By Steacy Easton, Contributing Writer
If there have always been queer folks in country, like there have always been women and Black people, why does it seem, time and time again, that this genre is not for us –- that every moment of celebration is held back, waiting for the (often violent) pushback from people who are fixated on a particular idea of purity?
You can see this tension in the last six months: the success of Mickey Guyton, and the coming out of TJ Osborne. Guyton is a Black country singer, first from Texas, but who has spent more than a decade in Nashville. She charted in 2015 with “Better Than You Left Me,” but did not reach success after that until last year, where she disavowed the advice of white Nashville and wrote a clutch of brilliant singles about what it means to be Black in a culture that rewards white banality over Black excellence.
Osborne came out this year, making less explicitly queer work than Guyton is doing Black work, but receiving a similarly hostile reaction. When Osborne came out, however, it was a matter of great joy. He was the first out country artist on a major label (unless you count Brandy Clark, who is on a subsidiary of Warner). Osborne spent the first few months after coming out making lovely and expansive statements about the new Nashville–he released new songs, performed on Tiny Desk at NPR, and sung on Leslie Jordan’s sweet and subversive album of hymns Company’s Coming. (“Company” here meaning the friendly and welcome desires for time at home and in church, but with the inclusion of the young queer songwriter Katie Pruitt: “company” as in our people, queer people.) TJ Osborne’s gorgeous baritone singing on “Sweet By and By” is a subversive act of placemaking, functioning as a rejoinder to the homophobia of Nashville.
This question of placemaking in Nashville–how to be Black or queer, or, God forbid, both–is an ongoing crisis. There is this pattern in the country world where every ten years or so, someone records a song about how good the old times were, and how the country has to return to a mythical purity. Sometimes this mythical purity is directly and explicitly racist, like when Josh Turner sang about Wade Hampton, the largest slave owner in the state, in his song “South Carolina Low Country.” Other times, it’s more subtle, like Alan Jackson’s newest attempt at mourning a country music that never went away, or Thomas Rhett’s new single “Country Again,” where he abandons his previous soul music influences.
These acts of placemaking are also acts of nostalgia. The effort of defining what Nashville or what the South is always asks questions of what it is not, and often asks questions of the racist Lost Cause. The intersection of place and nostalgia in country music is often white and often straight (which is why Jordan’s gospel CD is so subversive.) Queer and Black people who ask questions about the South or the West have an anxiety about nostalgia. They remember the racism and homophobia of the country music that Jackson yearns for, or that Rhett can return to. (There is something especially egregious in Rhett dropping Black signifiers as easily as he put them on–-not something that Guyton can do.)
Guyton’s new single “Cross Country” — a collaboration with genre-fluid artist BRELAND — is one about growing up outside of Nashville and finding room there. Osborne’s new single “Younger Me” is a coming out song, but like many coming out songs, it acknowledges that childhood can be pure misery, something you survive in order to become an adult. Both talk about the failure of growing into a place which is hostile to you. Just as well as he knows how to sing “Sweet By and By,” Osborne knows the genre of country, and how to upend it.
Along with Osborne, Mickey Guyton has also been pushing back against the old ways of Nashville. After more than a decade of writing and performing, Guyton’s work is culturally successful, though she has not been on the charts since 2015. This success has resulted in her hosting the ACM awards, and performing at the Opry. Two of her most recent releases, “Black Like Me,” and “What Are You Going to Tell Her”, are explicitly political, but politics acts as the subtext of her latest release, “Cross Country.”
“Cross Country” has much in common with “Younger Me” in its elegant play on the idea of “cross country”–a geographic and genre doubling. When Guyton sings about playing her part, about trying to fit in, and about failing to do so, she returns to the idea that performing authenticity is what country both expects and punishes. It’s a hopeful song, and one of place, not of cynicism.
Osborne and Guyton — and also BRELAND, who asked Guyton to feature on “Cross Country” — are all making work after significant life changes. Though Blackness and queerness are not the same, I do think that how Nashville handles racist and homophobic violence shade each other. Guyton’s previous two singles, excoriating the hypocrisy of Nashville racism, are a direct call-out–perhaps the kind of call-out that we have yet to hear from queer voices. There is still not a song for queer folks, however, which calls out homophobia with the same fury as Guyton calls out racism.
