Musicians Making Their Own Path in “Queer Country”

Like the flower-wearing Delta Dawn, country music can seem both gorgeous and stuck like a faded rose in days gone by. A genre defined by emotional sincerity and connection (however distant) to a simpler rural way of life, the country music industry can also be exclusionary and insular in who it highlights. In her new book, Queer Country, Shana Goldin-Perschbacher focuses on the contributions of queer and trans country musicians and how they have interpreted a genre that has often marginalized them. The relationship, needless to say, is complicated. But, as Patrick Haggerty, one of the first openly gay country musicians, puts it in Queer Country: “well, honey, I wasn’t oblique, so I might as well’ve been country.”

A music professor of music studies at Temple University, Goldin-Perschbacher is a specialist in interdisciplinary popular music studies and identity studies. Motivated by musical articulations of social justice issues, her explorations of contemporary sonic, visual, and social media take shape through critical, ethnographic, analytical, and historical methods. Queer Country is a book that combines a deep scholarship of country music, firsthand testimony from trans and queer musicians, and her own personal reflections. 

I started off our conversation by asking about how she first started listening for a distinctly queer sound in country music.

When I was in college, I was a viola performance major in classical music and I found that area of study a bit frustrating because I didn’t entirely want to focus on the composer’s intent around the piece. I was interested in performers and listeners.

I eventually found a popular music class in gender, sexuality, and popular music taught by Nadine Hubbs. She wrote the book, Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, which focuses on the working class and their identity and engagement with country music. It was in her class that I finally found what I was looking for, in terms of the ways that meaning is made by listeners and performers.

And then I knew someone who identified as straight and yet was deeply obsessed with Jeff Buckley. I sort of fell into this whole world of looking at straight guys being enamored of [Jeff Buckley] and wondering about their sexuality. That was my first project where I really started to understand the intense, deep ways that music matters to people and could affect their own understanding of self. So that’s sort of the long answer, but that’s where it came from. 

Queer Country does provide some early historical context for queer country music and highlight some fascinating musicians. You call Patrick Haggerty and his Lavender Country album the “first openly gay country album” and it came out in 1973! How did that album get made and what was, and is, its impact? Because he’s reconnected with some contemporary musicians today. 

Oh absolutely. Patrick and his collective that he was working with at the time, who helped shape this album with him, were all part of the Stonewall-Riot era of queer people who were desperate for change; they were desperate for a path to have a life and have people accept them as gay. They weren’t interested simply in tolerance. They were interested in transforming the world. And that’s what they felt was necessary to make things right not just for gay people, but for Black people, for women, and for poor people. They were really thinking about intersectionality during that time. Patrick describes them as “terrified but desperate for change.” 

They had the support of gay social services [organizations] in Seattle. It was not a music producer [putting the album altogether]. It was really through activism and community support that this album came about. It’s very different from a regular music album of any kind, let alone a country album. And you know, country music is pretty regimented in terms of how artists move through that system.

This was definitely not Nashville [laughs]!

Not in the slightest! In the Nashville system there is a series of gatekeepers that you move through in order to create an album and then you have success by being played on the radio and then perform at the [Grand Ole] Opry and things like that. This was a completely different world. And it wasn’t like Patrick was trying to have a career in country music. And many years later, the album only existed in an underground way where people would share it. I mean, there were only 1,000 copies. 

And then, much more recently, Trixie Mattel and Orville Peck have been able to connect with Patrick and connect their much more commercially successful careers with this history of activism in order to demonstrate a linkage around a quest for justice. Also, for a sense of authenticity. Because [Mattel and Peck] exploded so much and appeal to such a wide range of people, so they want to secure their queer identity and their kind of credentials as activists in a way.

You highlight a quote from Harlan Howard, an older country songwriter, that “country music is three chords and the truth.” The quote opens up a discussion about how queer and trans country musicians express authenticity in their music. I think, for many readers, they might judge country music as an inherently hostile place for queer and trans folks, or, at the least, not as welcoming as pop music or dance music. But how do musicians themselves connect in an authentic, or real, way with the music?

That was really sort of the question of the book in a lot of ways. I think that there’s a draw to the kind of simplicity of storytelling in country music. It’s true that it hasn’t told many stories about queer or trans people, although something like the Lavender Country suggests that country music has very long known about the “sissy” story and has positioned itself against that. Country music tells stories about different human experiences than some other kinds of music, right? Like your love for your dog [laughs]. Or your feelings about your grandparents. Things that aren’t like Lady Gaga songs necessarily [laughs].

Like wistfulness and nostalgia, yeah.

