BRATTLEBORO—Singer-songwriter Eli Conley, touring the East Coast with his band, will visit Brattleboro on April 22 for a performance at The Root Social Justice Center.
Conley, a native of rural Virginia who now lives in the Bay Area of California, “crafts modern day folk songs for misfits,” according to his press release. His music connects the gap between city- and country-boy — think early Elton John, especially Tumbleweed Connection — by merging progressive and traditional themes with roots-based instrumentation.
Folk music is “in my musical DNA,” says Conley. His mother grew up in a rural farm family in Delaware, and his father is from the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. When Conley was a child, he says, “my dad had thousands of records in the garage, and an encyclopedic knowledge of folk music."
“There was never a question of what kind of music I’d write,” he says, noting the love he has of the authenticity of the Americana genre.
Although during his early years as a songwriter, friends would encourage him to add electronic instruments to his pieces, “electronic doesn’t resonate with me in my body,” and acoustic instruments felt like the ideal fit. So, Conley stuck with it.
Still, he was concerned with authenticity. Conley notes his day-to-day speaking voice is mostly devoid of a Virginia accent, but “my accent comes out when I sing.” Conley spoke to his sister about it, asking if it sounded “affected,” and she assured him “singing with an accent is authentic — this is the way our family sounds.”
And, Conley decided, “if my sister said it’s okay, then it’s okay."
Following the lead of one of his biggest influences, Pete Seeger, Conley sings about rural, Southern poverty and the often-misguided political response to it — more coal mines, more prisons — with sensitivity and compassion, as evidenced in Dry As Sin, which ends with the following: “Name each white man a cop, each brown man a thief/And you’ve paved every back road with certainmost grief."
Where Conley’s lyrics especially reveal his two-spirited bridge between modern and old-fashioned are in his songs about love, both found and lost, and identity. Conley, who is transgender, brings a sensibility not often found in popular music’s approach to these universal topics.
In Conley’s “Pinocchio,” which he contributed to Hold On Another Day, Project Believe In Me, a nationally distributed CD to combat youth bullying, he sings: “Pinocchio, you are a boy/ it doesn’t take no fairy blue/ much less a therapist, three doctors and a knife/ to cut your flesh and make you real/you are as real as dreams come true.”
“When God Sets His Sights On You,” the opening track on Conley’s 2013 album, At The Seams, begins with a couplet setting a typical country-and-western scene: “Mary Ann waits tables nightly/Down at Jack’s on Highway Two.”
But then, this: “Her daughter Jean started acting strangely/She cut her hair, she’s wearing old men’s boots.”
Jean goes on to tell her mother that “she’s been seeing someone pretty steady", and “her name’s Danielle.” When Mary Ann attempts to get Jean to “pray out these demons,” Jean realizes she has her own prayer to sing. “She’s got love to give, and she’s got a life to live,” the song says, before sending Jean off to “Californ’” in her truck, with “her favorite kitten/her toothbrush, a couple of shirts and her mom’s guitar.”
Although Conley, like the fictional Jean, left his arcadian home for “Californ’,” he doesn’t believe LGBTQ folks “need to live in the city” to find community, and that Vermont has a notable base of “rural Queers” is one thing that attracts Conley to the state, and makes him excited to play here for the first time.
“Vermont is small and rural, but progressive,” he says, noting his relief to see that artists and Queers, among others, are building and maintaining strong communities.
Plus, Conley says, “the landscape is incredible” here. Every time he visits the state, he says, “I’ll just sit outside and enjoy the beauty."