The Sh*t Show
Racism and homophobia cannot be conflated—the violence of slavery, as an originating sin, and the Jim Crow/Segregation history after it, is much more foundational. However, the fear of Black bodies, desires, selfhoods, and identities is almost always shared by those who also fear the instability of queer presences, even at their most milquetoast. Writing about the success of Guyton, or Osborne’s relatively safe coming out, is impossible without noting that backlash–especially as it factored into the many controversies of Morgan Wallen.
Morgan Wallen has become very successful merging the populist, bro-country homosocial sound with an emerging neo-neo-traditionalist mode, something that he shares with Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, and Luke Comb. He has a gorgeous voice and writes well, though he appears too convinced of his own genius. He has committed to the outlaw stance more than he should have, and has spent a lot of time getting drunk. And because he is white, cis, heterosexual, and lauded by the establishment, he has yet to face the consequences of his actions.
The week that Wallen was to appear on Saturday Night Live, footage leaked of him partying in Tuscaloosa honky-tonks. In a county that had some of the worst infection rates of the country, he was making out with women in packed bars. His appearance at SNL was rescheduled. A few weeks later, after a night at Lower Broadway bars, he was recorded loudly calling his friend the N-word outside his home in Nashville.
Wallen was subsequently dropped from the radio, and censured by the ACM and CMT. He apologized publicly, and he attended some diversity sessions with Black gospel legend BeBe Winans. A few months later, he is back on the radio, and back in the CMA. His sales spiked at the beginning of these nominal bannings, including his album going to Number 1 (and we’re not talking about the Country charts: it’s the biggest album in the nation). Wallen played at being apologetic, and has been rewarded with the most success in his career thus far.
This month, in defending Wallen’s return to the CMA, Kid Rock publicly used a homophobic slur, calling Wallen’s critics “f–king f—-ts.” While it’s absurd to me that anyone would take Kid Rock seriously, he is also central to the same far-right nativist/fascist audience that rewards Wallen’s politics. Rock’s bar on Lower Broadway was packed throughout the pandemic. He has supported Trump, and he has played with dangerous conspiracy theories. His idea of Nashville is white, straight, cis, and upper-middle-class performing as working-class, and he has not been called to account for these views in any meaningful way.
Rock has a well-honed ability to be at the right place at the right time–emphasis on right)–to cash in on this kind of political posturing. He is close friends with Aaron Lewis, who was in the alt-metal band Staind, and who has spent the last decade writing “patriotic” agit prop. Lewis has the number one single on the country charts right now, the white grievance screed “Am I the Only One?” (We wish.) It has been played everywhere from SiriusXM to Breitbart. His label is supporting the single (because it makes money), and Nashville media folks are supporting the single, and Lewis is being taken seriously as a singer and a writer–perhaps more seriously than Guyton or Osborne.
The Rotten Core
Listening to Lewis, and seeing the sales of Wallen, it’s easy to see that part of this is due to the reactionary turn of some country audiences. However, one has to remember that those who have power in Nashville are still mostly white, straight, and men. Andrea Williams is a Black critic who has written extensively about the changes which have to happen in Nashville. In a series of recent public tweets, she makes two important points: “whether [people] understand it or not, this culture is upheld by all-white bands and all-white label rosters, by radio program directors who won’t play Black artists and publishers who won’t sign Black writers, by an org that refuses to fully rescind MW’s reward eligibility.” She continues, “Every step of the way, this industry is saying: You’re right. People like Mickey Guyton don’t belong here.” These are distillations of her also-brilliant longform summary of this issue in Vulture.
