Reclaiming Country: LGBTQ+ Artists Forging A New Tradition

Reclaiming Country: LGBTQ+ Artists Forging A New Tradition

May 18, 2021 in Features

by DJ Unruly

By: Rylie Jones

As a largely conservative and traditional genre, country music does not seem like it could be a place for queer people to feel comfortable in. In fact, the idea of a queer country artist seems largely antithetical. However, newer artists like Lil Nas X, Trixie Mattel, and Orville Peck have provided meaningful representation, and a breath of fresh air, to a genre that has seemingly remained stagnant since the 1970s.

While “out” country musicians are few and far between, queer country music has been around for decades. The first queer country music song released is likely to be “And I Love My Fruit” by Sweet Violet Boys, better known as Prairie Ramblers, in 1939. Not much is known about the sexualities of the band members, but the song is full of queer sexual innuendos, and it wouldn’t make much sense for a group of straight men to risk their careers, or even their lives, if the song didn’t represent their identity.

Following the Sweet Violet Boys is Wilma Burgess, a personal favorite of mine. Burgess is seen as the first “out” country musician in the music industry. While she wasn’t out publicly, she refused to “play straight” and chose to keep the majority of her songs gender neutral. Burgess’ song “Baby made it on the Billboard Country and Western music charts, thus starting her career. She had a few other tracks make it onto the Billboard charts, including Don’t Touch Me and Misty Blue, two other ambiguously not-straight songs. In 1978 she ended her music career due to the piousness of the industry, and went on to open Nashville’s first lesbian bar, The Hitching Post.

While Burgess is credited as the first “out” country musician, the first true queer country album was a self-titled album released in 1973 by Lavender Country. The band, fronted by gay-rights and anti-racism activist Patrick Haggerty, was the first openly gay, and proud, band to come into the industry. Songs like “Straight White Patterns” and “Back in the Closet Again” talk openly about being gay as well as topics like toxic masculinity and racism. The opening track, “Come Out Singing”, starts the album with the lyrics “Waking up to say, hip hip hooray, I’m glad I’m gay”. This statement of not only acceptance, but pride and happiness with one’s identity, is incredibly important for queer youth, and even straight people, to hear.

Haggerty credits his acceptance of his queer identity from a young age to his father. Growing up in the small town of Dry Creek, Washington, a town rampant with racism, sexism, and homophobia in the 1950s, Haggerty says he was less aware of his own identity than his dad was. Haggerty’s father passed away when he was, 17, but before he died, he gave Haggerty this advice:

“You’ll be alright, just remember this: you’re no better than any of the rest of them but you’re just as Goddamn good, and if anybody gives you any grief about that, hit ’em with your purse.”

This advice has carried through into Lavender Country’s music, with both the album and the band sporting an unapologetic and confident attitude. The album is littered with innuendos and suggestive lyrics, as well as gay pride and political commentary.

Haggerty’s first song he ever wrote for Lavender Country was “Back In the Closet Again”, and it provides commentary on the lack of support of the LGBTQ+ community within leftist political movements. In a 2014 interview for The Quietus, Haggerty stated that “I thought it was so ironic that we were having to kick our way into the socialist and progressive movement, never mind mainstream society. They didn’t want to hear about homosexuals either. So that’s what that song was about.”

The song was ahead of its time, but it was well received, thus inspiring the rest of the Lavender Country album. As the LP was written, it became a community project. "The lesbian and gay movement in Seattle took on Lavender Country as a project. There was so much to do. And many people were involved, not just the musicians."

And then the album was released, and word was spread through gay underground papers.

"The people we made Lavender Country for were the gay and lesbian people across the country that were in the closet. That was the bunch we made it for. I don't think anyone who was interested in buying gay music in 1973 turned down the LP because it was country. You see what I am saying? People were going after the information that was in the album. We were all desperate for information back then. There was very little at the time,” Haggerty said.

After a few years of success within the gay community, Lavender Country disbanded, and Haggerty married his partner of 31 years, and began playing in care homes for people with Alzheimer’s.

As the 70s came to an end, a new queer country artist, Kathryn Dawn Lang, or k.d. lang, came into stardom. Her campy sound and androgynous look was immediately met with criticism and controversy in the country music scene, which continued to follow her even after she moved into a more contemporary pop sound.

Lang was born in Edmonton, Alberta, and was fascinated by country music, specifically Patsy Cline, from a young age. She formed a Patsy Cline tribute band in 1983, and began playing at local country and western venues throughout Canada.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, lang started gaining mainstream popularity. She sang at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics and won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for her 1989 album, Absolute Torch and Twang. In 1992, lang released her adult contemporary pop album, Ingénue, and came out as lesbian the same year. Subsequently, lang’s music was barred from many US Country radio stations, and she faced a picket line outside of the 1993 Grammy awards ceremony.

Throughout her career, lang was a prominent activist in gay rights, animal rights, and human rights campaigns. She spent much of her time in the ‘90s advocating for HIV/AIDS care and research, and created her “Meat Stinks” campaign during that time as well. As a result, her records were boycotted in radio stations in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana, and Nebraska throughout the campaign.

Because lang was the first mainstream queer artist within country music, and because she was a woman, she faced a lot of criticism and hatred within the country music industry. Her criticism was different from that of Lavender Country because they had different target audiences. Lavender Country’s music was not meant for the mainstream, and those consuming their media were largely queer. Therefore, they received less criticism from large audiences, because they didn’t have an audience like kd lang did.

Through the ‘90s, lang maintained relevance, and new queer artists, such as the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and Melissa Etheridge made their debut. These artists were before their time, and were passed off as “neo-hippies” and were not recognized seriously as contributors to the country music scene.

After the ‘90s, queer country stalled until 2011, when Karen Pittelman of Karen and the Sorrows began hosting The Queer Country Quarterly, an event that showcased queer country music artists. This safe space for queer country musicians has helped kickstart a movement throughout the 2010s with many queer artists.

With new artists like Lil Nas X gaining stardom from his country hit “Old Town Road”, there is hope for the future of queer country. While Lil Nas X has transitioned into more of a pop artist, artists like Trixie Mattel and Orville Peck are continuing to pave the way for queer country.

Drag queen Trixie Mattel says that even before entering the drag world, she grew up with country music: “I listened to a lot of what my grandparents listened to: George Jones, Johnny Cash — a lot of old country singers. Patsy Cline.” She named Dolly Parton as a big inspiration as well. Mattel says that her music isn’t about the gay experience; it’s about the human experience.

Along with Mattel, Orville Peck brings a breath of fresh air to the country music scene. As a child, Peck moved around the country frequently, and because of that, he didn’t feel like he would be able to identify as a country singer: “...I was an outsider because I didn’t grow up in Texas or Tennessee or Oklahoma or whatever, and that felt more like what I was afraid was going to hold me back from being a country musician than the idea that I was gay.”

For Peck, it didn’t occur to him that country music wasn’t for him because of his identity. In fact, he felt quite the opposite: “I think the lyrics and the message of country – it felt like it was even more pertinent to me because I was gay.”

Orville Peck has gained stardom throughout the past few years, recording with artists like Shania Twain, the Unrighteous Brothers, and Trixie Mattel, all while wearing his signature fringe mask.

Peck says that the country music world is becoming more welcoming to those in the queer community, and as new artists like T.J. Osborne of the Osborne Brothers, Brandi Carlile, and Cody Alan, a CMT radio and TV host, come out, it seems like he might be right.

Graphics: Lindsay Brunger

Editor: Tony Ninov

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