Not-So-Lone Rangers: Out In The Country All Year Long
When Orville Peck's first couple of songs popped up on streaming platforms in 2017 and 2018, he was a virtual unknown, and not just because he constantly obscured his face behind a fringed, leather mask. Eventually, the seemingly contradictory elements of his image became a calling card, so that it didn't seem unfathomable that he'd be able to land Shania Twain as a singing partner for his upcoming, major label EP. Part of what put Peck on the map was last year's Pony, his debut album for renowned indie Sub Pop, on which he crooned with alluringly broody bravado about restless detachment, lust, nostalgia and arid western landscapes framed by eerie, reverb-hazed echoes of David Lynch soundtracks and New Wave and shoegaze aesthetics. But the dashing, outlandish mystique of his persona was at least an equal source of fascination. Here was a gay, costumed, Lone Ranger type, replacing cowboy machismo with fashionable western camp, melancholy eroticism and bondage imagery, while disclosing very little autobiographical information beyond his background in the Pacific Northwest punk scene. The authors of profile after profile zeroed in on the provocative symbolism Peck seemed to offer — the notion that he was a Lone Ranger, in more than appearance, as the solitary figure staking a queer claim to country territory.
In important ways, Peck wasn't alone at all. His emergence was one of many moments that spotlighted relationships between queerness and country (or country-adjacent) music over the last year or so. The pre-pandemic, parade-friendly, public bustle of 2019 Pride, in June, brought with it a handful of happenings: Taylor Swift's clip for "You Need to Calm Down," featuring more than two dozen LGBTQIA+ celebrities inhabiting a trailer park utopia brimming with prismatic, pristinely staged kitsch, as well as the mischievous king of cowboy-rapping meme pop Lil Nas X's thoroughly casual social media disclosure of his sexuality. Jake Owens, best known for country-pop hits with breezy swagger and beachfront settings, posted a cover of Cher's "Believe" — a selection he claimed to have arrived at by Googling "gayest songs of all time" — in tribute to the LGBTQIA+ people in his inner circle and Miranda Lambert, the 21st Century's most cheekily class conscious, arena-headlining, hard country heroine, tweeted a festive photo of her husband, her brother and her at New York City Pride and hashtagged it "ally."
There was more to come in the fall: a Highwomen honky-tonk number performed by Brandi Carlile, who rubbed a would-be barroom lothario's nose in the reality that he would never have a chance with her woman, and Lil Nas X's CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for the "Old Town Road" remix with his co-conspirator Billy Ray Cyrus. Both the song and the win were initially held up (inaccurately) in some quarters as firsts for openly gay performers. By the end of the year, Trixie Mattel, who'd won the third season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, had a popular documentary in circulation that showed her incorporating autoharp and countrified camp on tour. The announcement in January that Swift would be receiving the Vanguard Award from GLAAD, which she'd name-checked in her lyrics, helped keep her allyship in the spotlight, just as Lil Nas X's theatrical, star-studded romp on a GRAMMY stage that slowly whirled him from strumming in the privacy of a living room to starring in a sci-fi scene underscored, once again, the massive impact of his playful pliability. A couple of months later, while much of the U.S. went into lockdown, the true crime phenomenon Tiger King got millions of viewers fixated on its central figure Joe Exotic, a swashbuckling, small town Oklahoma zoo operator who also happened to be gay. He'd grasped for fame with ragtag attempts at a reality show, a political campaign and a country singing career, and the notoriety he finally achieved through the documentary series drew a massive and incredulous new audience to the personalized country tunes he'd hired writer-musicians to create and the low-budget videos he filmed to go with them, depicting misty-eyed affection for his husbands and his big cats alike.
All of these buzzy events were more complex than they seemed, and some of the significance attached to them blurred perceptions of reality. In a way, they replayed a pattern that had emerged before — at moments when former major label country acts Chely Wright, Ty Herndon, Shelly Fairchild and Billy Gilman came out and, especially, when "Follow Your Arrow," Kacey Musgraves' easygoing toast to personal freedom, queer displays of affection included, drew attention not only to her accepting outlook, but her top-flight co-writers Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, both of whom happened to be openly gay, and won the three of them a CMA award. McAnally's presence and power in the country music industry as a songwriter, producer and deal-maker with a creative and commercial Midas touch particularly surprised outside observers.
