By Chelsea Dawn
A History of Shootin’ ‘em Straight
When looking at the LGBTQ+ and country music communities, the stereotypical differences are obvious, like two incompatible marketing campaigns. One left leaning, tree hugging, believer in science wrapped in a rainbow; and one right leaning, free speaking, traditionalist covered in camo and plaid. No matter the format for pushing information, the two groups are routinely painted as on opposite sides of a sociopolitical fence.
But even with implied and orchestrated division amongst demographics like LGBTQ+ people and country music consumers, socialization and sharing of cultures is inevitable in any case and at the heart of both communities is the audacity to live unapologetically true to oneself. They even share a common enemy in the status quo, having both been denigrated by a class system that favors the white middle class. For LGBTQ+ people, veering away from Victorian era gender roles and experiencing love in ways that this general public couldn’t imagine for themselves, is their social deviation. As for country music listeners and performers there is the association with being working class and historically the ‘hillbilly’ or ‘redneck’ label. These carry associations with being less educated, having poor manners and holding low standards of morality (sexually or otherwise) as members of the working class (Another side-eye to the Victorian era).
The status quo fails to highlight the qualities in which each individual contributes to their society. In the history of the recording industry, this marginalized musicians that were not white and/or middle class by creating marketing categories “race” and “hillbilly” that subsequently became “soul” and “country”.
Though the roots of LGBTQ+ and Country Music folks look different, the resemblance is there. What gives a person a quality of life and a way to connect with their community is living an honest human experience. And what makes quality Country music connect with us is a good story about a human experience. I’ll spare the Venn diagram and instead offer a brief history of Queers and Country Music.
A Roaring Renaissance: 1920-30s Harlem
Almost a century before the Stonewall riots, the first “drag ball” was held by a Black fraternity at the Hamilton Lodge in Harlem in 1869. By the 1920s, crowd sizes at these events would have grown to the thousands and would include gay, lesbian, straight, white, Black. Their diverse attendance numbers would rival the most popular speakeasy of its time (who served only whites): the Cotton Club.
The “Pansy Craze” in New York was alive and well and had many allies. With the effects of prohibition in place, speakeasy entertainment would continue to provide a place of artistic experimentation and expression for all those who sought it out.
The Harlem Renaissance was also in full bloom as Black creators flooded into New York from the Jim Crow South, seeding one of the most profound cultural movements. One of the most important musicians of this time was Georgia born queer woman: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey: “The Mother of The Blues”. Rainey’s music spoke boldly of real-life emotions and events that would have caused mainstream controversy even today. In “Shave ‘Em Dry Blues”, she writes: “Here’s one thing I don’t understand: why a good lookin’ woman likes a workin’ man”. A lyric that undoubtedly resonates with lesbians still.
After being arrested for hosting a Lesbian party in her house in Harlem, and bailed out by her protégé Bessie Smith (who was bisexual), she recorded “Prove it On Me Blues”. She teased the event in the lyrics: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men / They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me/ They sure got to prove it on me”.
She even depicts what a night out with her was like: “It’s true I wear a collar and tie”, “wear my clothes like a fan / talk to the gals just like any old man”. Bessie Smith would become the most popular blues singer of her time, pushing the genre forward and becoming known as the “Empress of The Blues”.
Just behind singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, came an openly lesbian blues singer and pianist, Gladys Alberta Bentley. Wearing her signature tuxedo and top at, backed by drag queen dancers, she would sing material so risqué that it would later be reported to the police. The fact that she was able to perform as her true self and sustain a solid career in music while providing for her wife, whom she married in a New Jersey civil ceremony in 1931, demonstrated the type of social progress that accompanied this time and place.
After prohibition ended, so did the speakeasy. During this time there was an increase in sex crimes, for which the LGBTQ+ community was largely blamed and their place in society would become more complicated. The King’s Terrace where Bentley performed was padlocked and she eventually moved to Southern California (McCarthy Era); a place where the Hay’s Code, a new censorship law in Hollywood entertainment banning displays of homosexual and interracial romance would be in effect. Needless to say, her marriage to a white woman would not last. There, she would appear to live closer to what mainstream society expected of her, marrying a man and taking hormones in an attempt to “cure” her homosexuality.
