In 2003, I performed on stage for the first time at 18 years old. I didn’t warm up by performing at local open mics in Portland first. Instead, my debut was as a member of transgender author and pioneer Kate Bornstein’s performance troop “The Language of Paradox.” I stood in front of a standing-only room full of strangers, gripping the paper on which I’d written and edited and rewritten a coming out of sorts. I was not coming out as queer, but as a hick in punk’s clothing. My chest was bound flat under a cowboy snap button shirt with flames across the chest. Under my punk-standard-issue Carhartt pants (the same sort of pants my best friends’ boyfriends unironically wore all through high school), was a tattoo with lyrics from my favorite Garth Brooks song. My hair was spiked into a green mohawk, my face pierced in half a dozen places.
That same year, Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks openly criticized President George W. Bush leading up to the invasion of Iraq. My punk friends certainly didn’t see this statement as radical. After all, in our world, everyone hated the president, city streets filled with protesters, and no one wanted to go to war.
But I knew how serious it was to speak out in the world I came from, at the edge where rural farms and fields touched against suburban subdivisions. After critiquing the president, the Dixie Chicks’ music was banned from many country radio stations nationwide. They were the recipient of extreme bullying from other country musicians as well as the entire industry. I remember turning on the radio in my punk house basement as country music stations were running over Dixie Chicks CDs with tractors and trucks on the air, laughing about destroying the records — about destroying these loud, vocal women. I, too, felt pushed out of country spaces because of my sexuality, rebellion, and outspoken personality. I felt a special kinship to the band. I saw them as outsiders of a different sort, feminists who were being pushed away from the same communities that I was being pushed away from. I had to leave my ties to rural Oregon and move to Portland.
It has been nearly 14 years since the Dixie Chicks released an album, and now, they are coming back unapologetically with “Gaslighter.” The album’s first single (by the same name) has just been released. Is it a coincidence that the single dropped just as Elizabeth Warren had to suspend her campaign after rampant media-fueled silencing and sexism? I doubt it.
In most of the queer circles I’ve been part of, country music has not been considered cool. I’ve lived in liberal cities — Portland, Oregon, and NYC — where just about everything is accepted besides country music. I have built my home and career over the last 17 years in these liberal cities, ever since I ran away from my home in rural Oregon.
Country music is not particularly radical, but for me, it was the outlaw anthem of my rebellion. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to listen to country music. There wasn’t any good reason for the ban, other than that my mom didn’t like it. Banning country music was just another form of the strange control that my mentally unwell and alcoholic mother wielded in my childhood. I wasn’t allowed to drive, eat pizza, date (even before I came out), have a birthday cake, wear makeup, or listen to country music. Like so many teens, I began finding ways to rebel against my mom and her rules when I started high school. I stashed Dixie Chicks albums under my mattress next to the gay books that I secretly bought at the Barnes and Noble across from the mall. Country music was playing on my headphones when I finally ran away. I went to the police, had my mother arrested for abuse, and never went back to her house. Four months after I ran away from my mom, I was living with an adult friend in a more rural area of Oregon. She’d been my best friend, my mentor; as we both competed in dog sports together, she’d been my coach and encouraged my dream of becoming a dog trainer. But she was also extremely homophobic. Country music was always playing in the van, in the house. On my first night in her home, she asked if I was “over the gay thing.” Four months later, she read my journal and discovered I was still not “over the gay thing” and swiftly kicked me out of her house.
That first week after I got kicked out, one of my friends from the local Gay Straight Alliance handed me an Indigo Girls CD. I replaced my Discman’s AA batteries, and popped in the CD. It had been the worst few days of my life. I didn’t know what was going to happen — I’d lost my dogs, my community, my best friend, and my home all at once. I’d never even met a homeless person, but now I was one. Hearing Amy Ray’s and Emily Saliers’ twang and guitar felt like home, and then, much to my delight, I heard women using female pronouns in love songs. I was sitting on the cracked linoleum of my high school floor and I didn’t know whose couch I would be sleeping on that night. But I felt less alone.
On April 24th, the Indigo Girls will be releasing a new album “Look Long,” which promises to be unapologetically queer and unapologetically country-inspired.
The Indigo Girls quickly became my favorite band. Musically and culturally, they felt like a bridge between my old life of country music, big trucks, my friends’ horses, and weekends at fairground dog shows; and my new life of punk houses, zine writing, and queer activism. I felt seen and understood, even as my peers were listening to different music. “Walking past the old men/ get a load of that tomboy,” they sing in “Shit Kickin’,’ their first release from the new album. I was kicked out of FFA (Future Farmers of America) for refusing to adhere to dress codes that required girls to wear skirts. So I get it.
Even a decade living in New York City couldn’t change my love of country, and luckily, I’ve seen substantial changes in the industry. Not only is country music becoming more and more welcoming to LGBTQ+ artists, but more artists are coming out as allies, too. Simultaneously, the queer community has become more accepting of country music, if the pre-release singles are any indication.
The Dixie Chicks’ and Indigo Girls’ new albums are badass and unapologetic. I can’t wait to add these albums to my playlist rotations. They are the anthems that 2020 needs, or at least this aging queer punk needs, in our chaotic world.