From a certain angle, these kinds of head-turning moments might have seemed to represent the entirety of the conversation about country music and LGBTQIA+ identities. But even the varied responses to Swift's video offered a glimpse of other discourse. There were plenty of hot takes about her relationship to the queer luminaries she'd invited to make cameos, but the casting of the villains were the subject of subtler discussion. A horde of people showed up in several brief shots, hurling insults from just outside the boundary of the trailer park, which appeared to be nestled in an Appalachian mountain valley. One man, the camera showed us, had no teeth. One woman carried a misspelled protest sign. Their compatriots sported beards, a cowboy hat, overalls, untucked western and flannel shirts, an American flag tee. The demographic they were meant to represent was unmistakable; these were poor, rural, mostly white, working people.
If the video had appeared earlier in the decade, I'm sure it would've made it into Nadine Hubbs' 2014 book Rednecks, Queers & Country Music. In that essential volume, Hubbs explained that what we now think of as homophobia was once part of middle-class respectability — that "queer acceptance" was considered a low-class, morally suspect outlook until the 1970s, when it began to be claimed as enlightened, socially progressive high ground. Hubbs applied that context to Swift's clip in a brief op-ed and supplied a term — "poor-shaming" — for its class-based portrayal of villains. "The tactic dishonours Pride's origins in the Stonewall rebellion, waged half a century ago by poor and working-class queers," wrote Hubbs. "More specifically, even as it aligns itself with trailer-park authenticity, Swift's video is erected on the stereotype of the redneck transphobe/homophobe."
A less formal, but no less pointed, critique of the clip's erasure of queer rural identities took shape in a comment thread on one of my favorite Instagram accounts, one operated by communitarian, class-conscious artist collective Queer Appalachia. The extension of that outlook, in our era of fundraising for COVID-19 relief, is the variety show-style livestream The Big Ass Telethon to End Metronormativity, both editions of which Queer Appalachia helped organize.
Those are but a few windows onto the numerous spaces, scenes, communities and individual trajectories — by no means one big network, and not necessarily in contact with each other — where the entwining of queerness and country-tied music and culture is acknowledged and celebrated. To focus only on the examples that gain the greatest visibility is to miss a lot — a rich spectrum of perspective, performance and presentation, encompassing studio-sculpted, pop-informed contemporary approaches, extravagant drag queens, alt-country scruffiness, skill-showcasing string band traditions; the mastery, revision, exaggeration or total upending of familiar forms. (An accompanying playlist offers a sampling of such recent sights and sounds.)
If you trace the activity on the ground back over the last year, the months between June 2019 and 2020 held a few semi-overlooked milestones. Following the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in West Virginia last summer, fiddler and banjo player Jake Blount made a triumphant social media post about the "Gay Sweep" in the gathering's proving ground of performing contests; the winning musicians had all been LGBTQIA+ people, many also people of color, and both applied to him. (Building on that modest momentum, the First Annual Queer and Trans Oldtime Music Gathering was planned for this May, and postponed until 2021.) Che Apalache, a multinational string band led by Joe Troop that plays Appalachian, Argentinean and Mexican styles on bluegrass instruments and makes queer visibility and immigration rights two facets of its activism, received a 2019 folk GRAMMY nomination for its fiercely frisky and sometimes topical, Bela Fleck-produced album. The celebrated, and as of this week, Peabody Award-winning podcast Dolly Parton's America, a deep dive into why the global superstar is an emblem for all sorts of people in all sorts of places, devoted an entire episode to the musicological and personal musings of Hubbs and Hiltner. Their interviews introduced the possibility of hearing queer storylines in Parton's repertoire.
