“I love Nashville,” says Americana singer-songwriter Cidny Bullens, calling from his home in that city. “Nashville has always been completely supportive of me and who I am and what I’ve done. I have nothing negative to say about it, except the humidity! Otherwise, I’ve had a wonderful relationship with Nashville.”
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Many artists say they love Nashville, but Bullens has a special appreciation for that city’s accepting atmosphere as he transitioned from the female gender to the male gender, a process he began nine years ago. On August 21, he will release Walkin’ Through This World, the first album he’s done as a man (his previous releases were under his former female name, Cindy Bullens).
The album’s evocative title track (with a corresponding video premiering here at American Songwriter) sums up the way Bullens feels about this transformation: “I think there comes a time in everyone’s later life when you realize you are who you are at the core, not much can change with the time you have left, and you had better accept it. I did that,” he says. “Three days later, at age 61, I threw that acceptance out the window and started from scratch. Over the last several years, I’ve emerged as a different gender, a different person, albeit with the same core -finally able to walk through this world ‘as exactly who I am.’”
While Bullens is thrilled to release Walkin’ Through This World, he admits that he didn’t take a straightforward path to creating it. For one thing, when he began the transition process, he found that it was difficult to translate his feelings into songwriting. “It was very difficult in the first year and a half of my transition because I wasn’t Cindy anymore, but I was not yet Cidny. I didn’t know who Cidny was really going to be. It was very disconcerting and scary. So I said, ‘I can’t go out into public as a musician, as a songwriter, until I know who I am.’”
Bullens, who was living in Maine at the time, spent the next two years working various non-music jobs – in the L.L. Bean warehouse, as a personal trainer at the YMCA, and as an Uber driver. “I did all kinds of stuff to make a little bit of money – but more than the money, it was just to be, until I felt comfortable again,” he says.
Also, Bullens adds, he found he simply didn’t have enough vigor to write much during this time. “I have to tell you that transitioning from one gender to another is all-consuming,” he says. “You’re literally changing not only your identity, but your cellular being. I just didn’t have the energy to sit down and write.”
By 2014, Bullens had adjusted enough that he felt ready to undertake a creative endeavor again – but instead of doing an album, he chose to write and perform in an autobiographical one-person play, Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life. “I decided I had to write my show because I wanted a bridge,” he says. “I knew I needed to tell my story.”
Bullens performed Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life all over the country from 2016 through 2018. Beyond that success, though, Bullens says it served its intended purpose for him personally: “I was able to come back into the public with something that told my story to explain who, what, and where I was.”
But an even better thing to come out of that play was the fact that Bullens fell in love with Tanya Taylor Rubenstein, a solo show and memoir coach who’d helped him put the play together. They married two and half years ago. “I got married to a beautiful woman who supports me and sees me for all of who I am,” he says.
Besides using Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life to explain his gender transition, Bullens also included stories in that play about his career, which stretches back to 1974. That was the year he moved to L.A. (after growing up in Massachusetts, then spending a year in New York), where he immediately fell in with an elite musical crowd: “I crashed a party and met Elton John and went on the road with him two days later! It seemed like a good thing to do,” Bullens says with a laugh. Besides being a backup singer for Elton John (who is still a good friend), Bullens also sang backup vocals for Rod Stewart, all while building a good reputation with her own solo songwriting and performing skills.
1978 was a big year for Bullens, who released a debut album, Desire Wire, receiving considerable praise for the pop-rock material. That same year, Bullens sang three songs on the original motion picture soundtrack for the megahit Grease.
The next year, Bullens got married and moved to Maine. “I had two kids, was married, and tried to be a normal person,” Bullens says. “Then one of my children died at age 11 from cancer in 1996.” Bullens wrote the album Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth (1999) about that tragedy, then got divorced in 2002. Bullens was also undergoing musical changes, shifting from pop-rock into Americana, a path that ultimately led Bullens to Nashville on the advice of her friend Emmylou Harris.
Bullens knows it’s an extraordinary life story, which is what made Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life such a successful play. That project also helped him ease back into music, because he wrote eight original songs for that show, “So it was a performance of me as a singer-songwriter, but it was also the story of my life. That was the vehicle that put me back into the public eye and brought me back to songwriting,” he says.
Still, the next project that Bullens participated in was not an album – instead, he was filmed as one of the participants in Invisible, a feature length documentary about gay women in southern music. “Even though I didn’t consider myself gay, I always knew I was transgender, even though that word wasn’t bantered around that much,” Bullens says. “Anyway, they wanted me for this even though I was already transitioned.” (That film’s release date has been delayed due to the pandemic.)
After filming Bullens for Invisible, director T.J. Parsell mentioned how he’d been moved by the part in Somewhere Between: Not an Ordinary Life where Bullens describes her daughter saying, “Mom, you’ve always been on the female side of the gender line. Now you’re just moving over to the other side of the gender line.” Parsell told Bullens that he should write an actual song called “The Gender Line.”
But Bullens admits with a laugh that his reaction to this suggestion was not favorable at first. “I rolled my eyes at him because you know what it’s like when somebody says a songwriter has to write a song about a subject. It’s like, really? You’re going to tell me what I have to write a song about? So I thought, ‘That will never happen.’”
Bullens changed his mind a short time later, though, when he was driving cross-country. “I do a lot of writing when I’m driving. I keep a pad and a pencil on the passenger seat,” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘T.J. said I have to write this song.’ Suddenly, the verse came to me: ‘If you were me, what would you do? You look in the mirror, and you’re not really you.’ I wrote that down, and I thought, ‘Okay, I can write this song.’ And I did.
“It was the first new song I had written in a long time,” Bullens continues. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is good.’ It was like the key that opened up the door to a new phase of songwriting. And then all the other songs [for the album] just came out.
“All of the songs are framed around my transition, but they’re not all specific,” Bullens continues. “I hesitate to write specific songs about specific subjects because I like to write songs that people can identify with. In this case, I think everybody looks in the mirror and says, ‘Who am I?’ So I tried to frame the songs with enough universality to resonate with people.”
Now, with Walkin’ Through This World ready for the world, Bullens is satisfied. These songs, he says, are entirely authentic because through all of his ups and downs, he stayed true to himself, both in his life and in his work: “Go for the emotion and let the craft follow,” he says. “You’ve got to write from a place that’s real.”
Walkin’ Through This World will be available on CD from Amazon, CDBaby, and at CidnyBullens.com and on all digital platforms such as Spotify and iTunes.