Williams is saying that Rock, Lewis, or Wallen belong more than anyone else who might try to make it in this ten-year town. Wallen’s recent, very tightly scripted conversation on Good Morning America might suggest a certain anxiety, but it’s one that is both slippery and obligatory. When asked about whether this apology, months after the incident, was performative, he repeats bromides of “telling his truth.” He talks about the possibility of his career being over, and says that he and his family were under threat. This is not an apology, but an argument for the continuation of his career. He was 28 years old, and pretended that he didn’t know the influence of the word he used. A continued claim of ignorance is not the defense that Wallen thinks it is–that it was so natural for him to say the word, and that he had to have Nashville label heads and lawyers explain its power, tells either of a disingenuous theater, or an overwhelming ignorance of racism in the place where he lives. This is his second apology, and neither of these apologies are much different from each other. The GMA interview was even done by Michael Strahan, another Black man expected to explain to Wallen why racism is wrong. (Note that in this interview, Wallen claimed to donate the money made from his racist tirade to Black music organizations, yet none of them have reported that this donation has actually occurred.)
Wallen’s casual racism, and Rock’s casual homophobia, and Lewis’ whole schtick mark an attitude within Nashville toward the success of people like Guyton or Osborne. And so Guyton can make the best, most politically significant work of her career, Osborne can come out and make work that is explicitly queer, but I suspect both will be ignored. One of the things that Guyton and Osborne have in common is that they are usefully woke for the Nashville crowd: they’re convenient when they need to be, but their presence does not solve the rotten core of the town or the business.
What Osborne has that Guyton does not have is privilege. The industry is more willing to play to a cishet white gay man than they are willing to work on almost anyone else. Because of Osborne’s already extant privilege, they are willing to say Osborne belongs there—but he can only belong if his queerness does not overshadow his race or his gender. If he becomes too queer, or if he connects the dots between Wallen’s racism and Rock’s homomisia, than that privilege will be quickly revoked. If he writes about his queerness, his desires, I suspect that his status will also be revoked.
The Institutions vs. the Music
Since its inception in 1961, the Country Music Hall of Fame has inducted only two people of color: DeFord Bailey, the 1930s banjoist, and Charley Pride, the legend. There are only three Black men (Rucker, Pride, and Bailey) and no Black women who are members of the Grand Ole Opry. There are no out queer members of the Opry, or in the Hall of Fame.
Country has always been Black, and has always had queer elements. The banjo comes from West Africa, blues and gospel are two of the foundational wellsprings of country, and as the Hall of Fame acknowledges, there have been brilliant black players since the 1930s: Ray Charles and Arthur Alexander in the 1960s, Stoney Edwards and OB McClinton in the 1970s, Cleve Francis in the 1990s, and the current roster of Breland, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Rissi Palmer, and Guyton, among others.
Queerness has a similar history; Osborne is now part of a long tradition of queer country history. In 1938, Sweet Violet Boys released “I Love My Fruit,” a song that both makes fun of and embraces effeminacy, double entendres, and a reversal of the butch cowboy into the soft pansy. There are other codes–the lush darkness of Patsy Cline, for instance, whose “Walking After Midnight” has a queer tinge. Then, there are the fan-reclaimings of these sounds, none more explicit than kd lang claiming to be the reincarnation of Cline, using the same producer forty years after Cline’s fated plane crash.
Dare We Hope?
There is currently also a small bump of Black and queer traditional, bluegrass, and old-time artists that exist because their communities are progressive, and the stakes are lower. There has been some thought that the performers’ stages might be more diverse than the audiences. That distinguishing their aesthetics from the Nashville mainstream has widened what country music can be. (Though even with these genres there are incidents–like the old-time folk musician Frank Fairfield, who curated a set of historical recordings about seven years ago with the same racial slurs as Wallen.)
There are also people who sing lovely songs about tolerance, songs about queerness and Blackness. Everyone from Garth Brooks to Luke Bryan to Kacey Musgraves has that one line about love is love, or how it doesn’t matter what people do, or about how they don’t see color. But none of them are willing to offer details, or have a real curiosity about queer and Black lives.
Guyton hosting the ACM awards, and her presence in mainstream, non-country media (like Good Morning America, an Amanda Petrusich profile in the New Yorker, or her Billboard feature), is a direct response to a space that has been historically white. Between the way Blanco Brown combines trap and country in the delightfully perverse “Giddy Up,” or the way Lil Nas X rescued Billy Ray Cyrus’s career, or the R&B of Kane Brown, there is a cadre of Black country musicians that Guyton is in the middle of. There is also Darius Rucker’s long success, and the traditionalism of Jimmie Allen. However, this cohort is still small in number, and many of their successes are quite recent–the surge must not be taken as novelty, quickly moving away when the fashion has faded.