The sense of context and community is growing around these music-makers, thanks to initiatives and scholarship from the likes of the nonprofit organizational effort Bluegrass Pride, which found its early momentum in California and will go virtual later this month; DIY, multi-artist Gay Ole Opry lineups in Brooklyn, Nashville, the Bay Area and elsewhere; queer roots showcases tucked into World of Bluegrass and Americana Fest schedules; the online magazines Strange Fire and Country Queer; the events, intersectional projects and thriving social media presence of Queer Appalachia and Southern Fried Queer Pride; documentaries like Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music and the oral history Country Queers, and the short film Dominant Chord; books by Hubbs and academics researching queer, rural life outside of music; the autobiographically enriched literary output of Dorothy Allison and so much other existing and emerging work.
It may still seem revelatory when a striking figure like Orville Peck commands the spotlight, but there's a lot out there that doesn't share the same degree of visibility. The landscape of queered country expression is broad and varied and segmented enough that it can only be understood through multiple pairs of attentive eyes. Starting after Pride month last year and wrapping up before it came around again, in socially distanced form, I invited five colleagues embedded and invested in some of these musical, critical and academic worlds — people I've had long conversations with at academic conferences, industry showcases or even in each other's homes — to identify themselves in their own words and then respond to a series of questions about how these issues – and lives – are changing. I wanted to find out whether this moment in country-linked music feels different from their perspectives and what they made of the events that stirred broad interest and those whose impact stayed more localized. So, if your exposure to queered country expression has come primarily through press releases pegged to June, here's a good place — or five — to dive a little deeper.
What's your assessment of how queer contributions (to genre traditions, culture, community, or commerce) are recognized in the country mainstream now? And how does it compare with what you've seen unfolding in folk, bluegrass, old-time, Americana and other country-adjacent scenes lately?
Brittney McKenna ("queer music journalist."): I don't necessarily feel that queer contributions were recognized much by the mainstream country establishment [last] year. The CMA could have easily made Lil Nas X a more prominent part of the CMA Awards ceremony (IMO a glitzy, cameo-heavy performance would have been a lay-up) but — for reasons I don't know for certain but can easily guess at — they chose not to. The Highwomen's "If She Ever Leaves Me," regardless of whether or not it is the first gay country song (and it isn't), is no doubt a landmark song for the queer country community, but neither the band nor the album got support from one of the biggest mainstream country gatekeepers: country radio.
As with the genre's reckoning with gender inequality, I think achieving queer representation in country music will require organized efforts that push beyond the usual gatekeepers and venture into territory typically tread by artists who skew Americana, left-of-center, indie or all of the above. The same goes, too, for addressing racial inequality in country music, which is just as deeply entrenched in the establishment's current mechanisms and needs to be confronted when considering mainstream country music's homogeneity.
Jon Freeman ("I'm a writer/editor for Rolling Stone Country and a gay man from the South."): Something about both "If She Ever Leaves Me" and the coverage of Lil Nas X's CMA win irked me. With Lil Nas, it seemed less surprising that publications who normally don't pay any attention to country music would buy the narrative that he was the first out person or out gay man to win without bothering to investigate further. That's not to say that mainstream country doesn't have issues with visibility, but we should definitely be acknowledging the people like Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark who got there first and not furthering this idea that queer folks can only do it if they come from outside. Lil Nas X deserved every award coming his way, but there are, at any given moment, many out men and women who've been doing the work inside Nashville, making incremental (but no less important) progress.
In both of these cases, I found myself in the odd position of having to play contrarian for things that I genuinely liked. I'd rather spend that energy in other ways, but here we are.
Those closer to the center of country could perhaps take some cues from the bluegrass and old-time world, which has a pretty visible activist streak. It's inspiring to see the hard work that Justin Hiltner and others have been doing to make the bluegrass community — with plenty of left-leaning progressives but also no shortage of evangelical types — a more welcoming and inclusive environment. Che Apalache is another story I've found particularly inspiring, with a queer band leader who's taking a defiant stance on U.S. immigration policy and religious hypocrisy as he stitches together old-time and other global forms of folk music. There's something radical about it to me, using very traditional forms of music to put messages out there about knocking down border walls and, as with "The Dreamer," expressing solidarity with children born to undocumented immigrants. Because it's important to remember that the struggle for equality is not just one for queer folks — if it doesn't apply to other marginalized groups as well, then it's not true equality.
