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Meet the queer vanguard of country music

<i>Erika Goldring/Getty Images</i><br/>Amythyst Kiah is a rising star of country and frequently collaborates with Russell.
Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Amythyst Kiah is a rising star of country and frequently collaborates with Russell.

By Scottie Andrew, CNN

Roy Orbison had his signature specs, Johnny Cash his all-black suits and Dolly Parton her massive blonde mane (and bust, which she likes to joke about before anyone else gets the chance).

Orville Peck’s got a fringed mask that obscures most of his face and a cowboy hat with an upturned brim. You’ll never see him without them, just like Dolly would never let you catch her without a full face of makeup.

Maybe you’ve heard or seen of Peck, a country star on the rise — one of his songs just appeared in HBO’s “Euphoria,” and last year he appeared in ads for Beyoncé’s Ivy Park collection. With his striking accessories — not to mention his acrobatic voice, evocative of Elvis — he’s hard to miss.

For as little of his visage as he exposes, Peck bares all in his songs — country music is just “three chords and the truth,” after all, as songwriter Harlan Howard famously said. Peck muses about the mythic West, lonely highways and, in his most aching songs, the men who’ve broken his heart (or vice versa).

“I didn’t think of it as an angle or something really groundbreaking at all,” the masked singer told CNN of his songwriting. “I just thought I was doing what everybody else does, which is write from your heart.”

That he’s gay is “the least interesting thing about [him],” Peck said. But to fans and artists working within a genre that has traditionally excluded marginalized performers, it’s been meaningful to see him ascend without shedding an ounce of what makes him so captivating.

Singing gay love songs once killed the careers of artists like Patrick Haggerty, whose band Lavender Country in 1973 released what’s widely considered the first country album recorded by an out gay performer. Even artists who came out decades later, like k.d. lang and Chely Wright, said their careers stalled after they made their sexuality public.

Now, out queer people are some of the most celebrated country stars. Brandi Carlile and Lil Nas X are Grammy winners. T.J. Osborne, one half of the Brothers Osbourne, came out last year, the first out gay artist signed to a major country label. Trixie Mattel, who won her season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” incorporates original music inspired by Loretta Lynn and June Carter Cash into her drag act. And Black queer artists like Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Joy Oladokun are reaching audiences across genres.

Queer country artists are telling familiar stories — first love, heartbreak and learning to heal — from perspectives that were once shut out across the music industry. The sincerity and undeniable talent of country’s queer performers are changing narrow ideas of what country music can be — and who gets to perform it.

“I spent most of my career as a performer trying to be something I wasn’t,” Peck said. “I just finally realized that I could just be myself… and be what I always wanted to be, which was a country Western star.”

A (very) brief history of LGBTQ inclusion in country

Traditionally, the performers who’ve made a career off of country music have been straight, White and, particularly in the last 15 or so years, men.

Like most every component of American society in the early 20th century, the recording industry was strictly segregated — and country was a “White” genre then, said Nadine Hubbs, a professor of women’s and gender studies and music at the University of Michigan. (Hubbs is widely considered the expert of country music’s relationships to sexuality, class and race.)

It wasn’t that the country music machine intentionally kept out LGBTQ artists the way it did with Black artists — it was more of an unspoken rule that artists remain closeted if they wanted success in any genre, Hubbs said. There were virtually no out queer country artists for the first several decades of recorded music when it would have been the death knell for an artist’s career.

But that came not from fans or artists but from the industry itself, Hubbs said. Many major country artists, like Garth Brooks, Rascal Flatts and Kacey Musgraves, have alluded to same-sex relationships in their music, though those songs were often pulled from the airwaves when they were released. But what their music lacked in traditional promotion, they made up for in cultural impact, Hubbs said — having allies in country’s biggest stars is meaningful for rising artists and fans.

The music industry has bent slightly to social progress in the last decade or so, and country isn’t necessarily more discriminatory than pop or rap when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion — especially now that artists don’t need to work with a major label to deliver music to fans, and fans don’t always rely on radio to discover new artists, Hubbs said.

Country’s first gay trailblazer went decades without recognition

Many queer country artists have been around for decades: Russell, whose debut solo album “Outside Child” was released last year, has been a professional musician for more than 20 years, a key member of bands like the supergroup Our Native Daughters, a quartet of Black women artists.

“I don’t know whether there was a place,” she said of her various groups, many of which feature queer women of color. “It was something that we always did.”

