Mya Byrne paved the winding road to 'Rhinestone Tomboy' with grit and sparkle Mya Byrne loved country music since her childhood in New Jersey. But it took years of searching and traveling to lead to the place where she could make her new album, Rhinestone Tomboy.

How Mya Byrne paved her long, winding road to country music with grit and sparkle

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How does a transgender singer/songwriter put her country music talents to use right when Tennessee's Republican lawmakers are targeting her community?


MYA BYRNE: (Singing) It's plain to see, Mr. Lee, you've got a problem. You're banning things you don't know a thing about.

SUMMERS: Mya Byrne rounded up some friends to record a scrappy protest song that was a spontaneous response from a musician who's already spent two decades forging her artistic identity. Jewly Hight of Nashville Public Radio asked Byrne what that involved.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: When Mya Byrne was invited to play a Nashville arena concert this spring, benefitting organizations that advocate for LGBTQ+ people in Tennessee, she considered playing her protest song. But instead, she went with a number that brims with the buoyancy of her outlook.


BYRNE: (Singing) I've been thinking about lifelines. I've been thinking about friends of mine, thinking about sunshine beating down.

I just wanted to express the pureness of what my love is and what my life is. And that, through everything I've been through, which has been a lot - years of being in the closet and just having to fight for my place at the table - that I want everybody to start peeking into my life for a second.

HIGHT: The crowd watched Byrne close her performance by sharing a kiss with her partner in music and life, Swan Real, who's also a trans woman.


BYRNE: Protect trans love, everyone.


BYRNE: Trans people are easy to love. Trans children are easy to love.

HIGHT: Byrne started learning the power of expression growing up in a Jewish New Jersey family in the 1980s, with an architect mother and a rabbi father who ministered to the community and did silly jazz numbers at bedtime instead of lullabies. After Friday Shabbat dinners, the family sang into the night, and Byrne cultivated her own creativity.

BYRNE: I grew up with learning disabilities. One of the things I learned to do to manage my boredom - because I really wasn't being stimulated in school the way I needed to be - was I would walk home, and I would make up songs to the beat of my feet.

HIGHT: Guitar became her instrument of choice, leading to a quintessential teenage fascination with rock riffs.


HIGHT: As Byrne spent time in different bands and scenes, she added country and folk techniques to her repertoire. It was only after she came out as trans in 2014 that she felt stylistic limitations imposed on her.

BYRNE: You know, I was told by the world I wasn't allowed to write classic country.

HIGHT: Byrne stuck with it anyway. Where a 1960s country crooner might come on strong in a romantic recitation, she'd bring her own insights to the form and make a classic approach feel knowing and responsive.


BYRNE: (Singing) Though that love unravel, I'm here with a new thread. And if you're ready, let's move ahead. If you want to, please call me darlin'.

The song challenge was, can I write a classic country song that's about consent (laughter)? And that was basically the gist of it.

HIGHT: Mya Byrne moved to the Bay Area and was welcomed by queer and trans predecessors who, long ago, laid their claims to punk and twang. She embraced an LGBTQ+ roots music community that was starting to make itself visible on a national scale, including in Nashville. There, she called on some of the musicians she admires most, who are also queer, to help her make an album.


BYRNE: (Singing) I'm going to stop thinking about what I might miss. Going to stop dreaming of the first kiss.

HIGHT: Byrne talked with some well-known Americana record labels about releasing her biggest album to date before settling on Kill Rock Stars, the indie outfit that helped riot grrrl (ph) bands make their feminist mark in the 1990s. It was founded by Slim Moon, who told me on Zoom that he and Byrne shared that punk social ethic.

SLIM MOON: So we kind of, like, clicked right away and really understood where each other was coming from. Maybe this mattered, but we also already had some trans artists on the label. This isn't tokenism. This isn't an experiment. This is who we are.

HIGHT: Moon launched a new roots imprint last year, with Byrne as its flagship artist. She was half dozing on an airplane when she thought up an album title winking at the gleaming country pop showmanship of Glen Campbell and so much more - "Rhinestone Tomboy."

BYRNE: That encompasses everything. It's classic country. It says, I'm a woman. I'm owning a certain kind of femininity that cannot be taken away from me or dismissed, and I'm securing my place. I am part of the outlaw world. I'm queering countrypolitan (ph). I wrote it down. I was like, this is it.


BYRNE: (Singing) What do I tell that sweetheart of mine? What do I tell that sweetheart of mine?

HIGHT: If anything, the title's a little too narrow. Mya Byrne's new album reflects the full range of what she brings to her music.

For NPR News in Nashville, I'm Jewly Hight.


BYRNE: (Singing) Just like us, they're close talking. Footprints in the snow are side by side. See them holding ribbon flowers, counting up their happy hours. What do I tell that sweetheart of mine?

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