I started thinking about queer country music last week while making my way through the new album by Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day. I’ve been taking my time with the album as I usually do, and it took me a while to realize that one of the songs, “Heaven Sent,” is so queer that it doesn’t even bother hiding it.
Typically, Country and Western isn’t the first genre you go to for insights on queerness. It has a reputation — not entirely undeserved — as the music for flag-waving, homo-bashing, Christian-to-the-core white Amurricans. It’s a reputation that’s not entirely undeserved: There’s far too many people out there who are only too happy to spend their country music dollars on tripe like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” and its ilk. But that’s not the full story either. Country music has a long, rich history of lefty bona fides. If you really stop to listen to the words of Merle Travis’s “16 Tons,” it’s a heartbreaking song about how companies screwed miners over by paying them with scrip instead of cash. When Loretta Lynn sang about “The Pill,” it was still heavily controversial among the people that bought her records. 1 Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, and James McMurtry identify openly as lefties. Once you dig past the flag-waving (Stars and Stripes or Stars ‘n’ Bars, your pick) bullshit that the big labels pump out, there’s a lot more to country music than most lefties and music hipsters 2 give it credit for.
But although country definitely has a social conscience, queerness has stayed pretty far below the radar. Queer country exists, but it hasn’t been integrated into the mainstream of the genre to the extent that rock and pop have. The only major country artist I know of who has played with gender with anything close to the degree as David Bowie, Prince, or Janelle Monae is k.d. lang. Despite her status as the first major country star to be openly gay, little of lang’s music is as open as she as. Most of her songs have been pretty gender-neutral in their depiction of romance and/or sex. (At least, so far as I know; anyone who has followed her career more closely than I have is welcome to correct me.) Also, she migrated from country to pop pretty quickly after her initial success.
At any rate, queer country is very hard to track down, so I thought that making a playlist of what little there is would be worthwhile.
- Parker Millsap: “Heaven Sent”
- Mary Gauthier: “Goddamn HIV”
- Two Nice Girls: “I Spent My Last $10 On Birth Control and Beer”
- Ned Sublette / Willie Nelson: “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other.”
- Lavender Country: “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears”
1) Parker Millsap: “Heaven Sent”
Since this is where the idea for this whole damn thing came from, this is where we’ll start. Parker Millsap is a new artist on the country scene. His first, self-titled album got a lot of critical praise, even if it didn’t turn him into the next Garth Brooks; the second one is just as good, if not better.
Like I say, it took me a while to suss out what “Heaven Sent” was about. It was shuffling in the background while I worked, and my brain kept surfacing to pluck at little fragments until the picture started to put the picture together.
It is not an atheist song; Millsap grew up in Pentecostal Christianity, and last I heard, he still identifies as a Christian. However, all of his songs about religion — including “Heaven Sent” are sharply critical of the hypocrisies and injustices done in the name of Christ.
It is a song that demands that religion live up to the promises that it makes to its followers. The narrator is a young gay man pleading with his preacher father to show him the mercy and love that the older man has taught his congregation and his son for decades. Simply reading the lyrics doesn’t do justice to the deep feelings of grief, confusion, and loss that come across when Millsap sings it, but they’re at least a start:
Tried my hardest not to be
But I locked the door and I broke the key
Jesus died upon that tree
Daddy do you think he’d covet me
Red and yellow black and white
We are precious in his sight
So why can’t I sleep through the night?
I just want to make you proud
Of the kind of love I’ve found
But you say it’s not allowed
Say that its a sin
It’s how I’ve always been
Did you love me when he was just my friend?
Papa you’re the one that taught me
And with his blood he bought me
Daddy you’re the one that claimed
That he loved me through the flame
Now why can’t you do the same
Now I’ve been born again
But first I was born in sin
Did you love me then?
