Meet the Queer Vanguard of Country Music

Meet the Queer Vanguard of Country Music
Generally speaking, the face of country music has traditionally been white, male, and straight, but things are changing. We take a look at the queer vanguard that’s taking country music by storm, the pioneers that first blazed the trail, and the future for LGBT country.

The Early Days
Going back a few decades, there was an unspoken assumption that coming out of the closet would be the end of an artists’ career, as well as being the catalyst for a multitude of other potentially catastrophic consequences.

Many commentators have blamed the country music industry itself for this stance, rather than the fans or artists working within the genre; it’s not gone unnoticed that, even back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for country songs to incorporate lyrics that hinted at same-sex attraction or the anguish of, what was then viewed as forbidden love. Jolene, by Dolly Parton, is often referenced as an example of a thinly-veiled love (or lust) song from one woman to another.

Lavender Country: Breaking Out
The album Lavender Country, by the band of the same name, was released in 1973 and is widely considered to be the first country album to be recorded by an openly gay artist. Coming more than forty years after its predecessor, Lavender Country features songs that explore, often to devastating effect, the experience of many gay people at the time and the societal consequences of being ‘outed.’ Lyrics tell of the medical profession’s tendency to administer electric shock treatment to gay people, of young men being beaten by the police and the pain of living in a society in which being straight was the only acceptable option.

Patrick Haggerty, Lavender Country’s frontman and the writer of the album, was raised on a dairy farm in the countryside surrounding Seattle, in the heart of a loving and accepting family. The effect of the Stonewall Riots, however, and his rejection from the Peace Corps on the grounds of his sexuality galvanized Heggarty to the gay rights cause, and the groundbreaking album he subsequently wrote was his battle cry.

The effects of Lavender Country can’t be underestimated; as well as being a sublime collection of country songs, it marked the beginning of the slow process towards equal rights, societal freedoms, and recognition for the gay community that continues today. Lavender Country was officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, and the album was reissued, to popular acclaim, in 2014, cementing its importance in the canon of the genre.

Then And Now
The world has been a much-changed place since Patrick Heggarty’s 1974 album, and now artists representing the LGBT community are some of the most famous stars of the country scene. Brandie Carlile and Lil Nas X have garnered Grammy recognition for their music, while T.J Osborne, of the band the Brothers Osborne, recently came out as gay, becoming; as a result, the first out gay artist with a signing to a major music label. From cutting-edge chart hits to breakaway viral successes to musicians providing royalty-free music for use on videos and a multitude of social platforms, LGBT artists are enriching every corner of the industry.

It’s taken a while to get here, though: country artists like k.d.lang and Chely Wright have previously spoken of the negative impact that coming out as gay had on their music careers, which both said stalled as a result of revealing their sexuality to the public.

Ingenue, the album released by k.d.lang in 1992, reimagined the form of country music, and it was seminal in bringing LGBT issues into the mainstream. Lang herself came out as a gay person during a press interview given to promote Ingenue; as a result, several radio stations boycotted her music, and the singer says, at the time, she felt marginalized by the country music industry.

For many in the industry, the release of lang’s 1992 album was pivotal: where Lavender Country had opened a door, lang’s music proffered an invitation to walk through it.

Country Music’s Queer Future
There are plenty of new artists and musicians continuing to blaze a trail: Ty Herndon, who, having come out as gay in 2014, re-released his hit song, What Mattered Most, with re-worked lyrics, changing to male all the previously female pronouns. Herndon’s follow-up album, House on Fire, features gender-neutral love songs and tracks that speak of the singer’s own struggles with identity and acceptance.

Grammy award nominee Brandy Clark has spoken about how she feels accepted and welcome in the country music industry as a gay woman, with her song-writing attracting critical praise for its authenticity. And, of course, Lil Nas X, viral superstar and now a mainstay of the music scene, felt emboldened to publicly identify as a gay person via a series of tweets made during 2019’s Pride month.

The future is looking bright: there’s a growing awareness within the country music industry that leaving out the voices of gay artists marginalizes the industry itself, effectively rendering it mute on the issues that are relevant – and the lived reality -of swathes of its fans.

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