Exclusive Preview of 90’s-style Country Through a Queer Lens
By James Barker, Staff Writer
UK artist Tommy Atkins’ first EP, Kiss Me, Cowboy, is a gorgeous document of young love complicated by the ravages of homophobia. To kick it off, Atkins has made two videos available exclusively to Country Queer: a cassette tape visualizer of his single “Freedom,” and a lyric video for another single, “Cinderella’s Had a Drink” (below.)
The EP is produced by Dr. Ford and features some of Nashville’s finest musicians, including 2020 Grammy-winning fiddler Michael Cleveland, legendary steel and dobro player Smith Curry (Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift), guitarist Chris Condon (Billy Ray Cyrus) and Anna Pearson on harmonies. Ford’s production is perfect musical backdrop to one of the best voices you’ll hear this year. Kiss Me, Cowboy has the potential to establish Tommy Atkins as a major talent in country music.
I was lucky to be able to speak with Atkins ahead of the release of his EP, and as a fellow British country queer, who, like Atkins, is also a big fan of The Chicks, I was very excited to hear the music. Atkins is influenced by the 90s country he grew up with, but his music also has parallels with contemporary country artists like Jon Pardi and Carly Pearce. These artists are all bringing more traditional sounds back into the contemporary scene. As Atkins told me: “I’m here to record what I consider to be good country music – I’m always going to have fiddle and steel in my music, and it’s also going to be unapologetic lyrically: I’m not gonna water it down or change pronouns to fit country radio”.
Ensuring that LGBTQ+ listeners can hear themselves represented was really important in recording Kiss Me, Cowboy. “For decades now as LGBTQ+ people we’ve been relating to straight lyrics, and our experiences actually can be a lot more nuanced when it comes to first times and young love.” Although Atkins himself had very supportive parents, a number of his friends were not so lucky; he felt that their experiences of rejection and homophobia were important to capture.
I also took the opportunity to ask him about his experiences in Nashville and what he thinks about country radio at the moment. Atkins admits he was apprehensive about going to Nashville initially “because of the things we hear in the UK about the South being very conservative, very homophobic, which obviously is an incorrect stereotype”. Yet on arriving in Nashville, meeting other artists, performing at the Bluebird and singing openly gay lyrics he discovered that “There was actually a very accepting country music fan base who wanted to hear these kind of songs”.
Atkins, like me, is hopeful that bro country is coming to an end. “That kind of music [doesn’t] speak to the queer experience, [and] over the past year… we seem to have a lot more of a traditional feel coming back to the music [and] more of a diverse range of voices on country radio”. He hopes that “this is just the beginning of a new phase in country music”. With the success of Atkins’ last single, “Freedom,” on country radio in the UK, Europe and over in Australia and New Zealand, it’s time that US country radio also takes notice.
Kiss Me, Cowboy provides a window back to earlier times in our lives: growing up and coming out, giving us a chance to process that important time and hopefully reclaim what we didn’t necessarily get to experience the first time around. This is a golden age of country music that LGBTQ+ artists and audiences get to be a part of.
The title track channels the storytelling nostalgia of first love in songs like Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” (which Atkins tells me was one of the biggest influences on this song), and the longing excitement of The Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” yet with a key difference. Experiences of homophobia or family rejection can often taint those memories for us as LGBTQ+ listeners. “Kiss Me, Cowboy” captures both the thrill of those first experiences and the tentative fear and vulnerabilities of that time.
Track number 2 is a cover of the Wham! classic “Freedom”, shown here in the exclusive premiere of its visualizer. As well as paying homage to George Michael, Atkins’ version works like gangbusters as a country song. Best of all, Atkins changes the genders of the characters in the song so that Freedom is now explicitly from the viewpoint of a gay man. This is what unapologetically queer country sounds like!
What would a country artist be without a drinking song? Track number 3, “Cinderella’s Had a Drink” is Atkins’ outing in that wonderfully notorious country tradition. This song does what a good country drinking song ought to: it puts the fun into dysfunctional, and allows us to hear ourselves in the song, whether we’re the Cinderella who’s lost her shoes, or the long-suffering friend looking after her. On this song, Atkins shows a more playful side.
The EP closes with “Wild in the Wind”, a mini country epic, which bridges the confusion and nostalgia of “Kiss Me, Cowboy” with a broader, more universal sense of mourning and loss. Atkins’ vocal performance is in top form here, understated and powerful, the height of country music’s authentic emotional expression. It’s with a powerful statement of Tommy Atkins as a country artist for everyone.
Atkins’ EP hits the sweet spot of resonating both with people that remember 90s country the first time around, and with LGBTQ+ people coming to terms with their identity today.
Kiss Me, Cowboy is out Thursday September 24th on all major platforms.