The Names of Things, the debut album from Brooklyn queer country band Karen & the Sorrows, is full of “haunting pedal steel work and unvarnished heartbreak.” (Bust Magazine) Voted one of the Freeform American Roots Chart’s best debut albums of 2014, the record is “some of the best alt-country being made. Twang-drenched drown-your-sorrows music about bad relationships, abandoned lovers and endless heartbreak. In other words, pure country.” (Billings Gazette) New York Music Daily writes, “Country keeps evolving and Karen & the Sorrows are taking it to a place it’s never been before, a good and creepy one.” Fuck Yeah, Queer Music says, “They write loss and heartbreak, and goddamn are they good at it. The songs are quiet, but devastating, with a good mix of dirty electric guitar and absolutely haunting pedal steel.”
Shaped around the high, lilting vocals of singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman and Elana Redfield’s lonesome pedal steel guitar, these are tales of broken hearts, broken bones, and the languages that get lost when love is gone. There’s a strain of ghostly prettiness running through these songs that calls to mind Julee Cruise. But that softness is paired with a dark twang and a strong beat that roots the band in the tradition of the 1970s country rock—from Pure Prairie League to Neil Young—that Redfield and Pittelman grew up with. Working together with engineer Charles Burst (Crystal Stilts, The New Pornographers, Gang Gang Dance) at Brooklyn’s Seaside Lounge, the Sorrows have created an alt-country sound that is all their own.
The band is also at the center of a growing queer country scene, building community for people who love country music even if country music doesn’t always love them back. They co-produce an annual Gay Ole Opry music festival, sharing the stage with bands like Mount Moriah, Humble Tripe, and local favorites My Gay Banjo, and host Branded Saloon’s popular Queer Country Monthly. When the time came to record, Pittelman called on many of their local friends to help out, including a chorus of musicians who have played the Queer Country Monthly and who close out the album’s final song “Star.”
Though Pittelman grew up in New York City, far from country’s stronghold, her father was traveling to Nashville for much of her childhood, shooting commercials with legends like George Jones and the Oak Ridge Boys for his company Heartland Music’s compilation albums. She was singing in a punk band when her country past first caught up with her in 2009. After a year of secretly writing country songs and dreaming about the sound of the pedal steel, she took it as fate when her band was booked to share a bill with the Low & the Lonesome—a local country group featuring Redfield on the pedal steel guitar. The two formed the Sorrows in 2011, joining forces with drummer Tami Johnson and bassist AJ Lewis and, in 2014, bassist Braque Hershberger. In 2012, they released Ocean Born Mary, a four-part song cycle EP based on a ghost story from Redfield’s New Hampshire hometown. A constant fixture in New York City’s clubs and bars, the Sorrows have since built a strong local following. They also hit the road as much as they can, playing across New England and the South.
Elana Redfield hails from the rocky lowlands of rural New Hampshire. As a guitar player, Elana’s philosophy is simply put: “Neil Young.” She is also a lover of twang and reverb in all their manifestations, from Bakersfield country to surf music to spaghetti westerns. After learning the basics of pedal steel from Austin-based musician Bob Hoffnar, Elana knew she had found the perfect instrument. She draws inspiration from such steel guitar forerunners as Jimmy Day, Greg Leisz, Cindy Cashdollar and Donna Hammit.
Karen Pittelman writes songs, poems, essays and non-fiction. She is the author of two books about social change philanthropy, Creating Change Through Family Philanthropy and Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change from Soft Skull Press, and is a long-time organizer around class privilege and the redistribution of wealth. She used to sing feminist slut rock in the band Royal Pink until her heart got broke so bad she had to switch to country. She’s rooted in the 70s country-rock she grew up with along with alt-country bands like The Drive-By Truckers, Magnolia Electric Co, and Whiskeytown. Also, she loves Tom Petty.
Noisemaker and drummer Tami Johnson was given a pair of sticks at the age of eight and has been practicing her rudiments ever since. Her arms slowly grew drumsticks at the end, and she’s played with many bands around the country. Her travels and musical interests landed her in Brooklyn, NY in August of 2001 where she will remain until she finds that gig in the sky that will allow her to just play.