I guess the other piece is that country music has long been identified with rural life and with the working class. I think, in many ways, this has very much to do with the music industry’s decision in the 1920s to create categories of music called “race records” and “hillbilly records” that told people essentially: this is what Black listeners should listen to and this is what working class, rural, white Southern listeners should listen to ⏤ but without really asking them what kind of music do you like? So some of this is artificially created in a way, but over the last one hundred years people have certainly absorbed these categories and come to identify with them. And it’s quite painful to be left out of that if you happen to be LGBTQ+ and are living in a rural area or working class. 

Obviously, queer and trans people have been listening to this music all along and making it or participating in that industry. Being able to tell your story through the format of a type of music that’s trusted for its truth-telling power about your people ⏤ that’s important. The whole narrative of coming out in the late 20th/early 21st century, as the scholar Mary Gray has talked about, has focused on a coastal, middle-class way of differentiating yourself from your family and your peers. It’s all about reinventing your community and moving to a city. And there’s plenty of people who don’t want to do that. Rural life is about depending on your community, and you don’t want to cut the ties of support that you need to survive there. I think being able to tell your story in a form of music that makes sense to your neighbors and your family members was finally something possible for these musicians in this particular moment. 

One of the concepts that I found most fascinating book was when you talked about “genre trouble,” and how queer and trans musicians often experience conflict between their music and their identity. You quote one songwriter, Elena Elias Krell, as saying “I’m trans in my transness, and I’m trans in my musicianness, and I’m not planning on stopping anytime soon.” 

That’s been one of the questions that has been inspiring my research from the very beginning. Like I said before, the music industry invented these categories that were based on identity stereotypes and presumptions from outsiders. These were powerful people looking at minorities and less powerful groups and making presumptions about them and what they’d like to listen to and who they are. And musicians really push against these categories; they want to take any gig that will pay them [laughs]. Genre can be both extremely limiting and also a parameter that’s needed in music.

People who are at the margins of these genres, these sort of presumed identity categories, get asked about it all the time. Meshell Ndegeocello, who’s an amazing bass player and neo-soul singer, talked about having her queerness seem like it’s challenging her Blackness. She was the only Black musician at her label. And yet executives were calling her album Bitter “too white.” And she was saying “I’m the only Black person in this building except for the security guard, and all these white people are saying that my album sounds white and I’m a Black person and I made it.” She plays jazz, she plays neo-soul, she’s sort of dabbled with hip hop elements, is a singer songwriter and also does chamber pop. She’s really all over the map musically. She’s really versatile and creative. And being bisexual, and Black, and a woman ⏤ that has all worked against her musical career. People don’t know how to frame her and they constantly ask about her identity rather than her music. The genre and the gender and sexuality and the race piece is just absolutely critical and completely linked. It seems like it’s made it impossible to be an out queer, or trans, country musician; just made it an incompatible combination basically.

Essentially, how they define themselves by their identity, and against it, and lean into it and lean against it.

I really wrestled with that a lot in terms of the book’s title. And for a long time, I thought I couldn’t possibly have a title as simple as Queer Country. Until eventually, it became absolutely clear that that’s exactly what it should be called. What my book needed to do was to listen to these musicians talking about how impossible it was to categorize their music. I just insisted on it ⏤ that’s what it’s going to be! Because in this industry, with the way that all of these genres have been divided, it hasn’t been at all friendly to these musicians. So they’ve made their own path. And, of course, their music isn’t going to fit neatly into any of these categories because it hasn’t been allowed. And yet they’ve had different levels of success interacting with different communities and their music has been meaningful. I really wanted that to come through in the book.

Towards the end of the book, you talk about Orville Peck and Trixie Mattel and Lil Nas X. And Lil Nas X is one of the biggest musicians right now, country or not. So with the caveat that you’re not a forecaster [laughs], do you have any idea what the future of queer country looks like?

As I was writing the conclusion of the book, I’ve been noticing for the last 15 or 20 years in LGBTQ+ activism that if you’re a white gay man it can sometimes be a bit easier to gain some acceptance now. Depending, of course, on who you are and having an easy relationship around masculinity, and class, and being good-looking, and being charming and stuff like that. That’s different for Lil Nas X, although he’s also not continuing to pursue country a lot; although he did have that collaboration with Diplo that sort of stemmed from the initial success of Old Town Road. But he has made his way into hip-hop, more or less, since that initial, amazingly viral song. But it does seem like lesbians and trans people have a more challenging path in terms of country acceptance. Although really since I turned in the manuscript some Black queer women have really had success in country. I’m thinking about Yola, Brittney Spencer, and Allison Russell. I hope this is an opening for them. I know they are still fighting very hard. 

You can listen to Shana Goldin-Perschbacher’s playlist of queer and trans country artists on Spotify and Tidal.

Queer Country
By Shana Goldin-Perschbacher
University of Illinois Press
Published March 22, 2022