One of the most exciting things about Osborne coming out is not only how big his platform is, but how successful the Osbornes have been in a vexed Nashville ecosystem. The Osbornes sell well enough, but who sells and who doesn’t is under reconsideration in the last few years–the 90s slow jam R&B of Kane Brown and Thomas Rhett, the neo-traditionalism of Chris Stapleton, and the bro-country reactionary backlash of Jason Aldean were the best sellers of 2018, when the Brothers Osborne released their best-selling records. They are also successful on streaming services, with almost 2.5 million monthly Spotify listeners and 75 million plays for their song “It Ain’t All My Fault.”
It’s not that Wallen is successful and Guyton and Osborne are not (though one worries about Osborne now that he has come out.) It’s the amorality of capital – that Nashville seems to want to be rewarded for its tolerance, and for its reactionary tendencies at the same time.
But the Osbornes also have some critical heat, and win awards across genres. Every album they have recorded has received a Grammy award nomination. They have been nominated for thirteen Country Music Association awards and won four, nominated for twelve Academy of Country Music Awards and, again, won five.
I am cynical about actual change, but the ACM has asked Guyton to host and perform her song “Black Like Me.” They have had some leadership on questions of equity and diversion, and have a commission that works on these issues. As Williams reminds us, none of this commission or committee work–or even Guyton being on the stage–will matter much until Black people amd queer people exist in spaces behind the scenes, where they have the power to write, sign, produce, or distribute Black and queer work.
Trying to Breathe In a Toxic Atmosphere
As for the CMA awards: last summer, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests throughout America, the Country Music Association realized their usual very white award show would not do. They wanted to have Black artists play live, so they gave Black legend Charley Pride an award. Exactly a month after Pride showed up on stage, he had died of COVID-19. If the CMA doesn’t give a fuck about someone like Pride, what makes queer listeners of country make us think that they will take care of queer artists? Osborne might be the queer Charley Pride, in the way his future career moves between being tokenized and ignored. No matter how careful Osborne is now that he is out, however, he still might not be polite enough for the establishment.
There are queer writers in Nashville–the producer Shane McAnally has been very successful working with a wide range of artists, including Old Dominion, Walker Hayes, Midland, Kacey Musgraves, and Sam Hunt. Though he does not write about queer themes (with the possible exception of work with Brandy Clark; I am not counting Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow”), and he rarely writes for Black artists. Brandy Clark was a writer (also mostly for white women) whose sexuality has been widely known in Nashville, but she managed to be discreet about her last album, a heartbreaking work about breaking up with her wife. She writes some of the most beautiful and yet still coded songs about desire. For queer critics, there are lists of queer performers that we are are supposed not to out, when they ride success on this discretion. After all, why would someone come out, in this atmosphere?
The atmosphere is explicitly racist and homophobic–violently so. The legislative violence done to Black and queer people unifies them. Looking at these laws being passed against trans people and critical race theory in Georgia or Florida, they both make the argument that stating explicitly what is true–that the world hates Black people, and trans people and has legislated against those bodies, that it is fearful of their desires, that the narrative cannot be let to move forward–should be punished. I wonder if white cis gay men think that the world is safe for them? Safer, but not safe. Safer if one does not mention what is real about dissident lives. I worked on this draft on the fifth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shootings. I am not naive enough to think that that cannot be repeated; not naive enough to not realize Pulse was less safe because it had a Latin and Black clientele.
I am really excited about TJ Osborne coming out; I’m looking forward to queer songs coming from a band that has always been more difficult, wilier, and smarter than their chart success might suggest. I am looking forward to decades of queer work from Osborne that will be loved as widely as his previous work, but knowing how toxic Nashville fame can be, I am genuinely concerned that it won’t happen. I want a queer love song sung in that circle at the center of the Mother Church, in a chorus of more than a century of other love songs — some of them, I’m sure, with their pronouns shifted. I want queer desire without regret, without shame, without apology, and without trauma.