2) Mary Gauthier: “Goddamn HIV”
I couldn’t tell you Parker Millsap’s sexual identity to save my life, but Mary Gauthier is unapologetically and brazenly queer, and “Goddamn HIV,” from her debut album, Dixie Kitchen, is one of her most unapologetically and brazenly queer songs. Most of her songs are about women, but in this one, she jumps right into the skin of a gay man dying of AIDS. It’s a gruelling mix of anger at the people who have abandoned him to die, wistful nostalgia for happier days, and grief — not only for his own oncoming death, but for all the friends and lovers who already dead:
My name is Michael Joe Alexandre
I’ve been a queer since the day I was born.
My family, they don’t say much to me
My heart knows their silence has scorn
My friends have been dying, all my best friends are dead
I walk around these days, with their picture in my head
Spending my time thinking ’bout the things they say
I don’t know what’s happening to me
It’s a very spare and minimalistic song — just Gauthier and an acoustic guitar — but it packs a wallop. Actually, that’s a cliched phrase that doesn’t do this song justice; this is one of those songs that cuts deep enough to draw blood. Sometimes it’s just too fucking much to listen to, so be warned.
3) Two Nice Girls: “I Spent My Last Ten Dollars on Birth Control & Beer”
One of the things that’s especially rare about Mary Gauthier is that she’s an actual country artist who is out about being queer. It’s not so hard to find LGBT-themed songs done in a country and western style, but a lot of them are by indie rock or folk acts who aren’t very dependent on the goodwill of the people who produce and buy the bulk of country music.
In that sense, including “I Spent My Last Ten Dollars (On Birth Control and Beer)” feels like a little bit of a cheat, but it’s such a great song that I’m just going to say that I don’t give a flying fuck and include it anyway.
Two Nice Girls weren’t a country band; during their heyday in the late 1980s/early 90s, they billed themselves as “dyke rock” and while they may not have been Bikini Kill or Tribe 8, most of their stuff was better suited to a rock club than the Grand Ole Opry. However, their name lives on mainly because of this song, their single exploration into country and western.
I was actually introduced to this song a couple of months ago by my girlfriend, who heard it back in the day. Besides the fact that it’s funny as hell, the main reason that I’m willing to cheat on this one is that it fills out the “B” part of LGBT. The narrator is a woman who, after a lifetime of being a dyke, has fallen in love with a man, only to find that a hetero relationship comes with its own challenges. “Life was so much simpler when I was sober and queer,” she says.
I can count the number of songs I know about bisexuality on one hand, so that gives it a little extra nudge. The first two that come immediately to mind are “John, I’m Only Dancing,” by David Bowie and “Jet Boy, Jet Girl,” by Elton Motello. In the latter, the narrator is talking in graphic detail about how much he wants to kill his ex for dumping him for a girl 3 , so it’s not the most positive depiction of AC/DC love.
Unfortunately, I don’t have anything at all to fill the Trans slot in the acronym; I’d love to hear suggestions if you have them.
4) Ned Sublette / Willie Nelson “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other”
If someone only knows one gay country song, it’s probably gonna be this one. It’s so well-known and so mainstream that part of me feels like it’s a little bit of a cheat. But still, it’s a landmark song, and I feel like it would be ignoring the elephant in the room not to mention it.
Although it was originally written and recorded by Ned Sublette in 1981, I know this song via two cover versions: The iconic 2006 recording by Willie Nelson, and the version by queer-as-fuck punk band Pansy Division. I recommend you check out the Pansy Division version, but there’s very little country about it, so here I’m going to focus on the Willie Nelson version.
Willie Nelson recorded his version after Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain put the image of gay cowboys in everybody’s mind. An article in the Dallas Morning News called it the first gay-themed country song by a major artist, and I wouldn’t doubt it. Nelson is one of those artists who is clearly identified with the great progressive tradition of country and western: He’s been a big old hippie for decades, wearing his pro-pot, pro-environment sentiments on his sleeve, as well as being a vocal advocate for same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues. Sometimes his politics tinge into flakiness — he has a little 9/11 truther in him — but I’ll say this about Willie Nelson: At 80-some years old, he’s a clear example that age isn’t an excuse for being a bigot.
