By Eryn Brothers, Contributing Writer
What makes a song a country song? We could get into the logistics of it, but Ken Burns has already done the dang thing. To be frank, he probably can do a better job than I in regard to the theory and history of it. On top of this, there are a good deal of gatekeepers within the country community, who argue about western swing to Appalachian ballads, music theory and time signatures.
Full disclosure: I’ve been one of these people in the recent past. I’ve gotten salty about “country drag,” the heavy branding that has become so popular, the use of country glamor by musicians that I have designated “not country,” and other such snobberies that make me a divisive fomentor.
Not a cute look, I’m aware, but after a conversation with Pls Pls Me that I had Before All The Shit Hit The Fan, my mind turned toward less judgemental sentiment.
In the past year, we have experienced civil unrest, an almost war, a tumultuous pandemic. To say the absolute least. We feel separated from our people, the places we have found shelter in, the communities that we invest our time and space into.
Jimi and Jessie, the pioneers of Pls Pls Me, a group that comes via Oakland, Brooklyn, and Austin, believe in community. In fact, that’s how they found each other. In Austin, Texas, after strides in the queer community and music scene, Jessie and Jimi both found themselves in need of partnership and the creative space that comes with that. It’s hard to be able to find your people in general, but finding those people to take the time to sit down and write songs is also incredibly difficult. Both Jimi and Jessie felt these hardships, and so, one New Year’s Day, after meeting and making plans to write together (which is the equivalent of asking someone out on a date in the music world sometimes: will they show up? Should I try to show off to impress them? Are we just making plans to talk? Do you actually like me? etc.) they found their match. They wrote their first songs on that dreary New Years Day.
“It wasn’t the country stylings or branding that made me salty, or people proclaiming a country genre label, it was that I felt that what makes this genre truly special to the American idiom was lost along the way.”
When they told me this story (over the phone in the car on the way to a gig, from the parking lot of an amp repair specialist), I finally had the language I needed for my feelings: it wasn’t the country stylings or branding that made me salty, or people proclaiming a country genre label (even though their music didn’t have the stylings of what I perceived as country) it was the fact that I felt that somewhere in that, what makes this genre truly special to the American idiom, was lost along the way.
Most of us, when we hear the words, “Country Music,” think of glitz, rhinestone cowboys and hair high to Jesus. (Read that in a southern dialect, please, “Jaysis.”) In my mind, there are stories. I think of rooms with families crowded around one instrument to sing together. The joy of a small town square dance. The excitement felt when a piece of sheet music came in the post, signifying a new tune to be shared in a home. Long story telling ballads and crack-up gems about STDs. (See: “Cotton Eyed Joe”.) In a more modern context, there’s the old games of Pass The Bottle/Pass The Guitar, staying up till three in the morning with friends on the porch and the terrible renditions of Wonderwall that come with it. Hanging out at home on a Friday night with your roommate to work on a lyric that has been clanging around in your head.
In less poetic words: Country = Community. A camaraderie that surpasses class and skin color, but intertwines us with the human condition. Country music owes so much to the people previously kept from it via gatekeeping, and it’s something that queer musicians who claim it have to work on dismantling. We’ve been kept out of those living rooms, too, and we have to forge and sing into more in order to gain the necessary inclusion and intersectionality that country music has forgotten along the way.
“The work and passion that these two exhibit is as real in their every day lives as it is in their music.”
That’s what Pls Pls Me works diligently on. From their meet-cute to the time, money, and energy invested into a multitude of non-profits geared toward queer communities in NYC, ATX, and CA, to helping cultivate the living room manifestos that country music has been so developed in, the work and passion that these two exhibit is as real in their every day lives as it is in their music.
From pleading, lightly electronic songs like “Pls You,” which puts the tremor of rejection on simmer, to seethingly angry minor jams like “Delilah,” with winding, twisting harmonies that hearken back to murder ballads, to their more recent release, “Checked Out,” that slowly, sultrily angsts about our newfound Brave New Bullshit World, Pls Pls Me is unafraid to explore queer storytelling. It’s this storytelling that compels me. It’s a way for queer narratives to be able to explore their own rooms and square dances, porches and Friday nights, while making space for others. Pls Pls Me emboldens the idea of a former unity that existed in both the country music world and the world we left around March. What a bold and brazen move from a gray winter songwriting meetup to creating a poppy narrative with swinging sardonic lyrics and hidden acoustic guitar. Who’s to say that’s not country?
Listen, I’ve been a piece of shit, gatekeeping and country-policing on my high horse. Yee-haw: I’m now a convert. Put fucking synth on a country track. Horn sections? Sick. Blast beats? Right on. Smorgasbord of pedals and harmonies? Alright, let’s try it out. Does it need to sound like Roy Rogers, Alan Jackson, or Patsy Montana? Nah. The world has changed, and country music has to change right along with it, to include all of us, regardless of the fringe in our outfits or the chords we use. There’s definitely a bigger metaphor here, but I’m busy eating humble crow pie while listening to “Checked Out” on repeat. Pls Pls Me got the memo faster than I did, and I’m sure as hell grateful I got it.
So if there is one thing I am certain of in this Dawn of What The Fuck Is Today is that we have to demand that we learn, change, adapt, listen, and grow, but what I have more gumption about is the conviction that these tribulations are better done to a good soundtrack. Pls Pls Me is more than perfect for all such notions, and I think that feeling is what makes a song a country song.