The LGBTQ banjo players and Dolly Parton-lovers fighting country music’s homophobic reputation.
karen and the sorrows. photography stef mitchell.
"I love the pedal steel and it doesn't seem fair for it to only belong to some kind of conservative agenda," says Karen Pittelman. Karen is a full-time writing coach, the co-founder of the Brooklyn-based Trans Justice Funding Project and also a country musician. She has a lilting singing voice like Dolly Parton's and wears glasses like a 60s librarian's. In 2011, she fell in love with Elana Redfield, then the pedal steel player for the band The Low & The Lonesome, and they began making soulful, heartfelt country music together as Karen and the Sorrows. In the four years since, Pittelman has also helped establish an entirely new music scene in New York: Brooklyn queer country. "Why queer country music?" reads the website for the Gay Ole Opry. "Because sometimes you love a culture that doesn't love you back."
Country music has long been seen as a bastion of Christian, Republican homogeneity. It's a genre that champions America, pickup trucks, beer and all things heteronormative. It also produces a disproportionately high number of stars who seem ready to put their cowboy booted-feet in their mouths when discussing gay rights. See: Warner Brothers-signed artist John Rich (of Nashville outfit Big & Rich), who spoke on air in 2007 about the "unsavory" nature of same-sex marriage. Or Brad Paisley's alleged opinion that homosexuality is a choice. Or the fact that in April of this year, radio listeners in Boise, Idaho dialled in threats to local DJ Alana Lynn after she played the song "Girl Crush" by Alabama quartet Little Big Town, because they thought the track promoted a "gay agenda." Radio is still country music's most powerful platform and, as always, the genre's most extreme voices are also often its loudest.
The artists of the Gay Ole Opry are actively disrupting that homogeneity. But it's not a widely adopted cause. "There's a reason no one comes out in country music as an artist," Chely Wright told Nashville newspaper The Tennessean in May, 2010. Earlier that month, Wright had become the first openly gay country artist when she disclosed her sexuality in an interview for People magazine. "It's hard to sell a gay country artist to fans because it's largely steeped with conservative Christian record buyers," she said. This year, she was forced to crowdfund her new album on Kickstarter.
In 2014, Nashville artist Ty Herndon also came out, also in People. The article moved former country star Billy Gilman to do the same. Gilman posted a self-filmed confessional on YouTube a few hours later, in which he confirms that "being a gay male country artist is not the best thing." After photos of him and his partner appeared in the press, he said no one came to his next showcase in Nashville. "After having sold over 5 million records [...] I knew something was wrong when no major label wanted to sit down and have a meeting and listen to the new stuff."
For the most part, the artists and groups who play the Gay Ole Opry in Brooklyn don't have commercial radio ambitions. And they acknowledge that the stakes aren't as high for gay artists in New York as they might be elsewhere in the US. But they sure as hell want to queer up country.
In April 2011, Pittelman and Gina Mamone (the founder of now-closed queer record label Riot Grrrl Ink) organized the first Gay Ole Opry showcase at the since-shuttered venue Public Assembly in Williamsburg. They invited local bands including My Gay Banjo and folk duo Nervous But Excited to perform. "My big fear was that it would be ironic," Karen says. "We love this music; that's why we make it. But everybody was so earnest. People were crying and saying that this was the music they grew up with and that they never thought there would be a place where they could listen to it and feel like themselves."
Pittelman says she realized then that she needed to keep the queer country flame burning, not just for herself but because of what it meant to other queer lovers of the pedal steel. So she started Queer Country Monthly, a more regular musical hoedown held at the Branded Saloon in Prospect Heights, where a bartender (birth name Tammy Wynette Kopko) pours ice cold beers beneath a giant pair of bull's horns. "We just made up 'Brooklyn Queer Country,' and now it's real," Karen muses. Since 2011, other bands have formed and come together under its rainbow flag. It's a scene that exists, as country star Clay Walker sings, "against the grain and against all odds."
