A view from the margins of Americana.
This is a really fascinating book about a sub-genre of Americana that many of us will know little, or nothing, about. As the author acknowledges early on, many people associate country music with more conservative lifestyles and “traditional” values that can be seen to be at odds with those of the LGBT community, but country music is also about telling stories and, often, about telling them from a marginalised position. Country music started out as a means for disadvantaged, rural working folk to tell their stories of everyday life and about the concerns and problems that they faced. Once you remember this you can see the appeal to a community that has suffered more than its fair share of misunderstanding and persecution down the years.
Through looking at the careers of openly gay country and Americana artists such as k.d. lang and Amy Ray, as well as more recently emerging acts that consider their non-mainstream sexual identities to be an integral part of their presence as a performer, despite operating in a section of the music industry not always known for its liberal attitudes, this author is seeking to “reinterpret country and Americana music through the lives and work of artists forced to the margins of the genre’s history”. Does she achieve this with ‘Queer Country’? I think that will be a decision for the individual reader but it is most certainly a book that raises awareness of these artists and their music, as well as encouraging the reader to re-evaluate their own perceptions of these musicians and the stories they tell.
The subtitle of the book is ‘Searching for a place within country and Americana music’ but the more you read this fascinating book the more you wonder if that’s really all that artists like Orville Peck, Trixie Mattel, Lil Nas X and a host of others are doing. If they’re looking to be accepted on their own terms then, perhaps, this is more about creating an area of country and Americana that reflects the people they are, rather than settling for a position within an established genre. Take an artist like Orville Peck, a pseudonym for a mystery character (though widely assumed to be Daniel Pitout, a Canadian musician and drummer with punk band Nu Sensae) who performs in a fringed mask and whose music, though tinged with country flavours, has more in common with the torch song style delivery of more openly gay musician, Rufus Wainwright, than it ever would with a Johnny Cash or Jason Isbell. Or someone like Brian Firkus, who performs both as a male country singer and in drag as a character known as Trixie Mattel, highlighting some of the comedic aspects of over accentuated femininity in traditional country cowgirls. Is it, perhaps, partly that these artists are drawn to the theatre that can be associated with some aspects of country and Americana music; it does seem that many of the acts singled out for mention in this book have a high percentage of theatre around their own performances. Significantly, I think, these are the sort of questions you find yourself asking as you read this book. One thing about a good book is that it makes you think. It encourages you to re-examine preconceptions and question things you thought you knew. On that basis, this is a very good book indeed.
Throughout this book, Goldin-Perschbacher has made a point of acknowledging those that have helped to promote the acceptance of LGBT performers in country music and further their cause. In particular, she makes frequent mention of Patrick Haggerty and his band, Lavender Country, and their pioneering work in promoting gay themes via their 1973 debut, self-titled album, widely acknowledged as the first country music record to openly address gay issues, with tracks such as ‘Come Out Singin’’, ‘Back in the Closet Again’ and, particularly controversial at the time, ‘Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears’. The album was funded, in part, by prominent gay activist, Faygele Ben-Miriam, and Haggerty himself would go on to become a gay rights and anti-racism activist, twice running for public office but never stepping back on his commitment to music and performing. That Haggerty still fronts a version of the band suggests considerable perseverance on his part and it’s interesting to note that they released their second album, “Blackberry Rose”, in 2019, a mere 46 years after their debut. That suggests a lot needed to change for gay artists in country music but that, perhaps after all this time, there is a shift in the way that gay musicians in this genre are being perceived and appreciated. As someone who has listened to a lot of roots and country music over the years, and would consider myself to be reasonably well-read on the subject, it came as a surprise to me that I had never heard of Lavender Country and their groundbreaking album. Given that the early 70s was a significant historical period, especially in America, with the Vietnam war raging and the counterculture questioning many of society’s traditional values, you would expect a country album built around gay themes to have created quite a stir. It underlines the way that the gay community was so isolated at this time and just how brave this album would have been in that environment. Homosexuality wasn’t legalised nationwide in the U.S until 2003. This book opens your eyes to a lot of interesting facts around the development of the LGBT community in country music.
‘Queer Country’ isn’t an easy read. It is quite an academic book, something that isn’t really surprising when you realise the book is, in part, a development of the author’s own PhD programme in critical and comparative studies in music, where she had been drawn to studying gender and sexuality in music. Given that the author is now an assistant professor of music studies in the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University in Philadelphia, it’s hardly surprising that this is a book aimed fairly and squarely at fellow academics, but it also offers much to the more casual reader simply because it is so thought-provoking. The author offers a number of valuable insights into the music and you do find yourself considering the white patriarchy that has dominated most genres of the music industry but, in particular, aspects of roots music, especially country, and how that has worked not only against LGBT musicians but also against women, black artists and other marginalised sections of society. On the surface, this would appear to be a book aimed at a niche market. In fact, it addresses issues that should be important to all of us.
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