When Juniper Stinnett’s mother came to pick her up after work, she could count on finding her daughter in one spot: sitting by her grandfather’s side, playing mandolin while the older man played guitar, channeling the haints, hollers and hills of the East Tennessee landscape.
It’s a memory Stinnett carries with her as a solo artist, and it’s one that, as a transgender woman, provides her with a sense of identity that many of her trans brothers and sisters don’t have, she told The Daily Times this week.
“There’s always been something magical about music to me, something powerful, and it gave me a connection to the traditions of this area,” said Stinnett, who performs on Saturday as part of “Birdhousearoo,” the annual festival and fundraiser for The Birdhouse, a community center in Knoxville’s Fourth and Gill neighborhood.
“As a trans woman, it keeps me grounded with my family history, and it gives me a connection to the place I’m in, even though that place can sometimes be hostile,” she added. “A lot of my brothers and sisters feel alienated from the South and from Appalachia, and when I feel like I’m being pushed away from belonging, or from family, it gives me a sense of identity. That’s a powerful thing; it’s like it’s saying, ‘This is your music to play. This is your heritage.’”
She credits her grandfather with fostering her love of music; the more he played, the more she was drawn to the sounds he would conjure from that collection of wires and wood. Those sounds have stayed with her, informing and influencing her own work that she describes these days as “witch folk.”
“I draw inspiration from a darker side of the mountains — the supernatural elements, the folklore of our area, that kind of stuff,” she said. “I think there’s something very haunting about Old Time music as a whole. It’s music that predates the recording industry, and it’s about workers and people being people and the struggle to survive. Before it was commercialized, music was something to keep you going. They lived to hear it, because they needed to hear it all the time.”
When she expressed an interest in playing with her grandfather, he pointed out that the instrument was too big for her and bought her a mandolin instead. Playing at her grandfather’s side was instrumental not only in terms of her style, but in making her comfortable playing in front of others. Music, she said, has been a constant companion, and when she transitioned at the age of 22 or 23, it was sometimes the only lifeline she had.
“When I first came out, I was homeless for a little while, and I dealt with a lot of internalized transphobia — thinking I was a monster because I was being told I was a monster and assuming that no one wanted anything to do with me,” she said. “My folks were really cool, and my grandfather loved me to the day he died. My grandmother still loves me. We have this blood-is-thicker-than-water mentality, so for the most part, my family is fine. The music, it’s bigger than me, and it’s bigger than me being trans. It’s my heritage, and my trans doesn’t get in the way of that, and it shouldn’t.”
Today, Stinnett serves as youth minister at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, and shortly after she began to transition, she was lifted up by a community of friends that helped “give me a sense of purpose as a human being who has worth and dignity,” she added. She found a community of like-minded musicians, both locally and in other cities, and until recently, she was splitting her time between an Old Time duo, the Gutter Blossoms, and her solo work. She’s learning more about traditional Celtic music and the rhythmic progressions of Scots-Irish elements of late, and she’s still healing from the loss of her musical mentor.
“When I first transitioned, my grandfather and I didn’t quit playing music together; I was still showing him songs I wrote, and he would talk to me about them,” Stinnett said. “A couple of years after I came out, he told me he needed to talk to me. He had watched a Caitlyn Jenner documentary, of all things, and he said, ‘I just need to apologize for all the terrible things I said to you.’ Now, he didn’t say anything terrible — a lot of people said things way worse — but for an old man to humble himself and say, ‘I was wrong,’ it took a lot of strength to do that.”
That empowered her convictions to stay true to who she is: an advocate for trans people, on stage and off.
“Being able to represent my brothers and sisters who are also trans, and being a good face for them, is crucial to me,” she said. “Having a platform of music, or whatever I’m doing, that’s a little bit of power I try to use.”
And, it reminds her of who she is as an artist: an Appalachian girl who has as much claim to the tapestry of tradition that makes up East Tennessee as anyone else born and raised in East Tennessee.
“I promised my grandfather on his deathbed, because he wanted me to go and do the things that he wanted to do but couldn’t, because he was providing for his family — tour and play and meet people and become and grow the art,” she said. “That was something he was never able to do. When I first came out, he said, ‘It might be hard for you to find a job anywhere, but it might help you with your music!’
“My music isn’t always activist-themed, and I don’t think it would be good if it was — but it has elements of that. Music and activism, even though I consider myself more of an advocate than an activist, have always gone hand-in-hand. Any kind of civil change or movement has music attached to it, because it’s powerful. Music is power, and when you look at the world from the perspective of people who are hurt and the music that came out of that hurt, in the way that somebody like Woody Guthrie did, it’s powerful stuff.”