By Annalisha Fragmin
Ed. – Are you queer, liberal (or do I repeat myself?), and already into country? Then think of this as your guide to introducing the delights of twang to friends who are stuck on dance, pop, rock, or r’n’b. Or, hey, just maybe you’ll find some new music here that you’ll love!
It’s certainly not a secret that country music has its share of socially conservative anthems. Between Merle Haggard, Toby Keith and Hank Williams Jr., the soundtrack for a conservative listener’s life and political views could last for days. For the queer liberal trying to find songs that represent similar political values in country music can be a difficult task.
But even the most conservative states have pockets of liberals dwelling within them, and the same can be said about country music. For the queer liberal looking for representation in the lyrics of a country song, these twelve songs are a great place to start.
1. “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” by Mickey Guyton
From the very first line of Mickey Guyton’s “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”, it becomes clear that the song is not interested in pulling any punches. Guyton, who has been upfront about both the racial and gender discrimination she has faced as a country music artist, told CMT that the song is a “Call to Action.” That isn’t a surprise to anyone listening the lyrics, which include:
“Do you let her think the deck’s not stacked
And gay or straight or white or black
You just dream and anything can happen?
What are you gonna tell her when she’s wrong?”
2. “We Shall Be Free,” by Garth Brooks
These days, Garth Brooks is making questionable duets with Blake Shelton and becoming famous for being a dinosaur who hates allowing fans to buy his music via the Internet. But once upon a time, Brooks was the hottest ticket in country music. At the height of his fame in 1992, Brooks choose to release “We Shall Be Free” as the first single to his fourth album, The Chase. Country radio did not love it, and a many of stations refused to play it due to the socially liberal lyrics that included:
“When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When this world’s big enough for all different views,
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew,
Then we shall be free.”
3. “White Man’s World,” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
After the birth of his daughter with fellow musician Amanda Shires, Isbell’s songwriting began to reflect the conscience of a man dealing with a world he doesn’t want to leave to his daughter. Many of the songs on 2015’s The Nashville Sound reflect that, but none so strongly as “White Man’s World.” The lyrics reflect poignantly on racism and Nashville’s particular brand of sexism.
The lyrics also include a reminder that “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war,” and “Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for.” While the song does not explicitly address sexuality, the notion that others’ rights are something we should all care about certainly hits home to any liberal who has had to have Facebook arguments with close-minded relatives clinging to their homophobic ideals.
4. “The Dress,” by Emily Scott Robinson
Country music does not always handle the subject of rape well. There’s more than one well meaning bro singing with faux earnestness in songs like Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl” and Keith Urban’s “Female” that are clearly meant to pander, even while “Drunk Girl” judges a woman for getting drunk in a genre full of men who spend their entire weekends plastered. But Robinson’s “The Dress” is authentic, painful, and a glorious middle finger to Janson’s – and society’s – condemnation.
The song comes from the 2019’s Traveling Mercies album and the lyrics leave no room for nonsense, cutting to the bitter truth with lyrics such as: “Deadbolt the front door, don’t answer the phone. Sleep with the lights on, afraid of being alone.”
Although the lyrics focus on the narrator’s trigger of seeing a dress, the song’s subtle and moving portrayal of the long-term emotional trauma that often follows sexual assault are relatable to most survivors. That includes the 1 in 8 lesbians, 50% of bisexual women, 64% of transgender people, 50% of bisexual men, and 4 out of 10 gay men who are statistically likely to be victims of sexual assault according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
5. “Like Me,” by Chely Wright
Listening to Chely Wright took up a considerable amount of my childhood in rural Ohio, but most of those songs were typical heterocentric lyrics. Brandi Carlile asserted once that the queer community will find gay anthems anywhere they can, and I was definitely searching for it in “Jezebel” and “Single White Female.” But both the younger version of me and the version of Chely Wright singing those songs were very much in the closet.
By 2010, Wright was out of the closet and singing songs more authentic to her actual life experiences. This was reflected in “Like Me,” a song off of her “Lifted Off the Ground” album.
“Like Me” is a clear departure from Wright’s earlier works. In “Jezebel,” Wright’s narrator was fighting with another woman over the love of a man. In “Like Me,” Wright offers the possibility that multiple types of love exist:
“And who’s gonna end up holdin’ your hand
A beautiful woman or a tall, handsome man?
There’s no doubt they’ll love you, but it’s yet to be seen:
Will anyone ever know you like me?”
6. “If She Ever Leaves Me,” by The Highwomen
The Highwomen includes Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. “If She Ever Leaves Me” is a fun country song about a woman watching a man futilely flirt with her girlfriend, knowing that “if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for a cowboy like you.”
