Country Queer

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Why Can’t “Country Radio” Sound Like Country Radio?

Indigo Girls New Single Teases Queer Suburban Nostalgia

By Steacy Easton, Contributing Writer

I grew up in the suburbs, so I spent a lot of time at the tiny suburban mall waiting for my mom, or picking up school supplies, or buying CDs from the tiny independent music store there. Mom would drive us home, in a mid-1980s maroon Pontaic Pariessenne, and we would listen to country radio. I have written quite a bit about growing up, about the suburbs, and about country radio. 

It’s funny, country music hasn’t been rural for a long time, if it ever was. The history of the suburbs and the history of country records grow together symbiotically. All of the songs lately –  about back forties, fields, or edges of town – are not rural regions, they are the empty lots of exurbs, soon to be swallowed up by development. For a genre obsessed with landscape, it doesn’t accurately depict the residents or where they live. There are even fewer songs about queer folks outside of urban centers.

For as long as I have been writing about country music – maybe for as long I have known about my own queerness – I have been waiting to hear a country song about growing up queer in the suburbs. Like a lot of queer folks, I listened to the radio, and I yearned to hear songs about the banal longing: putting myself in the role of Rodney Atkin’s “Farmer’s Daughter,” or wanting to have a simple love of my small town. It was only when I realized the genre was never really for me, but that I could write about my own absences, that I could finally return to it.

I have also been thinking about the Indigo Girls since high school, since about the time I gave up on the idea that country music could express my queerness. It seemed proper to listen to the Indigo Girls. The nice part about the Indigo Girls was that they were using the acoustic instruments of my parents’ folk music to write about queer themes. Their music was close enough to country, but it didn’t require coding. In fact, it’s the opposite of coding: the Indigo Girls were handed by queer hand to queer hand. In high school I met a friend of a friend, who was queer. She told me about the band, handing me mix tapes, with the Indigo Girls included. (Also, Ani DiFranco and Dar Willaims – but, weirdly, not Tori Amos.)

Thinking about personal history, it seems a wonder that a couple of weeks ago, the Indigo Girls dropped an album which contained the song “Country Radio”. The song is about food courts and malls, queer desire, the suburbs, and listening and waiting for your own voice to emerge. It was a song that I had been waiting to hear since I was fifteen, and done by artists who I adored. It is a moving song: the silvery vocals and tight harmonies, tell stories of clarity and sophistication. I heard it, and listened to it again, and again; maybe five or six times in a row, a wave of thankfulness coming over me.

The more I thought about it though, the more complex my reactions became. Maybe it was reading Karen Tongson’s article on NPR, but as much as I loved the album – and as much as I love the Indigo Girls – the well-crafted folk sounds have been carved out for a certain demographic. To be blunt, I wanted a song about falling in love with country radio to be sung by people who sound like country radio. I wanted the sleaze and grind of high commerce, I wanted less purity. Not that country radio had to be all about this, but it would be nice to have a dyke Kip Moore every so often.

The song was released at an odd moment in the history of country radio. There are a string of writers and producers who sound commercial, and who are in various ways queer, and who talk about it pretty openly, including Brandy Clark and Brandi Carlile.

The queer work they make is not nearly as explicit as it could be. There are queer people who are getting close to radio success with a commercially-oriented sound. The supergroup The Highwomen have a classic tear-in-your-beer ballad (“If She Ever Leaves Me”) that would not sound out of place at a country honky tonk at closing time. It’s also a track which refuses straight men, and their choices. Brandi Carlile, who is part of the band, and out, sings it. Another expert balladeer, Brandy Clark, a master of slow-burning adult themes who could deliver the torch song we all need, released a break up album last year, and talked about the break up as part of a Billboard podcast, but she’s coy about her sexuality for the radio. 

The second problem is more complex: Clark should have more radio presence, and her works aren’t as commercial as they could be. The Highwomen album charted in the top ten, and stayed there for five weeks, which is fantastic – but the queer torch ballad wasn’t a single. The highest that Brandi Carlile ever charted was 75, with the single “The Story (I Was Made For You)”. Frankly, she is written about more than she is listened to. Listening to country radio, and then “Country Radio,” the genre and the song, leaves me with a kind of wily anxiety. 

Representation matters, but we should not expect queerness to be confessional; desire matters, and expressing desire matters, but those desires do not need to be commercial. On the other hand, selling well, clearly, does not indicate good or even populist politics. The complications of what makes a genuinely populist work is an ongoing problem, and one which might not be solved. Surely it requires solid working class story, well-hewn and deeply constructed. The Indigo girls deliver this just as well as other southern writers. Perhaps sometimes they are too precise, too reflective of their upper middle class roots, but they are capable of that working class suburban energy. I don’t know if they are able to reflect the tensions in this song, and I think they don’t completely succeed at the populism they are hinting at.

Part of me worries that I am greedy, after being hungry for so long. Part of me worries that wanting impurity, or the commercial, is the mirror image of people who want country to be its own kind of purity. Part of me is worried about being dismissive of someone who has worked for so long and so hard.

It’s a complex mess of emotions, but in the end I am grateful that we at least have this one good-to-great song.

Steacy Easton is a writer and visual artist living in Hamilton, Canada. They are mostly interested in sex, money, and country music.