By James Barker, Staff Writer
One of the issues we debate quite a bit amongst the staff at Country Queer is the role of allies in the country music industry and how much coverage — if any — we should be giving to straight cisgender performers. As a PhD student whose work focuses on Dolly Parton, this is a question I think about often.
Of course, being an ally to LGBTQ+ people is just human decency, and so in that way being an ally should not really come with any particular praise or special attention. However, with the pervasiveness of homophobia, transphobia and heteronormativity both within the country music industry and within our culture more generally, allies have historically and even today have a key role to play, like pushing against and challenging some of the barriers and attitudes that have shut LGBTQ+ artists, as well as people of color, out of the industry.
Yet at the same time, for some artists in pop music and the world of film and tv, appearing LGBTQ+ friendly can in itself be used as a way to market the artist, in a way that benefits the commercial prospects of the ally disproportionately to those of LGBTQ+ people. This kind of commodification also has a habit of only selecting the parts of LGBTQ+ identity, advocacy or expression that benefit that artist, which feels particularly exploitative.
I would like to take a look at country artists who have been recognized as LGBTQ+ allies and explore whether they had a necessary role historically, and whether this role has changed in the current state of country music and the industry today.
Country’s Historical Allies
When we think of historical LGBTQ+ allies in country music, some names stick out: in particular, Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks. Both of these artists put their heads above the parapet in the early 90s to advocate for LGBTQ+ people and did so in such a way that they presented LGBTQ+ people as unequivocally belonging in country music.
Parton is often thought of as an LGBTQ+ icon, one of the few artists to be recognized for her LGBTQ+ following almost as much as for her representations of country music and Appalachia. Part of the reason Parton is recognized in this way is because her advocacy for LGBTQ+ people had little reason to benefit her career commercially. In 1991 Parton featured her advocacy for LGBTQ+ people in the song ‘Family’, and that same year she made her views clear in an interview with Oprah.
When Oprah asked her about rumors that Parton was gay, Parton responded by denying the rumors whilst in the same breath affirming her gay friends demonstrated the steel behind Parton’s allyship. Whilst at the same time, as Chely Wright pointed out the audience’s reaction – applauding Parton announcing that she was straight, as if being gay would be bad, represents the homophobic, toxic media culture of that time, when advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights would not be readily commodified for the mainstream.
Parton has continued to advocate for LGBTQ+ people and you can check out my feature on her in these pages for a fuller account of her career, her allyship and the resonances of her music. In 1992, the following year, another country ally would step forward: Garth Brooks. As one of the most popular country artists of the time, it is significant that Brooks released ‘We Shall Be Free’ as the lead single from his second no.1 album ‘The Dance’ featuring the lyric: ‘when we’re free to love anyone we choose’. Brooks doubled down on this allyship saying at the time:
“Traditional family values was encouraging children to be the best they can be. If your parents are Black and white, if your parents are the same sex, that’s still traditional family values to me.”
In a statement that Linda Ronstadt would later echo with similar sentiments in one of my favorite lines ever: ‘Homophobia is anti-family values. Period.’ Brooks is steadfast in his conviction and allyship, in a way that puts some of the current crop of mainstream country artists to shame. There are of course issues with how much attention we might giving these allies just for basic human decency, and we may also question whether ‘family values’ is a framing we want to even remotely touch, however in the early ‘90’s I would argue that these acts of allyship were necessary.
Country Allies and Commodification
From the ‘90s onwards it makes sense to talk about what Valerie Abma terms commodity allyship. Commodity allyship is where acts of allyship do more to benefit the ally’s image and their commercial prospects than they do the people these acts are supposed to be advocating for.
Until relatively recently it has arguably been hard to see how LGBTQ+ allyship could advance an artist’s commercial prospects within the country music industry, although for Parton particularly it is a key part of her enduring popularity. At the same time the country industry has had a porous relationship with pop and rock and so as they started to advocate for LGBTQ+ people, some of this would crossover into country too.
This often results in a very uneven dynamic where some forms of allyship can be co-opted to advance the commercial prospects of an artist, but with higher risks, which at times may mean a greater impact for LGBTQ+ fans, but artists may also be more reluctant about how far they will go to be an ally.
For instance, as James Mandrell has discussed: Shania Twain’s music videos often feature many people who are queer coded (at least in terms of the ‘90s country-pop context), yet often the videography contains and closes off this queerness within a framing of heterosexual monogamy. The mix of line-dancing and hooking up in a dance club in ‘(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here!’ showcases a variety of different attractive people of all genders, to draw our attention, but then the song makes it clear that if it’s not traditional monogamy (love), Shania’s out of there.
Yet with the camp of later videos like ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ certain, Twain arguably advanced the way gender and sexuality could be represented in country music, particularly in country music videos. However, the case of Twain demonstrated the limitations certain forms of LGBTQ+ allyship could take. It is notable that the next generation of country stars would only barely go beyond the limits of Twain’s expression. Taylor Swift would wait until she was no longer releasing into the mainstream country industry for her most explicit advocacy for LGBTQ+ equality.
In the last decade there have been definite signs of progress within the mainstream country music industry. Following her coming out in 2010, Chely Wright at the time said ‘the only [artists] who supported me publicly [were] Mary Chapin Carpenter, LeAnn Rimes, and SHeDAISY’, whilst others (mostly women) supported her privately. Of course, for allyship to really mean anything it needs to be public.
Throughout the 2010s, more country artists have started to speak out and publicly, for example through expressing their support for marriage equality including Carrie Underwood, Billy Ray Cyrus and Jana Kramer, as well as long standing LGBTQ+ allies Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton. This has only continued throughout the decade with artists like Maren Morris, Mickey Guyton and Cam asserting their voices.
More and more country artists are expressing their support for LGBTQ+ people openly, and although this should not deserve special credit, it is a sure sign of progress. Of course, with LGBTQ+ allyship becoming a more mainstream view within the country music industry, the more likely that this allyship can be used more cynically to commercially boost that particular artist.
Perhaps the most notable case is that of Kacey Musgraves, whose song ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was one of the frankest expressions of support for LGBTQ+ people to hit country radio. With her embrace of camp imagery, Musgraves has used this conjunction with her LGBTQ+ advocacy to crossover into pop and international markets. As much as Musgraves has gained financially from this, I would argue that LGBTQ+ audiences and artists have as well, or at least this has opened up potential for the future, and after ‘Follow Your Arrow’, the country music industry would never be the same again.
Queer Country Allyship Today
We’re at a particular crossroads in country music right now, but this is also an uneven crossroads where some LGBTQ+ people are able to participate in the genre and some forms of LGBTQ+ advocacy are getting recognized within the mainstream, but by no means all. When T.J. Osborne came out earlier this year, he received an overwhelmingly positive response from fellow country artists. This of course is good, but how many of these have advocated for further inclusion of LGBTQ+ country artists, or challenged homophobia and transphobia in the US (not least through legislation at both the federal and the state level) more widely?
When I spoke to Chely Wright last September she made the observation that compared to 10 years ago, there ‘is more inclination for artists to post Happy Pride Day’. For Wright, this is a sign of progress that mainstream country artists feel enabled and are openly supporting LGBTQ+ people. Wright also made the observation that ‘not everyone is doing it now’.
We only have to look at Luke Bryan’s refusal to do the bare minimum of acknowledging how his own song might be positively affirming the existence of LGBTQ+ people, to know that certain country artists (a lot of cishet white men) are still not meeting this minimum standard of basic human respect and decency. As much as it is important to critique country artists’ performative allyship, it is certainly better than the alternative: complicit silence.