Justin Hiltner ("Associate Editor and contributor for online roots music magazine The Bluegrass Situation; banjo player, songwriter, recording artist, and activist for equity and inclusion in roots music."): After a year like 2019, I found myself having to pause more and more frequently to remind myself of how much progress we're seeing, because it often seems to be obscured by constant reminders of the sheer amount of work that still needs to be done. It's surreal to watch artists like Brandi Carlile, Trixie Mattel, Orville Peck, Lil Nas X and others simply thrive in these mainstream (or mainstream-adjacent or more commercial) spaces while being seemingly undercut by the growing pains intertwined with this rapidly growing visibility. There seems to be a glaring lack of queer folks who are well-versed in these niches, these subcultures, to tell the stories of queerness as it relates to country — many queer-centric publications and [general] outlets, in their hurry to (justifiably) cheer Lil Nas X's CMA Award win, overlooked the fact that he was not the first gay person to win a CMA Award. But even when we do have queer folks telling these stories, they're still fragile, complex and requiring a great deal of care.
It's hard not to lose sight of the fact that entry to this level of notoriety in country and rootsy spaces is still only available to a select few queer folks, and I believe it's worth interrogating who those few are and why and how they've ended up here. I think we need to be seeking out the folks who are missing. It's not good enough to simply point out the cream of the crop, who by unadulterated, cosmic talent ended up rising to the top against all the odds stacked against them — and often with the aid of higher socioeconomic status, mobility in the industry, whiteness, maleness, conventional attractiveness, etc.
In the more fringe communities, genres, and formats in country, I'd say we face the same issues, just on a slightly different scale. In bluegrass, for instance, we're still at the point where any/all representation is better than none. But we are seeing movement. We're creating inclusive, safe points around which these formerly excluded voices and perspectives can coalesce, realize they aren't alone, and start making change. I'm so proud to be a part of that, whether through the International Bluegrass Music Association's (IBMA) efforts for inclusion through their newly convened task force on the matter or the Shout & Shine showcase put on in partnership with PineCone Piedmont Council for Traditional Music and The Bluegrass Situation. Or also through Bluegrass Pride, a newly recognized 501(c)(3) that has celebrated bluegrass and old-time with a float in San Francisco's Pride Parade for the past three years and is now growing nationwide.
It's an exciting thing to be a part of, especially on the most basic level, simply and bluntly pointing out to folks that queer people have always existed everywhere. Their inclusion in roots music and vernacular music is not a new phenomenon; it's not a product of the 21st century.
Steacy Easton ("queer, non-binary artist and writer working on issues of money and sex, now in Hamilton, Ontario. They grew up in Edmonton, and have never gotten over their love of cowboys or early kd lang."): So many thoughts. Swift is really difficult. She has weaponized the performative progressive quality of young folks, who like to be allies without having a lot of skin in the game.
Obviously, the Highwomen's "If She Ever Leaves Me" is not the first queer country love song, or even the first queer country love song by women for women (early kd lang, Topp Twins?). But it's really vital to acknowledge that Carlile is a lesbian, has identified as such since 2002, and is married to a woman — not all writing is autobiographical, and we need to stop thinking of it as such, but also queer invisibility is a thing, and there are still so few songs about queer desire... It's nice to have work that isn't coded, though the overlap between Women's Music and country is still a complex matrix.
How much does the audience know about Shane McAnally's personal life? It is safer to be inside a small community, not quite out, not quite in, than something that Lil Nas X is. But that's really messy. I am glad he is queer, and out. I think that the dandy look, the wink and the nod, the camp of it — has queer potential, but the queerness is just outside the text, even still. I don't know that McAnally or Lil Nas X are singing songs about queer desire, queer heartbreak, telling exclusively queer stories, or even limning the possibility of queer hunger or even queer joy.
So maybe there are two kinds of country: There is the big pop country, shiny and genius in its expansive, all-consuming appetites — but the one appetite that it cannot handle the full range of dissident sexualities. They are talked down or marginalized or estranged or encoded. And then there is this kind of alt country which talks about queerness but as a kind of tasteful, low key country. I wonder if it is still less than we want.
What stands out to you when you look at the spectrum of queered country expression?