But few have been around longer than Haggerty, who, at 78, just released his second album with Lavender Country nearly 50 years after his first. A lifelong “stage hog,” he said he dreamed of being a performer. In 1973, years after the Peace Corps kicked him out for being gay, he released his first record.

That album, “Lavender Country,” named for his band, was an act of protest — these were defiantly queer songs, with titles like “Cryin’ These C***suckin’ Tears.” His lyrics, defiant and heartwrenching, condemned the racism and homophobia that suppressed Haggerty and his bandmates.

“When we made ‘Lavender Country,’ it was sort of an announcement that I had changed my mind, and that I was going to be a rabble-rouser … as opposed to someone who was going to be onstage doing anything,” he told CNN. “I had to choose one or the other, and there was no possible way that I could be both.”

Haggerty, with his boyish voice and knack for wordsmithery, sang every song like it would be his very last. For decades, it was.

His aspiring music career “dead as a doornail,” Haggerty devoted his life to socialist causes. It wasn’t until a producer in North Carolina discovered his record on eBay in the early 2010s that “Lavender Country” reentered Haggerty’s life, he said. At the time, he and a neighbor were playing small gigs at nursing homes in his community outside Seattle.

In 2014, the producer ended up rereleasing the record, once only available by ordering from the backpages of Seattle’s gay newspaper. Since then, Haggerty’s been profiled in several documentaries, and he’s performed with Peck and Mattel. After playing gigs nationwide and raising enough money to release a second album, “Blackberry Rose” debuted to positive reviews last month.

“I didn’t aspire to do this,” Haggerty said of recording music professionally and playing the fame game. “But I made Lavender Country as a vehicle for social change, and now I get to use Lavender Country for the exact reason that I made it in the first place — pure and unadulterated.”

The inherent queerness of country music

In its mid-century heyday, country performers were some of the most flamboyant artists. Though the days of rhinestone nudie suits and pompadours have largely dissipated, country music itself has always shown shades of queerness.

“Country, since its earliest days, has featured all kinds of love,” Hubbs said. “It’s not as exclusively focused as pop music is on romantic love, the ‘boy meets girl’ sort.”

Hubbs points to songs like “Jolene” as an example — its narrator rhapsodizes about a beautiful woman and how it’s no wonder her man would run away with such a vixen. Hubbs even wrote a new verse for “Jolene” confirming the narrator’s lust for her would-be romantic rival.

Peck, previously a punk band drummer and ballet dancer, said country was the best fit for him — especially as someone who “pours their tragedies and traumas into their music.”

“The main stories in country are loneliness, heartbreak, disappointment, unrequited love — I think that those are things that are felt by almost every queer person at some point in their lives, and sometimes for a long part of our lives,” Peck said.

The stories he’s telling, Peck said, have been told and retold “since the dawn of time.” He’s just telling them from a queer perspective which, until recently, was hard to readily find in any genre.

One of the most wrenching new spins on a familiar love story is Allison Russell’s weepy “Persephone.” It’s a musical thank-you letter to the teenage girl with whom Russell fell in love as a 15-year-old who left home after years of sexual abuse. This “Persephone,” Russell said, helped her see “a path forward, and that there could be life beyond” her violent youth.

Country musicians have always broached controversial topics in song, like birth control and domestic violence, drawing ire and attracting more ears in equal measure. Russell’s spin on the love story folds in the trauma of abuse and centers a Black queer woman at its center.

“That’s the alchemy of music — you write these things that are personal to you, but once you release them into the world, they take on their own life depending on the listener and the listener’s experience,” Russell said.

The queer future of country

Peck, whose second album, “Bronco,” releases April 8, demurs when asked whether he thinks he’s the future of country. He said he wants to see country music gatekeepers (which, Hubbs said, include the recording industry and radio) open more doors for artists with something new to say about familiar tropes.

“I hope that the spirit in which I exist in country music continues to be the future of country music,” Peck said. “I get so excited when there’s somebody with a totally different perspective making country music — that thrills me so much.”

Russell said continuing to mute voices from queer country artists and performers of color will only hurt the industry in the long run.

“They’re just leaving so many people out of the narrative,” she said of the mainstream country music industry. “I think it renders their interpretation of country music less and less relevant.”

Haggerty, despite his love of being onstage, isn’t one for fame. He views Lavender Country as a “revolutionary obligation” he’s bound to, now that he’s finally got a platform and a willing audience for his songs about racism, homophobia and the faultlines in American society.

“I get to use my hambone-edness to foment social change and struggle for a better world,” he said of his unlikely career. “The very thing that sank me in the first place is the very thing that jettisoned me into this position.”

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