Towards a Queer Country Sound
Hi, friends! So sorry I’ve been off the radar lately – getting COVID will do that to you. I am triple-vaxxed and got a little too casual with not wearing masks in cafes! Keep wearing yours, no matter what your dumbass mayors and governors say!
Anyways, I’ve been sitting on this topic for a little while, but International Women’s Day (which, btw, is a day of actual activism and not social media posts outside the US) seemed like a good week to tackle this: Sapphic sounds and queer country music.
Emma Madden’s thoughtful essay, “The Limitations of the ‘Sapphic anthem’” on NPR has got me thinking. In the essay, Madden argues that the latest wave of sad girl guitar music (Phoebe Bridgers, Girl in Red, etc.) is enforcing a stereotypical image of queer women (I hate the word Sapphic but please do tell me why it appeals to you) as white, waifish, and wistful, eliding the rich history of queer women in punk and women’s music, as well as queer BIPOC artists’ invaluable contributions to these genres. Madden argues that this aesthetic ultimately desexualizes young queer women, focusing on longing than the actual consummation of relationships.
Girl in Red could punch me in the face and I still wouldn’t know who she is. I generally don’t listen to these artists on purpose (yes, even Lucy Dacus) because a) I am scared of feeling sad and, as a corollary, b) I don’t think apathetic melancholy (to use a phrase from Two Cow Garage) is a particularly useful emotion. Again, reply to this e-mail and tell me why I’m wrong!
But it also got me thinking: is there a specific sound to queer country music? Queer country artists are, of course, just as diverse to their cishet counterparts in terms of subgenres. On the other hand, I can listen to a country artist (particularly cis women) and be able to figure out if they’re queer without reading anything about them. So what am I picking up on?
I recently read Stephanie Vander Wel’s Hilbilly Maidens, Okies, and Cowgirls, which I do not recommend if, like me, you’re not a musicologist.* The book’s biggest contribution, I think, is taking a deep analysis into the way women in country music use(d) specific vocal techniques to convey specific emotions: intriguingly, Vander Wel argues, the major women of early country music constantly pushed the envelope by adopting masculine techniques like yodeling and belting, pushing back against middle class femininity.
I argue that, these days, queer country artists (and perhaps my ear is more attuned to cis women since I am one) especially indicate their queer identities by transgressing our current gendered expectations of pop music vocal techniques. A little extra vibrato from Orville Peck, an emphasis on head voice by Katie Pruitt. can personally think of several country and Americana artists who employ these “transgressions,” are not publicly out, and notably avoid pronouns in their love songs
A lot of you are more acquainted with these things than I am, and can write about it more eloquently. I. But next time you listen to your favorite queer country artists (or maybe even the Rainbow Rodeo playlist!) see if you hear what I hear.
- Basically, the book tries to cover too much ground and doesn’t really do a good job of providing historical background or a feminist analysis of the information she presents.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Speaking of gender, Brandi Cooley wrote a fantastic article about growing up queer in the South in the ’90s, and the importance of the mullet. Here’s a brief excerpt from her essay “Billy Ray the Gay Away.” You can read the rest by pre-ordering Rainbow Rodeo #2
Decades before Miley Cyrus slathered her best birthday suit in glitter and took to swingin’ on steel balls, her Daddy Billy Ray swaggered onto the pop- country music scene with some steel balls of his own. Held tightly in place and protected by a cool layer of stonewash jean, he and his “boys” took the mainstream country scene by storm with the now infamous single, “Achy Breaky Heart.”
The song inspired much fanfare as well as the creation of the hyper pink, painted t-shirts that simply said,” Achy Breaky” in funky font and were often emboldened by giant, bedazzled hearts. If a kid of nine or ten happened to be wearing one of said shirts at the local skating rink when “the” song came on, it would buy them three minutes of popularity, several high fives and if they were lucky, somebody might want to hold their hand during the next slow skate to the song, “ Like Two Sparrows In a Hurricane.” (Thank you, Tanya Tucker ).
For us little country queer gals, coming off the high of the achy breaky fame meant that we might be willing to ignore the sweaty palms of a well-meaning young lad who had no way of knowing that the flannel shirt tied around the waist was the only “freak flag” we were willing to pull out of our proverbial closet. The “It’s the 90’s!”, devil-may-care notion had not trickled into our little Southern towns (in fact, we’re still waiting on that.) The word “representation” was nothing more than an SAT hotword at the time and so we waited. We waited, not fully realizing what we were waiting on and why we craved it. You might say it was a “constant craving. Ahem.
Mercy Bell is writing a gay folk rock musical about Filipino gay erotica magnate Dom Orejudos
Proud to announce I’m working on a folk rock musical about Filipino American gay erotic art icon Dom Orejudos (on the right) & his longtime partner Chuck Renslow & the empire they created. pic.twitter.com/oBlTtoiX0E— Mercy Bell (@mercybell) February 18, 2022
Hey, Asheville! There is a cool queer country concert right in your town tomorrow, March 12th!
Hey, Nashville! Queer country artist Charlie Mercy is launching a queer photography exhibit called gayface on April 8th!
Read Ash Mullins’ essay “Appalachian Stockholm Syndrome: Love & Queerness & Radical Rural Community” on Salty
Rainbow Rodeo Playlist
Updated every two weeks!