Nadine Hubbs ("professor of Women's Studies and Music at University of Michigan; author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music. I'm approaching these questions as a scholar and teacher of LGBTQ+ studies and music and as a queer from a Rust Belt small-town working-class background."): The recent explosion of discourse in this area (e.g., on Queer Appalachia, my Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music Facebook page, various media pieces) and of queer-identified artists and fans.
Justin Hiltner: I don't think most people realize that erasure of queer folks and other marginalized peoples in these spaces is ongoing. If we're only talking about these folks in these spaces as aberrations or outliers, we're undermining the stories, the livelihoods, and the existences of the folks who live and operate in country, in the rural south, in Appalachia on a day to day basis. Are these queer folks — and/or these people of color, these differently abled folks — any less valid than those whose stories are made accessible through fame, through access to high-dollar publicists, through virality, through a more trendy or palatable form of art? ... Definitely not! And yet, the prevalent narrative when we find examples of queer people accessing country and country-adjacent spaces is that they are exceptions to the "norm." When the reality is that if all other variables were made equal and if erasure weren't still disproportionately affecting these communities, queerness in country would not seem so rare or unheard of. Especially in an artform with such a strong historical connection to rhinestones!
Steacy Easton: As someone who grew up in the west, listening to country and going to gay dances and all of that business, waiting for a song or songs that queer folks could dance to, or f*** to, or have their hearts broken to, I am really glad that it exists.
Even so, all sorts of these stories still aren't being told. The coming out stories, the falling in love stories, the heart break stories, etc; and so queer folks do this all the time, where they take texts that might possibly include them if in an oblique light, and they write stories from them.
I have been working a lot about this book on Boise, and about the sexual culture of the west, and something that has been written about quite a bit in the last few years is that sexual orientation and sexual activities are not the same thing. There has been a lot of writing about the west and the midwest, where sex between men is not always gay sex. I always wonder about where the country song about the brojob is, where the country tale about what happens in pickup trucks in the dark, between buddies — there are all these southern and western categories — buddy being one of them, or gentleman bachelor or spinster aunt — those seem rare in country.
Brittney McKenna: There's an incredible amount of diversity — of sound, of style, of race, of age — across the queer country community, if you're willing to look for it. If we look at it as its own community or subset of country/roots, I think it's one of the most exciting, innovative and dynamic in American music.
Jon Freeman: I grew up in the rural South and always had this suspicion that country music wasn't really intended for me. In realizing my own sexual preferences, before I ever came out, I didn't hear much in the way of my own feelings and desires being reflected, whether overtly or in more subtle ways, among the ostensibly hetero material of the mid-'90s.
But I was wrong about that, to a degree, and the truth is that I probably wasn't looking that hard until I was older. Because anyone who's spent any time in a drag bar — particularly around the South — knows how much Reba, Dolly, Tammy and the other campy queens of melodrama are revered. That was certainly an eye-opening realization to me, that many of the first ladies of country were already elevating resonant stories of hard-won survival and independence, along with messier narratives about infidelity, codependence and turning tricks for cash ("here's your one chance, Fancy") into popular art. I see echoes of that today, not just in mainstream stars like Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, but in the exaggerated persona of Trixie Mattel and her solemn folk songs.
With the current crop of queer performers, I appreciate that many of them are leaning in and offering reports directly from their own lives, from distinctly queer and intersectional perspectives, rather than offering vague, pronoun-free accounts of one's existence. A few years back, it seemed like the overarching tendency was to downplay an artist's queer identity with that idea of "I may be gay, but that's not all I am," which, I don't know, seems pretty obvious.
What do you feel is, or has been, lacking when it comes to visibility?
Brittney McKenna: I'm looking forward to hearing more songs that use same-sex pronouns and aren't shy about telling honest stories of queer love and loss. Ty Herndon's re-recording of "What Mattered Most" was an exciting example of what this can look like, and I hope it inspires younger queer artists to share their full truths in song. The Highwomen's "If She Ever Leaves Me" was, too. Representation matters, and for queer people — especially youth, but we older queers need it, too — to hear stories that sound like their own is so important.