But queer-themed country music does not really run counter to the genre's origins. "[Country] is folksy, it's for people," says Emily Bielagus of folk-country duo Kings. "When it's accessible only to some people, then it can't live up to its name or tradition." Bielagus and her bandmate, Steph Bishop, are more recent additions to the Brooklyn Queer Country family. Before meeting Karen, they were unsure how they even identified. They were queer, but were they country? "I'm more into the folk end of things," says Bielagus, who grew up listening to Joni Mitchell. "I'm the same," agrees Bishop. "But I also embarrassingly like some pop country. When I was in high school, I loved the Dixie Chicks."
Bishop once got a speeding ticket for driving down the New York State Freeway at 91 miles per hour listening to "Wide Open Spaces." Still, "country" is a label they've only recently decided they're ok with. ("Labels are funny that way," says Bielagus.) It was only once Pittelman invited them to play a Queer Country Monthly, that they decided they wanted to own the word. "It was cool to go into a queer space and have people playing music and legitimately calling themselves country bands," Bielagus remembers. "Prior to that, I think I felt like an imposter writing a country song."
The entry for country music in the online GLBTQ Archive suggests that there are people within the lesbian and gay communities who actively dislike country music because it "speaks to a straight, conservative, white society and that many fans of country music are homophobic and racist." While this may be true, the musicians of the Gay Ole Opry are more likely to squirm at being filed under "country" for aesthetic reasons. Country is America's most popular genre, it is also - only barely subjectively - its least cool. In a liberal, urban community on the East Coast, liking country music is usually interpreted as either a product of irony or bad taste.
For some of Brooklyn's country musicians, it's also a question of geography. "I've been more worried not about being gay and traveling, but about being a banjo player," says Owen Taylor, one half of My Gay Banjo. When he and his bandmate, Julia Steele Allen, played in Kentucky and New Orleans, he jokes that people were muttering, "Oh god, look, it's a yankee with a banjo." But while country's southern roots are strong, the Bible Belt isn't the genre's only spiritual home, or even necessarily - as is often assumed - the source of its reputation for homophobia.
Where does that reputation come from? "I don't think it's about the music itself or where it's from," says Pittelman. "I think it's just the way that some of the big industry [players] have positioned it to represent a certain way of life." Every band I spoke to agreed that they'd experienced little to no open homophobia on tours to the south (though few had traveled deep into the middle of the country). But the argument that the country music industry doesn't trust its listeners to embrace openly gay country acts is one I heard time and again.
You only have to watch the ridiculously melodramatic but unfailingly timely ABC series Nashville to see how pervasive this view has become. In the season three finale, long-closeted cowboy heartthrob Will Lexington (played by Chris Carmack) finally came out; by the second episode of season four, this fall, his label had dropped him. The future of Will Lexington's music career still hangs in the balance, but the show's writers are clearly implying that Music City is ready to change keys.
It's easy to forget too, says Pittelman, that country has always had a radical strain. She points to Willie Nelson, one of country's best-known rebel elements. The braid-sporting Texan hippie wore a T-shirt that read "Fuck Homophobia" to a recent concert, and, in 2006, he released a recording of the 1981 song "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," following the theatrical release of Brokeback Mountain. Another outlaw element: Lavender Country, the openly gay country band headed by Patrick Heggarty, a former farm boy from Port Angeles, Washington. In 2000, the band's 1973 album Lavender Country - the first openly gay country album - was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. It includes the tracks "Come Out Singin'," "Back in the Closet Again" and "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears."
And there are plenty of openly gay people working on Music Row. Kacey Musgraves composed her LGBTQ-supportive 2013 hit "Follow Your Arrow" with two successful, openly gay country writers. But in the words of gay country songwriter Shane Stevens, "they're not going to play a gay artist on the radio." Even "Follow Your Arrow" was reportedly banned by some stations; Musgraves is straight but her advice for girls to kiss lots of other girls "if that's something you're into" was not something Alabama programmers were ready to broadcast to the Bible-reading citizens of Birmingham.
