Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
I spent the summer of 2019 studying Russian language in Tbilisi, Georgia with 10 other American students. The country of Georgia is infectious in its benign nationalism—in some ways, all the time my group spent in the capital city felt like a prolonged, interactive sales pitch. There were ornate storefronts filled with construction materials in empty neighborhoods, bogus online blog posts calling Tbilisi the Paris of the East, and a vast, misleading marketing campaign proclaiming Georgian wine’s status as the best in the world.
When I decided I wanted to try to get into rural journalism, I heard a lot about the “cheerleader effect”—the strong aversion to writing negative stories about one’s own hometown, the universal desire to avoid kicking a beloved place while it’s down. It reminded me of all the time I spent in high school fundraising to print t-shirts for the cheering section during a losing basketball season, and how I once tried to bully the entire freshman class into learning our school song. I was trying to manifest school spirit, to pull it out of thin air and make other people feel it.
That summer in Georgia, Senora May’s album Lainhart was the only one downloaded on my phone. I was listening to these songs, which paint a nuanced and complicated image of home and family, while repeatedly trying to decide if I should purchase a pair of socks embroidered with a cartoon of Georgian cuisine. I thought about what it means to try and sell an idea of a place, and the utter lack of beauty in that pursuit.
Georgia is a wonderful country. The mountains surrounding the Tbilisi valley are beautiful, the khinkali are delicious, the people are kind. I could go on. I just wish I’d felt more free to make my own judgments about the place. Instead, I spent the summer measuring my experience against the ad campaign.
Senora May’s songs about her Eastern Kentucky home make room for complexity; the alma mater, not so much.
This week, a couple years after Senora’s debut album took root in my brain, I got to talk to her about her newest album, a Valentine’s Day release called All of My Love. I was able to ask my burning questions about how she talks and thinks about home, and pick her brain a little for music recommendations. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: The new album is a collection of love songs from throughout your life. Can you tell me about the range of time periods/locations/head-spaces you were in when writing these songs? How far apart in time were the first and last songs written? I imagine the different tracks might be like snapshots of different time periods in your life. Am I right about that?
Senora May: The songs on All of My Love are definitely nostalgic for all the phases of my relationship. The earliest song I wrote was Colors. I wrote it when my husband and I moved to West Virginia around March 2013. We had been dating for about one month, I’d just graduated from Berea College and applied for 19 different Americorps Vista positions across the nation, and this was the first one to get back to me. I said, “hey babe, ya wanna move to Pocahontas County West Virginia with me? I’ve been offered a local foods job there” and he didn’t hesitate, he just said yeah, why not? So we moved into this tiny studio apartment that a baker was renting and we fell in love there, getting stoned, hiking everywhere, driving my VW van out on the weekends to Maryland, Virginia Beach, Warm Springs, the Monongahela, Cranberry Glades… It was a super dreamy time period where I was, for the first time in my life, far enough from my family to miss them fondly but close enough to feel at home.
The last song written on the album was No Sweeter Thing. It kinda fell into place last fall, as I was narrowing lists of songs to include on the album. I wrote it within a day or something, it just kinda poured out of me like pouring a cup of coffee. I just felt so good, you know? So grateful for the love I felt from my partner, grateful for the time we had together off the road. We had time to cook healthy and wholesome meals, form regular schedules, detox, decompress, read books, focus on each other, feeding our animals, no expectations of the outside world, just being around each other without people. There’ve been times I thought I could only write when shit was going wrong in my life, but this album really serves as a testament to myself as an artist. It proved to me that I am able to create, regardless of what people want or expect from me, regardless of what I think I am capable of or not. It really did me good to make it.
DY: I’ve experienced Lainhart as really concentrated on a place: home, Kentucky, “the country.” All of My Love seems to draw influence from lots of places and cultures. Is there a conceptual difference between the two albums that reflects that?
SM: Lainhart is my maiden name, and it was truly a dedication to this idea of myself, this woman I was raised to be that serves and gives respect and abides. It’s set with a backdrop that shows my family nestled in the hills of Kentucky planting perfect rows in lush gardens, working their fingers to the bone, spending hours preserving and preparing food for one another, playing their roles based on their genders, that their ancestors taught them without speaking out loud. That album was about place, because my family is so invested in this place, every bird and crop and practice of place ingrained in my family fiber as tightly as a newly stitched quilt.
All of My Love on the other hand, is spread out across the nation, written in stolen away moments in the back of tour buses, nights alone in executive suites while my husband played his own shows. Dogs of Mexico was written in Todos Santos, Mexico when we were half a world apart, Love You More in a hotel in Solingen, Germany on a solo tour across Europe. Since my husband and I got together, it seems like we’ve been on the move, more often that not in different directions. While we’ve kept each other and home in our hearts, this album had to be about connection, over distances. It’s not set in any one place but caressed by a million different hands buying tickets to shows, sparked by clinking glasses under chandeliers in Brooklyn and LA, inspired by memories of holding one another, Facetime promises and teary eyed smiles. Places change you, experiences harden you, but love keeps us sane. This album is about the glue that kept us from unraveling, being so far from home, and from together. Location isn’t as vital, because to be honest, sometimes we moved so fast, we couldn’t remember where we were. We just kept loving each other.
