Country Queer

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Marcus K. Dowling on America: Allyship, Inclusion, and Country Music

By Marcus K. Dowling

Here’s a harrowing news flash about country music: America is on the verge of becoming an irrelevant relic of a nation that squandered its embarrassment of riches on recurring embarrassing behaviors. Because our democracy has dwindled into idiocracy, a house divided against itself can no longer withstand the pressure of (barely) continuing to stand. Thus, because we’re now literally all we’ve got, without a wholesale embrace, with deliberate speed, of inclusivity and allyship in country music — both commercially and popularly the country’s most lucrative and fan-adored genre — America will not course-correct itself, and runs the risk of withering away like a dying wildwood flower.

As a genre driven by the core tenet of “three chords and the truth,” country music has always been essential to helping America celebrate itself and its creed. However, what this truth has been whittled into — by the wages of capitalism and white heterosexual domination of its narrative — is (I’ll use this word again) harrowing.

Country music has always reveled in and commercially sustained itself by digging into America’s ugliest versions of itself. However, when these digs are not balanced with a respectful appreciation of America’s potential best realities, an insidious antagonism clouds the genre.

How can opening a door for inclusivity and allyship for all lead to incredible progress? Let’s look at the case of cis-gendered heterosexual white women in country music. For all other marginalized communities in the genre, they are — it must be noted because of their socialized and naturalized proximity and connection to cis-gendered heterosexual white men — the standard setter.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

Consider that Dolly Parton can’t write and sing “Dumb Blonde” in 1967 if it’s not the exact statement that was derisively whispered by aggrieved white men every time she entered a writing room as a neophyte songwriter. However, by 1997, Shania Twain was singing “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” to celebrate femininity. Then, by 2005, Carrie Underwood is a not-so-dumb blonde “[taking] a Louisville Slugger to both headlights” before he cheats. Fast forward to 2021, and Trisha Yearwood is recontextualizing her hit single “She’s In Love With the Boy” to “She’s In Love With the Girl” at the Grand Ole Opry to acknowledge Brooke Eden’s proud homosexuality. That’s a 54-year story that, yes, hasn’t ended up with all deserving women reaching radio airplay or more significant numbers in corporate settings. Still, that arc does afford white women a more level platform to continue reaching (yes, still-daunted) for acclaim.

Solving for misogyny against white women is a long, achievable journey. Solving for drunken, angry white men couching loutish behavior in sociopolitical rhetoric underscored by pop-culture embracing dogwhistle antics is a much more difficult gambit. Millions of people support their songs, and by extension, likely their humanity. Therefore, the need for a counterbalance via inclusive action buoyed by allyship across all lines is essential. 

Yes, of course, in February 2020, Morgan Wallen called his friend a “nigga” after a weekend bender. This would be just another dumb white guy doing a dumb thing if his double-album Dangerous hadn’t also just accumulated a total of 240.18 million on-demand streams, having the largest streaming week ever for a country album and keying the longest run atop the Billboard Top 200 chart for a country album since Garth Brooks’ The Chase in 1992. Dovetail this with a two-decade-long corollary of American, white, war hawking, cis-gendered conservative male anger that stretches like a fraying flag bar between Toby Keith’s 2001 “Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue” and Aaron Lewis’ 2021-released “Am I The Only One,” and something insidious appears. (Moreover, the weird, awkward story of embracing alcoholism’s positives extending from REHAB’s 2006 anthem “Sittin’ In A Bar” to Luke Combs’ 2019 hit “Beer Never Broke My Heart” just douses the entire situation in firewater.) Given that millions of people support their songs — and by extension, likely their humanity — I will say it again: the need for a counterbalance via inclusive action buoyed by allyship across all lines is essential.

The achievement of allyship and inclusivity in country music is actually relatively simple, and boils down to a clear statement of and thoroughly re-embracing country music’s core historical principles. 

These principles are listed as such: 

Foremost, country music is a confluence of earnest sounds and honest truths fostered by Black slaves and bolstered by the folk traditions of blue-collar American immigrants. Moreover, the idea of a unifying circle being unbroken deeply involves the scratching guitar rhythms played by the genre’s first pop-star guitarist, a woman, Maybelle Carter. Moreover, country music has continually been improved by the indoctrination of the “outlaw,” incorporating outsider notions and beliefs to significant financial gain.

Willful desire to not engage with these principles — especially at this moment — implies sure racism, sexism, or otherwise phobic toxicity. This toxicity is diametrically opposed to course-correcting for America, and country music as a genre, on the apparent brink of demise. Even deeper, it showcases a complete disregard for commerce and, yes, common sense.

Looking across racial, social, ethnic, and gender lines to see someone who birthed or improved the genre you claim to love or are becoming fabulously wealthy by creating — and not allowing them space to play their music and tell their story, under these principles — is egregious. Once you see and hear them — and you deem them near, at, or above your level of talent — not affording them some manner of your privilege implies a type of greed that smacks of pre-Civil War America.

For 400 years, Black, brown, queer, and generally marginalized people in America have done impossible work for minimal gain that’s perpetually squandered. Simultaneously, white power and white privilege are worth less, on every conceivable level,  than they ever have been. So maybe it’s time for a change. Even more, to quote Willie Nelson — an outlaw, countrified white man who eventually figured it out, “it’s not supposed to be [this] way.”

Marcus K. Dowling is a veteran, award-winning music journalist. He’s recently been named the 2021 recipient of the Rolling Stone Chet Flippo Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism. His contributions across the musical spectrum have seen him write for, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Vice, The FADER, VIBE, Complex, Bandcamp, No Depression, and more. He’s been quoted by the Associated Press, ESPN, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Tennessean.