Crys Matthews Challenges Us to Be and Do Better Through Music

Crys Matthews, who is one of the big acts at this year's SXSW Music Festival, is on a mission to bring social justice to America's remote corners.

Crys Matthews
Photo: Emily April Allen Photography/Emdash Photos

This article was featured in Den of Geek magazine, which was published before artists pulled out of SXSW 2024 in protest of US military and defense company sponsorships at this year’s event.

Crys Matthews doesn’t equivocate about her music’s north star: “It’s to amplify the voices of the unheard, shed light on the unseen, and be a steadfast reminder that hope and love are the truest pathways to justice and equity. That’s me in a nutshell.” 

The 43-year-old singer-songwriter has spent much of her decade-plus career holding a mirror to America’s thorniest issues. Her protest, social justice, and freedom-infused songs have prompted comparisons to historical folk music activists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Blending the sounds of country, gospel, Americana, and folk music, Matthews boldly sings what many are reluctant to say out loud, in the open and face-to-face. 

The Confederate flag, gerrymandering, mass shootings, the murder of Black men by police, Donald Trump—seemingly nothing is off limits. Though the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal Church preacher, which is where her interest in freedom songs and social justice began, Matthews resists sanctimony. Her underlying beliefs and messages are akin to what Nelson Mandela once said: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

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Matthews has been playing instruments since childhood, including piano and clarinet. In sixth grade, she joined the school band and became enamored with classical music. As a student at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, she taught herself to play guitar on a right-handed instrument, which is why she holds it upside-down today, in the style of folk music icon Elizabeth Cotten. 

A lefty aside, Matthews, as she puts it, “checks a lot of boxes.” In a 2017 Ted Talk, she described herself as a “poster child for intersectionality.” As a Black lesbian from the South, born in rural North Carolina and currently living in Nashville, she’s lived through many of the hardships she sings about. She said she was “not welcome whatsoever” in the church after she came out and also pointed to the racism that exists within the LGBTQ+ community. “So I’m out here trying to live the thing, trying to walk the walk,” she says. “I’m not proclaiming something that I’m not actually doing.” 

The singer attributes her ease with difficult topics to the fact that she’s a full-time musician who navigates diverse regions and environments. “I’m able to see how many people are having these conversations where you wouldn’t expect them to,” she explains. She points to a recent show she played in Maine as an example. “There were a huge number of people who were so encouraged by this hope-fueled, love-fueled, social justice music. Most of them had never heard me before but were interested in trying to figure out how to have discussions around so many of these issues.” 

In February, in honor of Black History Month, Matthews toured from Upstate New York to Fort Worth, Texas, with a program she assembled called “Songs On Why We Can’t Wait,” which combines her social justice songs with excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book on nonviolent action for racial equality and justice. At South by Southwest this year, she hopes to infuse some consciousness into the traditional party vibe of the festival. Matthews says that she and other folkies are often viewed as the “weird theater kid cousin,” and she’s grateful to be able to play alongside the “cool kids in other genres.”

Since 2011, Matthews has released five full-length albums and several EPs and singles. She’s currently working on a new album with several faces from the Nashville music community, including singer-songwriter Levi Lowery (Zac Brown Band), who will produce. Recording will take place at the Sound Emporium and will include mostly Black and female players by Matthews’ design. 

As a fiercely independent artist and a self-described “hard-headed Aries,” Matthews says that, historically, self-releasing her music and being her own manager has worked well to ensure her ethics and message aren’t watered down, tainted, or obscured. Recently, she pulled out of a show at a venue whose contract banned “political songs.” “If there’s a label out there that is super stoked to have a Black butch lesbian say whatever she wants to say, I would jump on that label in a heartbeat,” she explains. However, up to this point, that hasn’t been the case.

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In a social and political climate that often feels like it’s reached rock bottom, Matthews remains an optimist. She believes that people are inherently good and explains that “this vitriol that we’re seeing, so much of it is based in fear, and it gets stuck because they don’t get a chance to meet people like me.” So long as she can, she will continue trekking to America’s remote corners to illuminate hope and our shared humanity through song but also in the simple act of taking up space. 

“That’s the stealth mode work,” she says. “So many of these conversations through songs are just reminding people to be empathetic to these groups to which they may or may not belong.”

Crys Matthews plays SXSW 2024 on March 15 at the Victorian Room at The Driskill at 10 pm CT.