Meet the queer vanguard of country music | Entertainment

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Orville Peck has a fringed mask that obscures most of his face and a cowboy hat with a raised brim. You’ll never see it without them, just like Dolly would never let you catch it without full makeup.

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

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For as little of his face as he exposes, Peck bares it all in his songs — country music is just “three chords and the truth,” after all, as songwriter Harlan Howard once said. Peck dreams of the mythical West, of lonely highways and, in his most painful songs, of the men who broke his heart (or vice versa).

“I didn’t think of it as an angle or anything really groundbreaking,” the masked singer told CNN of his songwriting. “I just thought I was doing what everyone does, which is writing from their heart.”

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

Queer country artists tell familiar stories — first love, heartbreak and learning to heal — from perspectives that were once excluded from the music industry. The sincerity and undeniable talent of queer country performers changes narrow ideas of what country music can be – and who can play it.

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

A (very) brief history of LGBTQ inclusion in the country

Traditionally, artists who have made careers in country music have been straight, white, and, especially in the past 15 years, male.

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

It’s not that the country music machine intentionally excluded LGBTQ artists like it did with black artists — rather, it was an unspoken rule that artists stay locked in if they want to succeed in anything. what kind, Hubbs said. There were virtually no queer country artists during the early decades of recorded music, when that would have spelled the end of an artist’s career.

But that’s not coming from the fans or the artists, but from the industry itself, Hubbs said. Many great country artists, such as Garth Brooks, Rascal Flatts and Kacey Musgraves, alluded to same-sex relationships in their music, although these songs were often taken off the air when released. But what their music lacked in traditional promotion, they made up for in cultural impact, Hubbs said — having allies in the country’s biggest stars is meaningful for up-and-coming artists and fans.

The music industry has leaned slightly toward social progress over the past decade, and country isn’t necessarily more discriminatory than pop or rap when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion — especially now that artists no longer 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.

The country’s first gay pioneer went decades unrecognized

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

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

This album, ‘Lavender Country’, named after his band, was an act of protest – it was about provocative queer songs, with titles like ‘Cryin’ These C***suckin’ Tears’. His defiant and heartbreaking lyrics condemned the racism and homophobia that plagued Haggerty and his bandmates.

“When we did ‘Lavender Country,’ it was kind of an announcement that I had changed my mind and was going to be a shaker…as opposed to someone who was going to be on stage trying to do anything,” he told CNN. “I had to choose one or the other, and there was no way I could be both.”

Haggerty, with his childlike voice and knack for words, sang each song as if it would be his very last. For decades it has been.

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

In 2014, the producer ended up reissuing the record, once only available by ordering from the back pages of the Seattle Gay Newspaper. Since then, Haggerty has been featured in several documentaries and he has performed with Peck and Mattel. After playing concerts across the country 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 professionally recording music and playing fame. “But I made Lavender Country a vehicle for social change, and now I can use Lavender Country for the exact reason I created it in the first place – pure and unadulterated.”

The inherent weirdness of country music

At its height in the middle of the century, country artists were among the most flamboyant artists. Although the days of rhinestone nudie suits and pompadours have largely faded, country music itself has always exhibited undertones of quirkiness.

“The country, from its inception, has shown all kinds of love,” Hubbs said. “It’s not as exclusively focused as pop music is on romantic love, the ‘boy meets girl’ genre.”

Hubbs cites songs like “Jolene” as an example – its narrator raving about a beautiful woman and how it’s no wonder her man ran away with such a vixen. Hubbs even penned a new verse for “Jolene” confirming the narrator’s desire for her potential romantic rival.

Peck, a former punk band drummer and ballet dancer, said country suited him best, especially as someone who “pours his tragedies and traumas into his music.”

“The main stories of the country are loneliness, grief, disappointment, unrequited love – I think these are things that almost all queer people feel at some point in their lives, and sometimes for a long time. of our life,” Peck said. noted.

The stories he tells, Peck said, have been told and retold “since the dawn of time.” It just tells them from an odd point of view that until recently was hard to come by easily in any genre.

One of the most heartbreaking new interpretations of a familiar love story is Allison Russell’s “Persephone.” It’s a musical letter of thanks to the teenager Russell fell in love with when she was 15 and left home after years of sexual abuse. This “Persephone”, Russell said, helped her see “a way forward and that there could be life beyond” her violent youth.

Country musicians have always tackled controversial topics in song, like birth control and domestic violence, sparking anger and gaining more ears in equal measure. Russell’s spin on the love story retreats into the trauma of violence and centers a queer black woman at its center.

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

The strange future of the country

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

“I hope 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 someone with a totally different perspective doing country music – it thrills me so much.”

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

“They leave so many people out of the narrative,” she said of the mainstream country music industry. “I think it makes their take on country music less and less relevant.”

Haggerty, despite his love of being on stage, is not one to be famous. He considers Lavender Country a “revolutionary obligation” he’s bound to, now that he finally has a platform and a willing audience for his songs about racism, homophobia and the flaws in American society.

“I can use my hambone-edness to foment social change and fight 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 dumped me in this position.”

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