All of Himself

After a career spanning four decades in rock ‘n’ roll, singer and songwriter Cidny Bullens is about to release a debut album – of sorts. Due out in early 2020 on Red Dragonfly/BMI, Walkin’ Through This World will actually be Bullens’ ninth collection of original songs, in addition to two albums released with his band The Refugees. But it’s the first album the artist will put out as Cidny Bullens, a transgender man. When his friend, BMI executive Jody Williams, pointed out the significance of this “debut,” it got Bullens thinking about how to tell that story. “Jody said, ‘You know, you’re more like a new artist now than anything else.’ That kind of stuck in my head; I’m coming from 40 years of experience as Cindy Bullens, but with that in mind, it’s a new story, starting now.”

Or at least a new story arc in a long narrative of reinvention, renewal, and paradox. That narrative includes some early years touring as a back-up singer and guitarist with Sir Elton John, a stint with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and collaborations with Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, and T-Bone Burnett. Bullens efforts with Nashville notables Radney Foster, Rodney Crowell, Matraca Berg, Emmylou Harris and others also make the impressive list of collaborations in a long recording career that has produced hundreds of songs and a couple of Grammy nominations.

In the ’70s and ’80s Cindy Bullens was known perhaps as much for an androgynous stage presence as for her musical talent. “It was part of the lure of Cindy Bullens, and it took me a long way,” Bullens says. “But that’s also why the record companies didn’t know what to do with me. I was out there playing like a guy,  jumping off pianos, twirling a guitar between my legs,” Bullens recalls, grinning. Sexism and cis-gender, binary worldviews still exist in the music industry, of course, but in the early decades of Bullens’ career those rigid categories went mostly unquestioned, except by artists like Cindy, who couldn’t help but rise to the challenge.

Search for her online, and you’ll likely come across some vintage footage of Cindy Bullens being interviewed on American Bandstand, politely but firmly explaining to Dick Clark that yes indeed she’d written all the songs on her album, and no, it had never occurred to her NOT to be a singer. “I just had this kind of blind drive that I had something to give to rock and roll,” Bullens tells him, all confidence. Clark kiddingly intimates that she, as a sweet young thing, somehow conned Elton John into taking her on tour. Bullens admits to crashing an Elton John press party, but his people actually approached her about the touring gig, not the other way around, she explains. When the music starts, she’s playing electric guitar in front of an all-male band, not as a girl singer, but as a badass lead artist in a Superman tee-shirt.

Frustrated with the “female artist, high heels, and make-up” niche the music industry kept trying to shove her into, Bullens shoved back for a bit, then decided to take a break. She married, had two kids, and settled down in Connecticut. While Bullens continued to play and write music, the main focus was on family life and raising her daughters, Reid and Jessie. Tragically, Jessie died of cancer at age eleven in 1996. “When you lose a child there’s a timelessness to that death.” Bullens says. “There’s no getting over it. You just take steps forward, and you carry the grief forever.”

The grief was paralyzing, but from the awfulness came a sudden and surprising creative inspiration. “I wouldn’t wish this inspiration on my worst enemy,” Bullens declares, “but by some miracle, I found this tiny, tiny little spark of life, of fire, in that moment when I wrote this sad song, and poured out all this longing to see and feel my child again.”

More songs followed and Bullens released Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth in 1999. Featuring appearances by Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, and Bullens’ daughter Reid Crewe, it’s a powerful collection inspired by that grief. “Those ten songs came from a place where no songs I had ever written before came, and where no songs I have written after came. There was no thought process. Really there was no conscious crafting. Those songs were pure love, period.”

Bullens continued working with Nashville songwriters throughout the 2000s, releasing several more albums, including Howling Trains and Barking Dogs, a best-of selection from those collaborations. She also founded The Refugees, a trio with Wendy Waldman and Deborah Holland, releasing two CDs (Unbound in 2009 and Three in 2012). A new Refugees EP, How Far It Goes, drops this year, with Bullens performing as Cid.

By 2011 Bullens, who’d been writing and singing her truth for decades, decided it was time to live that truth. She’d known since childhood that even though everyone saw and treated her as female, the person inside was male. That meant going through a gender transition to become a man, at age 60. It was not a decision made lightly. By then, Bullens was single; daughter Reid was grown and supportive of her mother’s decision. But there were lots of unknowns, especially about what would happen to an artistic career built over four decades. “I knew I was going to have to reinvent myself, but I wasn’t sure what that was going to look like or how that would be received,” he says.

He recalls coming to the 2012 AMERICANAFEST with The Refugees, having just recently transitioned. “I wasn’t Cindy and I wasn’t quite fully Cid. I’d changed my name and had top surgery already, but I still looked like Cindy,” he says. Some of his friends recognized him as Cindy, and some as Cid. “It was very awkward. I got in my car, and started driving around Nashville, and I felt grief second to having lost Jessie, and I thought what’s this about? Suddenly I realized I was grieving the death of Cindy Bullens. I was grieving the death of myself, and that I wasn’t Cindy and that I wasn’t fully yet Cid.”

The experience inspired “Purgatory Road,” on Walkin’ Through This World, along with “Little Pieces.” While both songs rose out of Bullens’ experience with transition, they also speak to a universal experience of loss and change.

After the initial awkward Nashville coming out, Bullens decided to lay low for a bit as he explored how to fully embrace his new identity. During the time off from the performance spotlight, he pursued another creative project he’d been considering — writing a one-person solo show that involved storytelling and song. An internet search led him to Santa Fe-based solo performance and story coach Tanya Taylor Rubenstein, and Bullens applied for her boot camp, which promised he’d have a story outline in four days. “I did my elevator pitch,” Bullens recalls. “I sang with Elton John, I’m a bereaved parent, and I’m a transman. And she emailed me back within the day.”

“This is good, I thought. Now I can add a trans story to my resume,” Rubenstein, now his wife, says, laughing. Bullens got his outline in four days, and the two continued a professional relationship over the next fifteen months, while Cid completed Somewhere In Between: Not an Ordinary Life, the autobiographical show he’s performed to critical acclaim under Rubenstein’s direction. Somewhere In Between, which had runs in Nashville in 2016 and again in 2018, brought an invitation to be part of another project, a documentary feature film called Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music.

Filmmaker T.J. Parsell and producer Bill Brimm caught one of Bullens Nashville performances of the show at the Bongo Java After Hours Theatre, and thought his perspective as a trans person would be helpful to their Invisible project. During the shooting and editing of the segment with Bullens, they discovered enough good material to craft a second film, the award-winning documentary short, The Gender Line, which won awards at The Tallgrass and The Edmonton film festivals this fall. As 2019 draws to a close, Bullens, Brimm, and Parsell have been appearing at film festivals around the country and in Canada, promoting The Gender Line as well as talking up Invisible, due for film festival release in 2020.

The year ahead looks pretty packed for Bullens, with an album release, touring, and wider releases of the two film documentaries. Plus, if time and opportunity present, a reprise of Somewhere in Between. He also wants to continue ongoing advocacy work for trans people, speaking out and performing to raise awareness and encourage audiences to acknowledge the human dignity of people who are trans.

“I think this album is universal, but I also think it’s a tool for people to maybe open up their consciousness a little bit more to the humanity of being transgender,” Bullens says. “Mostly though, I am a rock and roller and I’m just going to be really glad to get out here and play these songs, do some gigs, and just have some fun on stage. For me it doesn’t matter how old you are. You are who you are. You follow your dream. That brings joy to me, and I feel like all of myself.”

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