The Queering of Country Music

What was once a deeply conservative genre is now gradually beginning to embrace the queer community, thanks to a new generation of LGBTQ+ musicians flying the flag for change.

The Queering of Country Music
Jon O'Brien
Jon O'Brien
June 26, 20249 min read
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“The main stories in country are loneliness, heartbreak, disappointment, unrequited love,” remarked Orville Peck, the fringe-masked crooner at the forefront of the genre’s LGBTQ shift. “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.” However, it’s only in the streaming age that the Nashville scene has started to accept that country music and queerness don’t need to be mutually exclusive terms.  

With traditional media no longer able to serve as gatekeepers, a whole world of country artists who don’t fit the heteronormative mold have been able to get their music, and their message, out there to the masses. Everyone from non-binary singer-songwriter Paisley Fields to trans artist Mya Byrne to Black queer twin duo The Kentucky Gentlemen have built up loyal followings, though without much mainstream recognition. In addition to her other roles as a television star, makeup company owner, bar and motel proprietor, DJ, podcaster, and YouTube sensation, Trixie Mattel has become the most successful musical alum from the Emmy award-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race with over a quarter of a million Spotify monthly listeners: not with crown-snatching raps, but traditional country-pop. 

This isn’t a new trend, however. For decades, queer artists have been paving the way for these acts, and now they are finally getting their flowers. Nowhere is that more apparent than with Lavender Country. Formed by Patrick Haggerty, a gay rights activist who’d been kicked out of the Peace Corps for his sexuality, the Seattle collective released what was musically, a relatively traditional country album, in 1973. Yet lyrically and thematically, this self-titled debut was revolutionary and is recognized as the first-ever queer country album. Songs such as “Back in the Closet Again,” “Come Out Singing,” and, most notably, “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears,” caused widespread gay panic within the notoriously conservative genre. DJ Shan Ottey was even dismissed from the group’s hometown station KRAB for giving the latter a spin.

Lavender Country remained an underground cult concern – only 1,000 copies were manufactured – for the next three decades until a YouTube upload caught the attention of Paradise of Bachelors. The North Carolina label subsequently reissued what’s widely regarded as the first-ever gay country album, introducing the group’s pioneering work to a younger, bigger, and far more liberal crowd. A documentary and animated short about Haggerty’s touching relationship with his supportive father, plus collaborations with Peck and Mattel followed. And in 2022, Lavender Country delivered what longtime fans had waited 49 years for: a second album. 

Sadly, Haggerty passed away just nine months after Blackberry Rose hit the shelves. But, he left behind a legacy which is continuing to connect. “I Just Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You” is now approaching 500k streams on Spotify, and thanks to placements on official playlists such as Queer as Folk (144k followers) and Vintage Vibes (298k followers), Lavender Country’s monthly listenership is also ever-growing.  

Of course, country music had flirted with queerness long before Haggerty was even born. Adapted from a poem by Harold Hersey, Ewen Hail’s “Lavender Cowboy” was the tale of an effeminate gunslinger (“He died with his six guns a smokin’/But with only two hairs on his chest”) which appeared in 1930 western Oklahoma Cyclone. There was also The Sweet Violet Boys, the comedic alter-ego of The Prairie Ramblers, who caused a minor scandal in 1939 with the sexual innuendo of “I Love My Fruit” (“I sure like my nuts”). 

While the latter’s sense of humor was firmly tongue-in-cheek, several country jokers later voiced much more hostility toward the gay community. In 1951, Billy Briggs released “The Sissy Song,” a deeply homophobic ditty about a man who promises to commit suicide should he ever start acting as a threat to his own masculinity. Even more troubling was Paddy Roberts’ take on “Lavender Cowboy,” eight years after the original. In his version, the queer protagonist is cruelly mocked, rather than emerging as a hero (“And they knew as they went they were hot on the scent/By the smell of Chanel No.5”). Thankfully, such blatant prejudice has been given little attention in the Spotify era. Neither of these offending songs have racked up more than 3k streams. 

That’s the environment in which Wilma Burgess launched her career at the start of the 1960s, which makes her tentative steps toward coming out even more admirable. The singer’s sexuality was an open secret in the industry, and although she never revealed anything to the public, she refused to play it straight with her material: the objects of her affections were rarely gender specific, for example. After 15 Billboard Country and Western chart hits, including her most-streamed “Misty Blue” (65k), Burgess once again broke new ground by opening up The Hitching Post, the first-ever lesbian bar in Nashville.  

Perhaps deterred by the negative response to Haggart and co., the country scene didn’t get much more progressive throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. k.d. lang, an openly gay artist who toyed with ideas of gender in the performance-based video for “Turn Me Around,” essentially abandoned the genre after being routinely shunned by its strict radio committees. Luckily, there were a few more encouraging steps in the ‘90s. 

For instance, trans performer Teresa McLaughlin set up the Lesbian and Gay Country Music Association, a queer alternative to the CMA which aimed to promote those marginalized by the mainstream. This included the likes of Steve Lynn, Charlie Pacheo, and Sid Spencer, all gay rodeo circuit regulars whose self-released work could only be marketed via specialist publications. Meanwhile, Mary Gauthier, the first openly lesbian artist to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, and two-time Grammy nominee Melissa Etheridge, both of whom sat on the periphery of the genre, slowly started to break down mainstream barriers, too.  

