It’s a small thing, but also not a small thing, for someone to hold your hand on the street, to kiss you goodnight in her doorway.

“Never seemed to ask for much / a lover not afraid of love” H. C. McEntire sings on “Soft Crook” – and it’s not too much to ask. Love is something to be proud of. But sometimes fear is stronger, and pride can be dangerous to hold on to when there’s someone telling you your love is wrong, weird, queer. Sometimes you have to steal what’s already yours – a kiss, or time.

So it’s a small thing, but also not a small thing, for a woman to sing, “Blue light in the blush of dawn / soft crook of my woman’s arm” in a bluesy, gritty song right on the edge between rock and country. The detail is small: dawn light and a lover’s skin. It’s the singing about it that’s big.

And the sound of the song is big, too. The guitar is as gritty as a gravel road, the bassline rolls like Blue Ridge hills. The harmonies are layered so deep it really does sound like “there are angels all around.”

“Blood spilled in the space between / baptized under hand-cut beams / find the light and you can see / right through to the field.” McEntire doesn’t tell us we’re leaning against the rough wall, pressing our faces to the boards, but that’s what we’d have to do, to see through the crack to the field outside. By telling us what the character sees, McEntire moves the listener’s mind’s eye along the same path. The images are visual, but they imply bodies: someone to lean into the light, someone to bleed.

“Do whatever dose you need to / to make it through the night” the chorus counsels. Someone – maybe a friend or lover, probably not a doctor – says this to the singer. But that second person “you” also turns the lyric out toward the listener. The verses describe one person’s days, “pickin’ up bobcat skulls” in black walnut woods.

The outward turn of the chorus makes the song about the listener’s nights in addition to the character’s days. The song knows enough about night to know that it can be hard, dangerous, and lonely. So it gives instruction and permission: you go do what you need to do, take care of yourself.

The details of this song are as intimate and personal as a “sneaky late-night lip-kiss.” McEntire’s rhyme of “southbound whistle sundown” teaches the listener how time works on “the Orange County line” – the sound and the sunset are paired, and the way she stretches the vowels of “southbound” echoes the cadence of a train horn. The song is an echo of the place, and it welcomes the listener in.

In her liner notes, McEntire explains that this song emerged from a period of depression in which “only my most primitive senses seemed accessible; the stillness of observation became the earnest way forward: train whistles told me it was time for supper; daybreak ushered a procession of morning light colors.” By sharing the sensations of this place and time, McEntire gives the listener a way forward, too – not through the fields of North Carolina, but through the song.

“Soft Crook” is out ahead of McEntire’s upcoming album, Every Acre, to be released on January 27, 2023 by Merge Records. I like that “released” is the verb we use for albums coming out – as if songs were a lot of excited dogs wanting to run.