Oklahoma!, but I missed improvising, missed playing my own songs, missed recording, missed playing shows, missed audiences responding to my very specific music. So putting out this record, playing shows on off time, playing livestreams all gave me a voice while I was playing someone else's music full time. Sometimes it did feel like whiplash, but most often a good whiplash, like diving into the cool pool after being in the hot tub for a while.
Is there a professional “bucket list” item you would love to check off?
Honestly since the last one, being in a Broadway show, got checked off the list I'm feeling like manifesting the next thing I should be very, very deliberate. It might just happen! Haha I would love to write a memoir, I have a concept and a pitch. I need to just start putting it together piece by piece. And I need to stop having things happen in my life worth writing about so I know where the book ends. I'm also working on writing a screenplay based on some significant turns of events in my life. Then there are about five album's worth of songs ready to be recorded, and I'd say the collaborators I have in my sights for all of that music are all on my bucket list for sure. So many ideas on the bucket list!
Here are all of the queer country album releases this month! Let me know if I should add something to the list!
12/2 — Adeem the Artist, White Trash Revelry
12/9 — Justin Hiltner, 1992
Heather Mae has a Kickstarter going for a double-album of Americana and pop music — with an all-women production and musician crew. Pitch in today!
Lots of your queer country faves are on the No Depression Reader’s Poll! Vote early and often!
I’m writing articles again! Here’s my piece about Chris Housman’s incredible “Bible Belt” for The Boot. Honestly, one of the best songs of the year.
I also wrote up Ever More Nest’s gorgeous new song “Happy New Year” last week but forgot to link to it here. Patreon susbcribers can read Kelsey’s essay about being a queer American artist in New Orleans!
You can get almost 50% off the book Queer Country using this code: F21UIP
This thread gives advice on self-managed transition in Alabama and other states that restrict our bodily autonomy
12/31 — There’s gonna be a queer country New Year’s Eve party in Nashville featuring Chris Housman, Lila McCann, Autumn Nicholas, Shelley Fairchild, and Ty Herndon. Get your tickets now!
4/15 & 16 — The High Water Festival in Savannah, GA will feature a number of queer artists like Rainbow Kitten Surprise, SG Goodman, Orville Peck, Ezra Furman, and the Black Opry. Who’s buying a ticket for me?
Updated every two weeks!
Thanks to Catie Pearl-Hartling for making a parallel list on Apple Music!
Submit your music and events to The Q LGBTQ Creative Network
This Twitter thread has a whole list of places to find jobs in the music industry
And here’s a list of resources for “women” entering the music industry — presumably they also encourage nonbinary participants
Submit your profile to the Country Everywhere which seeks to unite BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled artists and professionals
Sign up to the Black Opry Revue’s interest form!
Check out the weekly Queerfolk Fest show in Nashville