Steacy Easton: With Lil Nas X coming out, and the discussions of his race and Billboard's historic racism, one of the things that remains absent is discussion of country outside of white spaces. There is a rise of indigenous two-spirit that are so close to country, and I want them all to become very famous. I am thinking of Shawnee Talbot, from Six Nations, near Hamilton, who started in a Shania Twain cover band, or the Australian Aboriginal blues shouter Mojo Juju, who must have a little country in there. This seems to be a place to mention Jeremy Dutcher's complex, and lovely annotated version of Joni Mitchell's "Cherokee Louise," sung the night of his Polaris win, maybe not country, but sure part of the conversation about folk, gender, sex and desire. (There is a lot of country music in indigenous communities--on reservation radio, at Pow Wows, at dances and the like. It would be nice if some of that music was queer--some of it very much might be, but I am very white, and those spaces aren't mine. Part of acknowledging those spaces as not mine, is noting that indigenous communities have a wide and complex understanding of gender and sexuality--that understanding was quashed by settlers--so there is this "two-spirit" term that is used, but the term is vexed, because of the colonial history. Just like we need to understand the wide varieties of African American experience that make up some of country music, we should understand the indigenous histories, but realize a call for queer indigeneity bumps into similar problems of colonial intervention.)
Two other things — I think that we just don't talk about class like country used to. I would like a queer country song about being broke, and lesbian versions of Mary Chapin Carpenters' "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" or the work of Martina McBride.
Nadine Hubbs: Female and transmasculine masculinity in country personas. We see country drag queens — e.g., Trixie Mattel and the queens in Dumplin' — far more than we see country drag kings or trans men. They definitely exist, but in far lower-profile spaces (e.g., see the academic work of Shana Goldin-Perschbacher on trans men in country-ish Americana). This difference is consistent with the differing levels of visibility between drag queens and kings in U.S. society broadly. But I wonder what it means in country, where prevailing forms of masculinity among cis-male artists favor (to invoke gay terminology) mostly muscle twinks (metrosexualish "hunks," in straight terms: Jimmie Allen, Tim McGraw, practically every dude) and, to a lesser extent, bears (Zac Brown, Chris Stapleton).
And though there's lots of emotionality and (certain kinds of) vulnerability from cis-male artists ("I Drive Your Truck," "Humble and Kind," "I Believe Most People Are Good" etc.), it's hard to find examples of "effeminate" maleness — including lithe or skinny bodies (so many male artists beef up if they break through on the charts — e.g., Billy Currington). This is one of many ways in which Lil Nas X provides a breath of fresh air. He veers toward the lithe category, tags himself as "Lil" and rocks a wardrobe with beyond-Nudie-suit flair.
Justin Hiltner: Queer storytellers. Especially queer experts who can care for the stories of these folks in these rural, southern, rootsy, vernacular music/art communities in a way that honors them and lifts them up.
We need more privileged folks — and I'm not just talking straight/cis/white people, I'm talking white/cis gay men and women, folks that may belong to a marginalized community but have access to higher class levels, etc. — to actively step aside and point the spotlight at those less privileged. Perhaps we've heard enough stories about white/cis/gay men and could stand to hear more from trans men and women of color, as an example. We, the more privileged of the underprivileged, still have power afforded by that privilege and we ought to use it.
Jon Freeman: The thing that has eluded me until fairly recently is expressions of desire and masculinity that feel more in line with my life, particularly from male performers. Perhaps understandable, given that it's only been in the last 20 years or so that gay television characters were allowed to be anything other than witty and stylish, while remaining chaste. So it's been gratifying to see desire represented in a number of different ways in recent country releases, as with Brandon Stansell and Indiana Queen's spicy multimedia offerings, just as it has to see Little Bandit demonstrate the elasticity of both "masculine" and "feminine" norms. On top of that, those old country narratives about survival are now being overlaid with stories about queer breakups and even coming out stories of people who grew up in small southern towns or religious communities. It seems like these things have a tendency to anger people who want to go on about the supposed "values" of country music, even though Saturday night excess and all it entails has been part of the tradition just as long as Sunday morning reverence.
