Maine music fans have known Cindy Bullens for a long time. Her “Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth” in 1999, featuring the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Ryan Adams, was a heartbreaking treatise on the loss of her 11-year-old daughter Jesse to cancer and a significant fundraiser for the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital.
Now it’s time to get to know Cidny Bullens.
That’s right, in 2011, not long after 2010’s “Howling Trains and Barking Dogs,” recorded in Hallowell with Bob Colwell, Cindy realized she’d been living life as a man in a woman’s body, changed her name to Cidny, and began transitioning from female to male.
Now, with “Walking Through this World” getting out into the world last week, he has released his first album as “Cid.”
“I didn’t feel like I could write at the beginning of my transition,” Bullens said, on the phone and driving from Nashville to Chicago with his wife to see her daughter. “It’s so consuming to change genders. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
But a couple years back, Bullens was being interviewed here in Maine for a documentary, “Invisible,” directed by T.J. Parsell, which profiles the gay women songwriters who contributed to country music. They were talking about “the gender line,” a line from Bullens’ one-man show, “Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life,” about his transition, which comes from his daughter:
“Mom, here’s the gender line. You’ve always been on this side, the female side; now you’re moving to the other side.”
Parsell loved that and told Bullens, “You should write a song called ‘The Gender Line.’”
Bullens brushed it off, he said, “like any creative does when someone tells you you have to do something.” But then, during a car ride back to New Mexico, “I came up with the first verse and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can do this.’”
It’s song No. 4 on the new album: “If you were me, what would you do,” he growls, over a slippery, low-down guitar riff. “You look in the mirror and it’s not really you/ You fumble around, for something to wear/ You feel invisible, you’re not really there/ Would you think you were crazy, out of your mind?/ You’re not in your body, you’re living a lie.”
In the bridge, it’s even less subtle: “Are you a boy, or are you a girl? It’s an easy answer in a binary world.”
For Bullens fans, that growl might come as a surprise, even if you know the situation. It’s different (obviously). And Bullens didn’t get a slot backing up Elton John on tour because his voice as a female was mediocre. Cid has less range, for sure, and less clarity of tone, but there are definitely times when it’s a better fit for the country-tinged rock tunes for which Bullens has always had a knack, as when he leans into “fools rush in” on “Purgatory Road,” or when he sounds quite a bit like Scott Link, of Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers, on “Laugh in the Rain” and goes full honky-tonk.
Maybe most remarkable is how Bullens can continue to reinvent himself without ever straying from what made Bullens an in-demand songwriter in the first place: He just writes really listenable old-school album-rock songs. There doesn’t seem to be a danger Bullens will become “that trans singer-songwriter” any more than he was “that singer-songwriter who lost a daughter.”
“Haven’t we established that I can’t be defined anyway?” he said with a laugh. “That’s the story of my life, not fitting into a mold.”
Such is the core of the Dixified rave-up, “Call Me by My Name,” where Bullens lays on the twang thick and calls back to his time as a child: “Ma, there’s been some mistake … when I said I was born wrong, she said, ‘Honey, you were just born different.’ … My daughter said, ‘What should I call you?’”
For those who haven’t really engaged with the reality of what transitioning entails, that song is likely to hit particularly viscerally. Indeed, what do you tell your daughter, who’s always called you “mom”? Having that conversation would seem to require a great deal of courage.
Ultimately, that shines through here. Yes, this is a listenable album of Nashville-rock, but it’s also infused with a joy and self-assuredness that’s hard to ignore. It’s a feat of strength. And it may well be an inspiration to someone else trying to figure out just who they are.
“I would like this to be heard by the LGBTQ community,” Bullens said, “and to be helpful in some way if it can be. If it can be used as a tool and an experiential thing and to get something from, I hope that happens.”
“But does it define me? No, it doesn’t,” he said. “I’ll probably make another record as Cid and it probably won’t be about my transition.”
Let’s hope so.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
Cidny Bullens: "The Gender Line"
MEMA to the rescue?
They were among the first businesses to close at the onset of the pandemic, and likely to be among the last to open in any meaningful way. The places where you used to see concerts are struggling, with no real way to create revenue, but with monthly expenses that just won’t stop.
But Maine’s music venues aren’t run by the sort of people who are just going to see their businesses go down without a fight.
While efforts by the likes of the National Independent Venue Association – and their Save Our Stages project – may eventually pay off with federal legislation that will provide targeted monetary relief, they’re no sure thing.
Now there’s the Maine Music Alliance, or MEMA, a nonprofit dedicated to direct fundraising to keep Maine music venues in business.
“What we’re looking to do is put tangible money in venues’ pockets,” said Scott Mohler, whose Eminence Arts has served as the booking agent for bands like Rustic Overtones, Harsh Armadillo, and Percy Hill, and who books talent for the Portland venue Sun Tiki Studios. “We’re optimistic for relief coming from the federal government, but we don’t want to get caught flat-footed if that doesn’t come through.”
MEMA’s initial GoFundMe goal is $500,000.
For the time being, it’s operating under Creative Portland’s 501c3 status, but Mohler said he and co-founder Lauren Wayne, who runs the State Theatre and Thompson’s Point – and recently announced the permanent closing of Port City Music Hall – hope to eventually operate as a separate entity with a separate board of directors and organization.
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that the music venues became such an economic engine for (Portland),” Mohler said. “For every dollar spent in a venue, there was $13 spent in hotels and restaurants and it became a real driver.”
Of course, there are obvious questions: Which venues get the money? How do you decide who gets what?
Out of the gate, the participating venues are all Portland-based: The State Theatre and Sun Tiki, naturally, but also Portland House of Music (which launched its own GoFundMe this week as well, with a goal of $125,000), Blue, One Longfellow Square (which raised more than $175,000 earlier this summer), Geno’s (which recently changed hands), Apohadion, and Flask Lounge.
But Mohler said “the olive branch is extended to everybody, and some have chosen to take the olive branch and some haven’t. … I just want to try to do some good, put our heads down and get to work. There’s no one excluded.”
Further, Mohler said MEMA is developing metrics related to each venue’s needs.
“In broad strokes, it’s going to be based on what a venue’s operating expenses are,” he said. “We’re looking to get a realistic snapshot of what your doomsday scenario is. We’re trying to keep as many around as possible.”
And if by what would appear to be a miracle at this point, there is an end to this pandemic and we again return to clubs and some kind of ability to gather together in crowds big enough to keep venues afloat, Mohler and Wayne hope to be able to make MEMA a networking and business development hub that the entire music industry can access, something like what the Portland Music Foundation put together in the late 2000s.
“Right now,” Mohler said, “the building’s on fire and we want to be the hose to put it out. (But) on the other side of this, I’m really hopeful that we’re greeted with a warmer, kinder, and more inclusive kind of scene. There are conversations that are happening now that weren’t happening a year ago.”
And maybe, if you squint, you can even see this leading to the kind of collaborative giant music festival that Portland always seems primed for, but has never quite been able to execute.
But let’s get that fire out first.
— Sam Pfeifle