DY: Artists releasing their archives seems to be a major trend in the past year. I’m thinking of Gillian Welch releasing nearly fifty unheard songs this year because the process of saving old tapes from a tornado made her realize she must be saving them for something. What inspired you to send these songs out in the world?
SM: For a long time, I told myself I shouldn’t share love songs about my partner. Individuality and keeping personal and work separate are very important to me and it’s not all that easy, as an artist married to a more well known artist. Anyway, after seeing all the hate people had been spreading, I felt a change in myself. I felt like I was being selfish, to keep such a strong love and the songs inspired by it, to myself. Maybe others could hear them, and feel the love I felt in making them. Maybe they needed that and I was keeping it from them because I couldn’t see past the sexism and ill intent of fans that weren’t mine. I quit caring what my husband’s fans expected of me, or demanded of me. I quit caring that they were jealous, or hurt that he’s mine. I quit caring that maybe they only saw me as his thing and not as a separate person capable of anything. I quit caring that so many of them found me via their curiosity of who he was with. These songs are not about them. These songs aren’t for them. They’re for me and my man, and anyone else who wants to feel love in a dark time.
DY: I’ve gathered from past interviews (obviously correct me if I’m wrong) that you still live near where you grew up. An eternal question for me—and one that I think will resonate with a lot of readers of the Daily Yonder—is how do you make a life you’re proud of that feels true to who you are in a relatively isolated and old-fashioned place? I’m not trying to imply that there’s one way to do so, or that all rural places are the same. I’m just really curious about how you, specifically, have been able to do it. What guides your biggest choices about how to live?
SM: I live where I grew up because I feel so at peace here. Over time, I’ve learned enough from outsiders that certain things are looked down upon about my culture and I’ve grown through those feelings of being less. In college and on the road, I learned there is so much more to be proud of about where I’m from and the people that I know and love. Appalachia is a grossly misunderstood paradise. It is diverse and giving and completely rich in culture. Just listen to the music, taste the flavors, look at the growing, harvesting, preserving, the cherished knowledge passed on and shared and there’s no way to claim something different.
I feel so much connection to the women that came before me here too. They are why I speak out against stereotypes and gender roles on my stage. I do my best to honor all the strong mountain women that set an example for me. Just because people who are ignorant generalize us, put us down, and write us off as having no valuable contributions to society, art, scholarly work, doesn’t make it reality. We are so much more than our warm hugs, and passionate love, more even than our praised recipes and endless hours canning in the kitchen or stringing beans on the porch. I love where I’m from, and so I see only one way to live. I grow a garden, have lived without basic amenities, value hard work and reward, because that’s the way I was raised, and that’s the example that others may need in order to find their own value here.
Once you’re in rural Kentucky long enough, and you really open yourself to it, you might start to let go of material things, you might start to value the things that really matter, like people, and food, and the process of growing and tending to both.
DY: I watched the documentary you made about creating the new album and was really struck by the community and togetherness you were able to construct in that process. What did it feel like to be engaged in such a communal activity after the year we’ve all had?
SM: Having time with and making friends with people around the recording of my own songs for this album was so refreshing. After spending months alone, cooped up, in a pandemic, then being tested and isolating to ensure we could be together safely, we all flourished in that space together. It felt like everything happened for a reason, and I just kept feeling such gratitude to God, to everyone around me for letting us have that. I kept saying in my mind, “This is such a beautiful experience! How am I so lucky?” We have to keep hope, and feeling that community and connection with complete strangers, in such a short time together, just gave me so much hope for the future. I will never forget that week, and all the amazing musicians who came together and played my songs for me to bask in.
DY: What are you reading or listening to right now? Any recommendations?
SM: I am currently reading Janice Holt Giles’s Mrs. Willie, and plan to read Margaret Atwood’s Dearly next. Lately, I’ve been switching back and forth between Ari Lennox, Roger Miller, Junglepussy, Karen Dalton, and the Queen & Slim soundtrack. I recommend all of the above.
DY: Big thanks to Senora May for taking the time to chat with us this week, and if you’re already itching for more from this rural songstress (aren’t we all?) you’re in luck—she’ll be sharing a short performance at Rural Assembly Everywhere in April.
Rural Assembly Everywhere returns on April 20 and 21. Don’t miss this virtual festival, featuring rural leaders and culture bearers, including authors, musicians, poets, and more. Learn more and register.
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This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.