I think that's why I chafed a bit at Taylor Swift's decision to cast rural, working-class types as the enemy of queer folks. Bigotry comes in many forms, and it's just as present in moneyed urban enclaves as it is among poor folks in rural communities. Plus, there also seems to be a misunderstanding about the fact that many queer folks are still living in rural areas, often by choice, and many of them are members of the same working class. They still find support and acceptance, even though it may not be on the diverse scale of what a larger city might offer.
What limitations and blind spots have you picked up on in old and new conversations about queerness and countriness?
Justin Hiltner: So many blind spots are caused simply by an unwillingness — whether conscious or subconscious — to inhabit these spaces (of rural, southern, Appalachian, rootsy queers and other communities) and truly understand them. That and the fact that so many people accept the white/straight-washed historical record of western civilization as fact, sight unseen. I see so many stories about "firsts." "First queer man to _____;" "First black woman to _____;" "First _____ to _____;" How many of these stories are not firsts at all, but simply the first visible examples thereof?
I refuse to refer to myself or let others refer to me, ever, as the first openly gay banjo player in bluegrass. Because, first of all, it's undoubtedly false, whether I know it or not. And it's not to toot my own horn, either. This is simply to illustrate to everyone — and remind myself — that gay people have always existed. Everywhere. Since the beginning of human sexuality.
Nadine Hubbs: There's still under-recognition of the sheer normalcy and familiarity of queerness — of friends, family members, selves — in the lives of many country music fans, whether they're perceived as rural/nonmetropolitan or working-class, or otherwise. (This is a central point of my "Jolene" piece, here, and discussed here on the Dolly Parton's America podcast.)
Steacy Easton: As much as I love Dolly — and Dolly is a goddess — she is the one artist that people think of as safe for queers to listen to. Dolly is for everyone, just as Reba's "Fancy" is for everyone, and for certain refined tastes Bobbie Gentry. But making Dolly an organ of authenticity kind of prevents us from recognizing how self-constructed her response to class, gender and sexuality is — if we think of Dolly as sui generis, it prevents us from finding other Appalachian queer histories.
What queer approaches to country-leaning music have you found to be the most artistically successful or provocative?
Steacy Easton: The idea of domestic melodrama as a queer form, not only in the cineaste winks of [Douglas] Sirk, but in most of Miranda Lambert's catalog, especially in the video for her song "Mama's Broken Heart" — or Carrie Underwood's "Two Black Cadillacs"; Lucas Crawford, the Canadian poet, doing a drag king act called Alberta Beef in the early 2000s; the Nashville Burlesque artist Virginia Dare Me. Also, Trixie Mattell — which only exists through a deep internalizing of Nashville's tropes of hyper femininity; it's drag as an act of beloved mirroring.
Brittney McKenna: I don't think there's any right or wrong way for queer people to create queer art, so long as they are true to their own experiences. Some artists are more overt in their queerness — whether via how they present themselves visually (like Orville Peck) or in their choice to write "political," message-driven music — and some are simply queer people writing songs about their lived experiences; both are valid and necessary to me.
Jon Freeman: Trixie Mattel's folk-oriented material on Two Birds and One Stone, as well as her recent turn into a more power pop/new wave sound, add another side to a performer who is already multidimensional. Little Bandit's reverence for classic country forms, mixed with his arch sense of humor and gorgeous voice, also work extremely well for me — and I loved the surprise makeout session in his "Bed of Bad Luck" video. I also love the way Justin Hiltner is playing around with queer narratives and long-established musical traditions in bluegrass, where divides between tradition and progress are frequently debated. And, for a former punk kid like myself, Sarah Shook's hard-edged, gender-flipping interpretation of country is at once blistering, funny and frequently cathartic.
Justin Hiltner: I truly believe that roots music is a space that can be open to all — regardless of identity, ability, background, belief and so on. Yet I still see a dearth of artists, musicians, stories and experiences that reflect mine: Having grown up steeped in a genre and a tradition that I did not realize excluded me and my identity until it was too late, I was too deep, and my entire being loved this thing that might not ever love me back. (Turns out, it does and it will.) We need to make sure we're raising up people like that with as much vehemence and passion as we are the queer, underrepresented and marginalized folks who've ended up in country from less traditional routes.