Not all the bands in the Brooklyn Queer Country scene are as explicitly queer in their lyrics as Lavender Country. But "country is associated with a more conservative crew, and just being an all-queer band is a statement," says Emily Bielagus of Kings. "When you have a group of people saying, 'We're all queer, we're all doing this thing,' that's the politics. We are nudging our way in." Bielagus and Bishop use traditional country chords, they sing about country themes - love, marriage, heartbreak - they just use female pronouns. But neither are they shy about being queer. Above the bouncing rhythm and winding harmonies of "That's Fine" on their recent EP, they sing "there's a church on the corner won't let us in / Got a preacher says that we are living in sin."
Owen Taylor and Julia Steele Allen from My Gay Banjo both come from activist backgrounds (Taylor plays a banjo signed by Pete Seeger) and are more outwardly political. "I always assumed we were explicitly gay in our lyrics," says Taylor (listen to the brilliant lyrics of their song "Limp Wrist and a Steady Hand"). And for their third album, Country Boys in the City, Steele Allen wrote a musical tribute to Chelsea Manning. "We don't turn it down," emphasizes Taylor. "Our band name is My Gay Banjo, there's no getting around it." The duo was once asked to audition for America's Got Talent, and though they decided against it, Steele Allen was "intrigued by the idea that they would have to say 'gay' on air in front of ten million people."
One of Pittelman's favorite songwriting flourishes is subverting heteronormative country tropes. In a recent Brooklyn Queer Country email bulletin, she informed friends and fans, "We've been busy polishing some new songs, claiming bro country themes like pickup trucks and rugged dependability for our own queer agenda." She tells me, "Your heart finds the music it needs, whenever that is. And it's no good when your heart is broken and you're not straight and you can't find your music." Which is exactly what happened to her.
Pittelman grew up in New York but her father ran a company called Heartland Music which made compilation albums of country greats for sale on TV. He would come home from trips to Nashville with records by Don Williams and the Oak Ridge Boys. "It was a musical education and I totally resisted it. I was, like, 'I'm going to go listen to The Cure!'," remembers Karen, and she joined a queer punk band instead. "Then, I had a great heartbreak and, all of a sudden, the only thing I wanted to listen to and write was country music." Ironically, singing these songs, from a historically conservative genre, was how she first met Redfield (and then joined forces with the band's bassist Braque Hershberger and drummer Tami Johnson). "It was an amazing experience to have written something that came out of a lot of pain and create something joyous together with this group of people," she says.
In the backroom of the Branded Saloon, during a recent, late-summer edition of Queer Country Monthly, that joy was audible. Kings played and joked with the audience as the small wood-paneled space began to fill to bursting with friends, local country fans and members of other bands from the scene. Pittelman squeezed her way around the room, greeting friends - Betsy Crenshaw from the trailblazing East Village bluegrass group The Travelling Milies ("the weird aunts of country music"), James Wilson of Brooklyn band The Paisley Fields and local musician Justin Valhala (who Pittelman calls "a honey-voiced queer country unicorn"). She and the Sorrows later took the stage, followed by a moving final performance from queer country supergroup Small Talk. By the end of the night, the floorboards seemed to hum with energy.
And Queer Country Monthly is just the first phase of the Gay Ole Opry's plan to open up country music. In July, Queer Country West, headed by soulful Bay Area musician Eli Conley, held its first-ever event in Oakland. A Nashville chapter might still be some way off, true. But the wildly talented artists who make up the Brooklyn queer country scene are reminding a hidebound music industry that country is, at its core, for all cowpeople. "It's about reclaiming this music enough to prove that anybody who loves it can make it," Karen says. "And then we shall seize the means of production and create all kinds of new radical music!"
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Stef Mitchell