However, it was only in the early 2010s that country music’s queer revolution really started to gather momentum. Karen Pittelman, frontwoman of Karen and the Sorrows, launched Brooklyn’s The Queer Country Quarterly in 2011, a regular club showcase designed to prove that the genre wasn’t all flannel shirts, cold beers, and driving trucks. Grammy nominee Amythyst Kiah, Tennessee troubadour Jett Holden, and the self-described “weird-adjacent" singer-songwriter Mery Steel are just a few of the names who’ve since helped foster a sense of community at the event that’s now spread across America. For example, in 2015, musical activist Eli Conley decided to launch California’s answer, the Queer Country West Coast.   

By this point, several more well-known names were flying the rainbow flag in the country genre, too. Chely Wright, who’d scored a country chart-topper with 1999’s “Single White Female,” came out in 2010 via the double whammy of a memoir and studio album, both named Lifted Off the Ground. Shane McAnally, one of the dominant country hitmakers of the modern era, walked down the aisle with his long-term partner Michael Baum. And, the openly gay artist Brandy Clark, who’d worked with McAnally on Kacey Musgraves’ ‘love is love’ anthem “Follow Your Arrow,” (“Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls”) began her journey from behind-the-scenes to Grammy-nominated artist in her own right with hits like “Girl Next Door.”

Let’s not forget TJ Herndon, the three-time country chart-topper who became country’s first high-profile male to announce he was gay in 2014. Or Billy Gilman, the child star-turned-The Voice runner-up who, inspired by Herndon’s bravery, decided to follow suit just hours later. And then there’s Brandi Carlile, arguably country’s most successful queer musician to date having amassed a remarkable 26 Grammy nominations and 10 wins since 2016. The fact that the singer-songwriter, also one-quarter of feminist supergroup The Highwomen, has been upfront about her sexuality from the offset has no doubt given the next generation the confidence, and the impetus, to do the same.  

This includes The Glee Project graduate Harper Grae, Nashville-based Katie Pruitt, and Lily Rose, the first-ever country artist to win the GLAAD Media Breakthrough Music Award. Chris Housman also went viral with his early single “Blueneck,” a satirical ode to “liberal rednecks” which declared “George Straight or George Gay, there's no difference.” And within just two months of “Old Town Road” storming to the top of the Hot 100, Lil Nas X celebrated the last day of Pride Month by officially confirming he was gay. “Deadass thought I made it obvious,” he later tweeted, referring to the rainbow-themed cover of his 7 EP

Other artists have bided their time. TJ Osborne, one half of the outlaw country duo Brothers Osborne, became the first openly gay male already signed to a major record label when he came out in February 2021. “Younger Me,” an encouraging note about his sexuality to his childhood self, later won the siblings their first Grammy. A month earlier, and 13 years after first catching attention on American Idol, Brooke Eden announced she was engaged to a woman, record exec Hillary Hoover. The same year and following several independently released efforts, Adeem the Artist announced their non-binary rebirth, alongside a record titled Cast-Iron Pansexual.  

So did these personal revelations have any damaging effect on the respective artists’ fanbase? Well, if anything, they seem to have spearheaded further interest. Brothers Osborne had 2.24 million Spotify monthly listeners before TJ’s announcement. By the end of summer, they were approaching 4 million, boosted by their new track “Younger Me.” 

Eden and Adeem both saw significant upticks, not just with their streaming presence, but on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. And since his casual coming out, Lil Nas X has scored a further 11 Hot 100 hits, including number ones “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” with the latter’s provocative promo – who can forget that Satanic lap dance? – suggesting that far from serving as a barrier to mainstream success, middle America’s disapproval was now being actively courted.  

It’s not just queer-identifying artists fighting the fight, though. At the 2023 CMT Awards, Kelsea Ballerini performed “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)” with a troupe of drag queens in response to the worrying calls for more stringent anti-trans legislation. In further proof that the tide is turning, the track’s Spotify streams subsequently ballooned from 21.4 million to 69 million within six months, and is now one of Ballerini’s most-streamed hits.  

Elsewhere, Maren Morris publicly called out Jason Aldean’s wife Brittany after the influencer posted a comment she interpreted as transphobic: the “My Church” singer later revealed she was “happy to be the B in LGBTQ” herself, again highlighting how today’s generation now feel more comfortable to simply be themselves. In 2021, Miley Cyrus celebrated Pride Month with an hour-long star-studded TV special filmed at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, featuring queer performers including Peck and allies such as Little Big Town and Mickey Guyton. Even the CMT have recognized that the times, they are a changing, setting up the Equal Access Development Fund to help minority groups thrive.

And let’s not forget that several veterans of the country world have continually lent their support. Dolly Parton has always embraced her status as an icon within the community while the self-proclaimed King of the Outlaws, Willie Nelson, has often spoken in favor of gay rights. In fact, he recently invited Peck to join him in the studio for another cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other,” the 1981 Ned Sublette song he first took into the charts back in 2006, and this new version has already accrued 2.3 million Spotify streams. According to Peck, Nelson was also game for anything in the accompanying video. “It's a win for all of us because that’s true allyship,” he told USA Today. “Someone who's completely unafraid to be right there next to us, there's no vagueness involved." 

At a time when the freedoms of the LGBTQ community are continually being challenged, this inter-generational duet is a welcome reminder that contrary to its hyper-macho reputation, country music has always been a little bit queer. As the unlikely pair sing, “What did you think all them saddles and boots was about?”

Visualizations by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado. Data as of June 25, 2024.