There’s no deep political message to this song. However, in a genre that refused to play “Girl Crush” by Little Big Town lest it be considered “too gay,” the simple act of singing a fun song about your girlfriend never wanting a man is a progressive act.
7. “What It Means,” by the Drive-by Truckers
Trying to pick just one song from the Truckers to include on this list is almost impossible. Their 2016 album, “American Band,” featured the song, “What It Means,” which tackles the Black Lives Matter movement and the shooting of unarmed black men with lyrics such as:
“In some town in Missouri
But it could be anywhere
It could be right here on Ruth Street
In fact it’s happened here
And it happened where you’re sitting
Wherever that might be
And it happened last weekend
And it will happen again next week.”
There are two reasons to include “What It Means” on this list. Most obviously, as Guyton’s “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” points out, many of us are part of multiple minority groups. Queer country liberals who are black are likely to identify even more strongly with this song due to the acknowledgment of racist discrimination.
But the song’s bridge also points out a broader level of concern for our society’s cultural norms. By the end of the song, “What It Means” has served as a calling out of racism, climate change, and rape. The song’s lyrics implore the listener not to ignore what is happening because they think it doesn’t affect them, something that should resonate very strongly with queer liberal listeners.
8. “Hometown” by Brandon Stansell
Much of country music focuses on the rural or small town experience. “Hometown,” released on Stansell’s 2017 album, “Slow Down,” focuses on how suffocating that experience can be when growing up queer. The song is told from the perspective of someone who escaped a town they couldn’t live an authentic life in, but acknowledges that the experiences of that hometown made them who they are today.
For anyone who has ever felt compelled to go to a Christmas gathering where they didn’t feel comfortable, these lyrics will ring true: “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you / With your one red light and your Baptist steeple / The people here are hard to face / The memories harder to erase”
9. “Most People Are Good,” by Luke Bryan
Luke Bryan deserves a lot of credit for making country music the domain of jerk bros who probably hate everything this list stands for, but this song is still a great example of what country music can do when it’s not singing about getting drunk in a truck with a girl in tight jeans. The song comes from the 2017 album, “What Makes You Country” and casually asserts that “I believe you love who you love. Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of.” The casual acceptance by one of the biggest stars in the genre is not quite enough to make me forgive him for “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” but it’s a good song regardless.
10. “What Matters Most (Alternate Version)” by Ty Herndon
When Ty Herndon first had his success in the country music world, he was very much in the closet. It was the 1995, Ellen hadn’t came out yet, and Rosie O’Donnell was still pretending to be in love Tom Cruise. The world might not have been ready for Herndon to come out, and Nashville definitely wasn’t.
But in 2019, Herndon released “What Mattered Most (Alternate Version).” In the 2019 version of his first number one single, Herndon changed every reference to the woman he was mourning to a man. The result is Herndon mourning the loss of the male love of his life, and the authenticity makes an already beautiful song all the better.
11. “The Joke,” by Brandi Carlile
“The Joke,” one of the stand-outs from Carlile’s 2017 album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” is a song for misfits. These misfits include quiet boys and ambitious girls. In many ways, “The Joke” works well as a sequel of sorts to Stansell’s “Hometown,” because it is easy to imagine the quiet boys and ambitious girls of “The Joke” dwelling in these rural settings, unaware or not comforted with the knowledge that life is different outside of their hometown.
But “The Joke” encourages them to remember that it can, in fact, get better, with lyrics such as:
“You’re feeling nervous, aren’t you, boy?
With your quiet voice and impeccable style
Don’t ever let them steal your joy
And your gentle ways, to keep ’em from running wild.”
“The Joke” acknowledges the struggle, but offers the potential of a happy ending, along with a healthy serving of spite to comfort the type of younger queer liberal who hasn’t quite found their wings to be where they want to be yet.
12. “Rainbow,” by Kacey Musgraves
When people think of “liberal country music,” they typically think of Kacey Musgraves. While there is a much bigger buffet to choose from, there is also no denying the talent of Musgraves’ music. There are many songs to choose from for this list, as Musgraves tends to focus on themes of alienation from small towns and rural areas in songs such as “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go Round.” Much of the queer rural experience involves feeling alienated from others for reasons that are often difficult to pinpoint.
But ultimately, “Rainbow” is the best way to round out this list because it does pinpoint why that alienation exists through its lyrics:
“Well the sky is finally open, the rain and wind stopped blowin’
But you’re stuck out in the same old storm again
You hold tight to your umbrella, well, darlin’ I’m just tryin’ to tell ya
That there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head.”
“Rainbow” also serves as a happy bookend to Carlile’s “The Joke.” The queer misfits of Carlile’s work were biding their time until they could thrive, but by “Rainbow,” they are ready to “tie up the bow, take off your coat and take a look around.” The sun is shining, and it is time to celebrate and do the thriving.