Monday, 8 September 2014

Queer Country

Perhaps it’s just me, but I always thought country and western music was always a bit camp. When I was growing up country music was all tassels and rhinestones with Dolly Parton being so prominent (no reference to body parts intended!). The image of a male country and western singer was as opposite to my view of a butch cowboy as it could be (I watched too much “Bonanza”, probably).

It is, therefore, strange that there are so few major country singers who are openly lgbt. I didn’t realise how resistant the country music industry was to openly gay artists and songs.

Having said that, it is also strange that there is a prolific amount of lgbt country music out there, but not necessarily in the mainstream. It can hardly be called “underground” music either.

Over the years lgbt music and musicians have been becoming more accepted and it is only among the “hardcore” of each genre where resistance to lgbt artists has been most vocal.

Perhaps the first well-known lgbt singer with country music roots that most people will have heard of is k d lang. Her first album, “Truly Western Experience”, was released in 1984. She didn’t come out until 1992, so I’ve taken that year as a starting point (or ending point?) and will look at lgbt country singers who came before her, a couple of openly gay and lesbian performers who can be regarded as pioneers in the genre.

For several decades before the 1970s there were a handful of country songs with lyrics that were perceived as being gay. One of the earliest was called “Lavender Cowboy” from the 1930s. Although there’s nothing much to say it has any reference to homosexuality the song was banned from US radio.

The attitude to homosexuality in country music in the decades that followed is summed up in the title of a 1951 song “The Sissy Song”.

Out of the gay rights campaigns of the 1960s and early 70s came the first openly gay country album. It was called “Lavender Country”, echoing the title of the 1930s song, and it was released in 1973 by the band of the same name.

Founder of the Lavender Country band was Patrick Haggerty. Hailing from the American north-west and raised on a farm with country music all around him Patrick found country the best way to express what he felt about being a gay man in the US. The band included 2 other lgbt musicians, Eve Morris and Michael Carr, and a straight lead guitarist, Bob Hammerstromm. The album wasn’t produced by a big Nashville label, but by Seattle’s Gay Community Social Services.

The band toured up and down the west coast and performed at Pride events. Lavender Country never made another album but its influence and significance was recognised when the album was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2000.

Also in 1973 a pioneer of lesbian country music, Alix Dobkin, released her debut LP “Lavender Jane Loves Women”, and she became the first openly lesbian country singer to release an openly lesbian album. Alix was a seasoned established singer-songwriter on the Greenwich Village scene since the early 1960s. It was when she came out as a lesbian in 1972 that she began to write openly lesbian lyrics and songs.

Throughout the late 1970s lgbt country music performers began to produce independent albums and perform at newly-formed lgbt country music events and societies. They became popular at Pride events across the US.

Since the early 1990s, not long after k d lang came out, lgbt country music began to grow and become more popular in the lgbt community. I don’t think the latter was influenced by the former as much as the former was by the latter. The movement built up gradually until, in 1998, the Gay and Lesbian Country Music Association was formed.

If you’re interested in lgbt country music and want to know more go to the Queer Music heritage website here, here and here.

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