The Surprising And Subversive History Of Queer Artists In Country Music
Subversion is embedded in country music’s history - and clearly, its future.
Last year I spent a lot of time listening to an artist by the name of Orville Peck, the perennially masked cowboy who went from relative obscurity as a punk and hardcore drummer to one of the year’s most-hyped artists with debut album Pony.
Peck, if you’re uninitiated, writes tender, open-hearted country with a Roy Orbison drawl, camp western melodrama and reverb-hugging shoegaze. Lyrically, songs like ‘Big Sky’ and ‘Dead of Night’ are honest, achingly sincere reflections on queer intimacy that take and subvert one of country’s curious grounding rules — that at the end of the day, for all the sorrow and confession, it’s mostly an act. Revealing yourself honestly, maybe even earnestly, is one of the genre’s surviving bugbears.
As he explained to VICE last year, “There’s a lot of theatricality to what I do and that’s purposeful… It’s ironic because, at the same time, I truly believe this project is the most sincere thing I’ve done artistically, the most exposed that I’ve ever been as a singer, as a writer, as an artist.”
As a queer punk who grew up with a love of country, Peck and I don’t come from wildly different backgrounds. I was drawn to country early in my youth, well before I engaged with most other types of music, memorising Johnny Cash songs as they came over the radio in my parents’ car. With the arrival of file-sharing, I dove in, and nestled distinctively amongst the hardcore and death metal I was drawn to was Miranda Lambert’s Kerosene. Down the road there was Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris.
The nihilism of a song like Van Zandt’s ‘Waitin’ Around to Die’ suited my teenage disillusionment just fine, and its wild west storytelling transplanted me away from unromantically humdrum, middle class suburbia that feels infinitely more unbearable than it actually is when you’re in your youth.
“Country music isn’t always welcoming to LGBT people. But we still love it, even if it doesn’t always love us back.”
At that time, contemporary country was at the advent of what has come to be classified as “bro-country” — artists like Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton doing by-the-numbers odes to drinking, blue jeans, trucks, and — almost exclusively — headstrong women. It didn’t resonate, and I was yet to discover there was actually an entire hidden pocket of artists who brought something to country that I could trace — in some way — to my own experience.
I found solace in queer country-folk singers like Brandi Carlile, and I’ve been a life-long k.d. lang tragic. Both are artists who, like Peck, brought sincerity to the genre at a time when it felt propped up entirely by straight white man machismo and self-aggrandising.
Queer And Conservative
Of course, country music remains entwined with conservatism. In the early 2010s, Hank Williams Jr. — the son of the legendary Hank Williams Sr. — courted controversy for comparing Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, and criticising the then-President for his “love of gays”.
As Karen and the Sorrows’ Karen Pittleman once said, “Country music isn’t always welcoming to LGBTIQ people. But we still love it, even if it doesn’t always love us back.”
Throughout the genre’s history, the rare occasions in which queerness has been portrayed have typically fallen into one of two categories — it’s either a gag, or it’s an outright attack. Take a song like ‘Lavender Cowboy’, which has been adapted and recorded by an assortment of artists since its late 1920s inception, a thinly-veiled derogatory tale about a “cream-puff” cowboy with “only two hairs on his chest.”
Or look at a tune like Billy Briggs’ 1953 recording of ‘Sissy Song’, a bizarre cut in which Briggs swears the day he begins engaging in effeminate activities like wearing a bow tie or drinking iced tea is the same day he’ll go out behind the barn and uh, let a mule kick the shit out of him. It’s easy, then, to assume that country’s queered lineage — even with big name LGBTIQ supporters like Willie Nelson and the success of openly gay artists like Carlile — is somewhat lacking.
Welcome To Lavender Country
It’s difficult to talk about country’s queer history without acknowledging a band called Lavender Country. Fronted by songwriter Patrick Haggerty, the group are regularly credited with releasing the “first openly gay country album” with their self-titled debut in 1973.
From a musical angle, the songs on Lavender Country do not stray particularly far from the hallmarks of classic country songwriting. Sonically, they’re in the same ballpark as someone like Williams, with a kind of wonderfully campy, melodic effervescence.