Still, I’ve always felt ambivalent about his version of this song. He doesn’t make it into a mockery, which is a good thing: Country, like a lot of musical genres, has a long tradition of “sissy songs” which portray gay men in clownish ways. Instead, he sings it tenderly and with feeling, acknowledging the validity of these secret feelings.
But frankly, it lacks the bite of any of these others, even the Two Nice Girls song. Maybe that’s as it should be; its importance really wasn’t for people who had already been in queer communities for years, but for people who were just starting to acknowledge those communities and their issues.
Separately, the video is a little too tongue-in-cheek for my comfort. Burt Reynolds has sort of played up the campiness of his masculine image in his latter year, and you can definitely see that in the video, but both he and Nelson seem to be holding queerness at arm’s length. Despite the sincerity of the song itself, the video has a little bit of the flavor of a sissy song. Even as he and Nelson direct take after take of the video so they can watch leather-clad cowboys perform, it’s done with enough of a wink to reassure the audience that this is just an act.
The song itself has a few problems. It’s not sung from a gay perspective, but from the outside. The first line describes “many a strange impulse,” and it feels like the song itself is holding gayness at arm’s length a bit. However, there’s no doubt that C&W audiences needed an established star to stand up and sing something like this.
Bonus video: Here’s the Pansy Division version, just because.
5) Lavender Country: “Cryin’ These Cocksuckin’ Tears”
What can I say about a song called “Cryin’ These Cocksuckin’ Tears”? Well, it was the Seventies. 1973, to be exact. Stonewall had blown up only a few years before. If you were going to make a gay country album, the only way to do it was to go big or go home.
Founded by Patrick Haggerty in Seattle, Lavender Country has been called the first-ever openly gay country act. I always hate going down the rabbit hole of “first” anything in music — I’ve gone through that more times than I can count with punk rock alone — but in this case, it’s easy to believe. The entire album is extremely political and unabashedly queer.
In recent years, Lavender Country has had a little bit of a renaissance. After lingering in obscurity for years, it was reissued by a North Carolina label, Paradise of Bachelors, in 2014. Happily, Haggerty is still alive and well to see the revival and appreciation of his pioneering work, although he’s ambivalent about the fact that “Cryin’ These Cocksuckin’ Tears” has become his most well-known work:
“Cocksucking Tears” is both the boon and the bane of Lavender Country. That’s what everybody remembers and that’s what everybody refers to, but it really wasn’t necessarily our intent. That was the song that got my lesbian friend kicked off the radio in 1974 for playing it. That’s the one that was put on YouTube by some anonymous person, and then ended up at Paradise of Bachelors, who dug into it further and found out what it was. So “Cocksucking Tears” has been the leading song on Lavender Country, like it or not, all along. But there’s a lot more to Lavender Country than “Cocksucking Tears”.
It’s just a song title, and it’s the word that’s so striking and outlandish. It had the propensity of turning the idea of Lavender Country into a cartoon, and Lavender Country is not a cartoon. So that’s always bothered me. The interesting thing is that the culture has moved to the point where people are fine with it. I’m happy I’ve lived long enough to see it! They’re finally ready to accept the fact that “Cocksucking Tears” is in Lavender Country and they want to find out what else is in the album. [laughs] That’s quite refreshing! I want everybody to appreciate Lavender Country for what it really is, not just because it has a song called “Cocksucking Tears” in it. And that’s happening! Finally.
There’s more about the history of Lavender Country and Patrick Haggerty in the promotional video below:
I’m sure that this isn’t anywhere near a comprehensive list, and I’d love to hear about anything I missed in the comments below.
- The fact that Loretta Lynn has broken my heart — and the hearts of many others — by endorsing Donald Fucking Trump for President doesn’t change the fact that she did some incredible music in her time, and made some brave stands. ↩
- That is, people who are kind of like me. ↩
- First verse: “Can you tell what’s on my mind? / She’s with him, it drives me wild / I’d like to hit him on the head until he’s dead / The sight of blood is such a high / Ooh, hoo, hoo, hoo/ He gives me head” ↩