Growing up as a lesbian in rural Missouri, I developed a potent hatred for country music. I despised the twangy songs about rivers, farms, and everything I dreamed of escaping from. Since leaving my tiny hometown, population 54, anytime a country music song comes on the radio I immediately turn the channel. Although my childhood was happy and loving, country music hurtles me back to a time where I possessed a throbbing discomfort with myself, a perpetual longing for more, and the feeling of being othered.
A few months ago, I was visiting New York City, where I stayed with a high power magazine photographer from rural Illinois. One night during my stay, she, her three roommates, and I all huddled around the TV to watch the Country Music Awards. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but as they gushed endlessly about Kacey Musgraves and we watched her perform “Slow Burn” in a long red velvet dress, I became enamored. Kacey Musgraves represented something new, safe, and warm about country music. Watching the award show in that tiny walkup in Queens somehow felt like coming home.
Over the past few months, I’ve been rediscovering country music and I’m uncovering a plethora of queer women and queer icons slaying the genre. Before re-discovering the magic of the mandolin and banjo, country music had always triggered discomfort. But these amazing queer country artists are assisting me in my attempt to “keep on nodding terms” with my past selves (as Joan Didion says)– especially the teenage self who is sunburnt and smells of fresh cut hay.
Here are nine queer women who create the music that as a teenager I never dreamed could exist– the queer women who are transporting me back to the hay fields and dairy farms of my childhood.
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Hurray for the Riff Raff is an Americana band fronted by singer, songwriter, and guitarist Alynda Lee Segarra. Segarra, who identifies as queer, says she writes songs, “about people who feel down and out and feel like outcasts in society.” Segarra is a Puerto Rican badass who left her home in the Bronx at age 17 to ride freight trains and sleep under the open sky. She ended up in New Orleans where she’s been making subversive songs about women, politics, and social change ever since.
Brandy Clark, who identifies as a lesbian, is a well-respected singer and songwriter. Before releasing her first album in 2014, she wrote many hit country songs for country music singers like Kacey Musgraves, Sheryl Crow, Reba McEntire, and LeAnn Rimes. Her songs have that quintessential country music sound and are about home, small towns, and heartbreak.
From Johnson City, Tennessee, Amythyst Kiah is a singer and songwriter who describes her music as “Southern Gothic, alt-country blues.” Kiah has released two solo albums and most recently appeared on an album entitled “Songs of Our Native Daughters.” The revelatory album aims to “shine new light on African-American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope,” and is inspired by “17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century sources, including slave narratives and early minstrelsy.” Of all the artists featured in this list, Kiah’s is by far the most subversive– and I love that.
Mercy Bell describes her music as “electrified folk songs for the 21st Century.” This queer Filipina’s music is inspired by folk activists like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, & Mary. Her music is down-to-earth and full of soul. I recommend checking out her newest EP “Home/No Prayer.”
Chely Wright has been writing music and recording country music albums since 1994. Since coming out as a lesbian in 2007, Wright has continued to create music and make waves. In 2011, she wrote a book called “Like Me” about growing up in the closet in rural Kansas. Wright is now married to Lauren Blitzer and the couple has twin sons. Her music is the exact kind of music that transports me back to summer on the river and family barbecues.
I am completely in love with k.d. lang. This Canadian-born lesbian powerhouse is now 57 years old and has spent the past several decades creating music that ranges from country to rock to pop. I’ve recently been binge watching her live performances on YouTube and am enamored with the power of emotion behind her voice and the literal strength in her sound.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
Sarah Shook is a long-haired pansexual goddess who fuses the genres of country and punk. Shook, like myself, grew up homeschooled in a fundamentalist Christian family where she was only allowed to listen to classical and worship music. She describes her music as “wretched and ragged… But no matter what, no matter how dark it gets, the more nuanced theme, by far, is resilience. Maybe even jubilance at times. Fighting the good fight. Not backing down from a challenge or being afraid to face an oppressor.” How hot is that?
Do I really need to say more? (If you want to feel things watch this duet with k.d. lang. I’m quaking!)
Brandi Carlile is my wife. I discovered her completely by chance when I was watching the Dolly Parton tribute of the 2019 Grammys. During the performance, there was a shot of the audience where an unnamed woman was wearing a silver suit and sitting with another suspiciously lesbian looking woman. I screamed for two days straight until my friend texted me, “The woman you saw is Brandi Carlile.” I’ve been listening to her music ever since. Carlile is a Grammy award winning singer-songwriter from Washington state where she grew up playing folk music with her siblings. In addition to being an incredible songwriter and musician, Carlile is a wife, mother, and all around beautiful human. Watch this video of her playing for the inmates of The Washington Correction Center if you want to cry.
BONUS: Dolly Parton, Dixie Chicks, Kacey Musgraves
For bonus points, you should absolutely listen to the music of these queer allies/icons. Dolly Parton is an obvious one. Dixie Chicks’ music absolutely slaps. Kacey Musgraves, of course, is a beautiful Southern princess who deserves nothing but beautiful things.
Americana, folk, and country music is about telling the stories of ordinary people and the people who know what it means to have roots– to come home. Reconnecting with country music has been momentous for me. Nostalgia now feels much less bitter and much sweeter. Now when I drive out to my childhood home on Sunday afternoons for Sunday dinner, I turn on some Brandi Carlile, look at the rolling Ozark mountains, tiny water towers, and roll down my windows to smell the familiar scent of cow manure. I’m more at home with myself now, with my own queerness–I feel less afraid of what the future holds, and so I turn up the volume and take it all in.
If you’re interested in further exploring this genre, I’ve curated an impeccable Spotify playlist here.