If traditional country music’s portrayal of queer people hinged on making them the joke, the songs on Lavender Country turn the joke back around.
At the same time, Lavender Country is an album that demonstrates Haggerty’s politics and fundamental belief in social justice. Unsurprising, given Haggerty went on to work in gay rights and anti-racist activism, and twice ran for office (unsuccessfully) as an independent socialist.
On ‘Back in the Closet’, Haggerty sings about the need for unity in leftist political movements, while ‘Straight White Patterns’ details the lasting material damage that white, hetero and gender-normative culture does. If traditional country music’s portrayal of queer people hinged on making them the joke, the songs on Lavender Country turn the joke back around.
“I’m fightin’ for when there won’t be no straight men/‘Cause you all have a common disease,” opens Haggerty on ‘Crying These Cocksucking Tears’, arguably the most popular song on the record. It’s a bare-knuckled refute, and to hear Haggerty sing it in his charming Southern accent, it’s both devilishly funny and decidedly camp.
There’s a lot of genuine heart (and heartbreak) on the record, and it delves into Haggerty’s personal life considerably. I dare anyone listen to ‘I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You’ without feeling a pang in their chest.
Horses In The Back
I only discovered Lavender Country a few years ago, and it’s what drew me back to the genre as a whole. Since then, I’ve been finding more and more artists whose queerness and identity are inextricably linked to their country songwriting. Lately I’ve been listening a lot to Amythyst Kiah, who makes full-throated and fire-bellied Southern Gothic folk (2013 album Dig is an essential listen.)
In These C*cksucking Tears, the 2016 documentary about Lavender Country, Haggerty recounts how writing openly about his life throughout his music effectively barred him and his band from breaking through to mainstream country success.
“What Lavender Country meant [was that for] 40 years was the doors were shut. I was denied access to Nashville,” he explains. “I’m as country as they come, and if you challenge my credentials on my country-ness, you will do so at your peril.”
It’s interesting to think about Haggerty and Lavender Country’s “country credentials” being cast in doubt when you consider another queer artist whose legitimacy in the country music sphere has been questioned on different, but similarly dubious grounds — Lil Nas X.
Nas is responsible for one of the biggest hits of last year with viral country-rap crossover ‘Old Town Road’. While his ensuing debut 7 EP largely shies away from the yee-haw flavor of its biggest single, he’s largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in cowboy aesthetics within pop culture at the moment. The meteoric rise of ‘Old Town Road’ shone a light on some of the insecurities the genre’s old guard still holds.
In March 2019, Billboard removed the song from its Hot Country songs chart, claiming it did not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music.” With its plucked banjo backdrop and cowboy narrative, ‘Old Town Road’ should really clear any barrier for entry. Many argued that the removal had less to do with its composition, and more to do with anti-blackness — that the biases of those who get to decide whether a song is “country enough” were seeping through.
“It’s not that [the song] wasn’t country enough. He wasn’t white enough, even though black people created country music.”
“He’s not white enough”, commented rapper Lord Jamar at the time. “It’s not that [the song] wasn’t country enough. He wasn’t white enough, even though black people created country music.”
This is, of course, not without precedent. In 2016, Beyoncé’s Lemonade cut ‘Daddy Lessons’ was rejected by the Grammys country committee for that year. This is despite the fact that one listen makes it clear it’s hugely inspired by the Houston, Texas singer’s roots. With its acoustic guitars, hand-clap rhythm, and Knowles’ vocal delivery on the track, it’s a struggle to classify it as anything but country. The remix features the fucking Dixie Chicks on it.
It feels particularly pointed for anyone’s “credentials” to be called into question in a genre like country which, for all its balladeering, for all the hearts worn firmly on its denim sleeves, is a genre that indulges theatricality and expression at its core.
In this sense, the gatekeeping of what country is or isn’t fails to justify itself. After all, how could a genre which takes the ultra-masc violence of the Western cowboy mythology and twists it, often into campy pantomime, be anything less than a site for fucking with tradition? This subversion is embedded in country music’s history — and clearly, its future.
Alex Gallagher is a writer and artist. They tweet at @alexgllghr.