What queer Black women did for music through the blues, has embedded its influence world-wide. Though we strayed from country here, it is important to give credit to the blues for influencing almost every popular music genre to date, including what would later be known as country western.
Music on the Move: 1920’s and 30’s Elsewhere
Whilst the blues formed music in the 1920s and 1930s, so was the working class. Jimmie Rodgers, “The Father of Country Music” and the son of a railroad section foreman, would show us a version of traditional folk music that incorporated jazz, yodeling, and the blues. Through the popularization of the radio nationwide, programs like WLS Chicago’s ‘National Barn Dance’ (1924) brought ‘hillbilly’ music into the American mainstream. It featured comedy and music, presenting a lifestyle that would celebrate the working class. Coincidentally this would happen in the same city and year that Henry Gerber would start the first LGBTQ+ rights group in the US, ‘The Society for Human Rights’. (Though the organization would not last long, due to several arrests being carried out on its members, the SHM is certainly a bright spot in Chicago’s lengthy LGBTQ+ history.)
One of the many musical acts featured on “National Barn Dance” was a group called The Prairie Ramblers. They became the first band on the program to feature a female vocalist in Patsy Montana, earning them a million selling record with the song “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”.
After befriending a fellow “National Barn Dance” performer in Gene Autry, they would appear in several Hollywood Western Films. To add to their prolific repertoire, they cut over a hundred sides with ARC records before the invention of their alter-ego, The Sweet Violet Boys. Unlike the direct subject matter from the queer blues pioneers of Harlem, The Sweet Violet Boys used double entendre in “I Love My Fruit”.
The opening verse gets right into it: “I am wild about all kinds of berries / Black and blue and rasp and straw and red / But most of all I like to guzzle cherries / And I eat them every night in bed.” Though these lyrics aren’t suggestive of any queerness, it gets juicier.
“I can sing the praises of pistachios / And I almost eat them ‘til I bust / And I also love pecans and cashews / Yes indeedy I sure love my nuts.”
“I am always hungry for bananas / That it almost seems to be a sin / They’re so good that when I’m all through eating / I still love to nibble on the skin.”
While some claim that “I Love My Fruit” was the first gay country song ever recorded (1939), an earlier composition that would have been banned from radio play is “The Lavender Cowboy” of 1930. Originally written by Harold Hersey as a comedic poem about an effeminate cowboy, it shows a visibility of LGBTQ+ people in the hillbilly community. Several different versions have been recorded over the decades.
Post War: Catering to Class
The 1940s and 1950s were an especially difficult time for self-expression and the LGBTQ+ community. Post-World War II would usher in new restrictive laws and further reinforce the status quo of the white middle class. The US Surgeon General had disqualified LGBTQ+ individuals from serving in the military. The military utilized “Blue Discharges” to prevent LGBTQ+ veterans from receiving benefits from the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs), and a laundry list more of state specific societal limitations came into law. The McCarthy era was making life more complicated for marginalized communities and all liberal leaning individuals to make progress. McCarthyism would make unfounded accusations from an ultra-conservative platform at their opponents understanding that their constituents would not look into these claims. (The Trump administration would use a page from this playbook).
As for the hillbilly, their music was given a new name to avoid negative associations with a morally uncertain working class. The term ‘country Western’ was coined and the genre itself was branching out. In the 1940’s: Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys introduced us to Western Swing, Bill Monroe coined the term Bluegrass, Tex Williams was at the height of his music career, and Hank Williams was the king of Honky-Tonk.
As much as the genre has always been broad, during this period the industry structures that remain in place today took further hold. The Country Music Association was established in 1958 and the segregation within the marketing categories ‘race’ and ‘hillbilly’ became further reified as they became ‘soul’ and ‘country’. These distinctions were artificial despite the musicians having similar musical roots.
There were notable LGBTQ+ artists within this music such as the trans gospel singer Wilmer “Little Axe” Broadnax’, whose stunning voice made him a standout within the vocal groups he was a part of from the 1940s to the 1960s, including Southern Gospel Singers, Little Axe and the Golden Echoes, Spirit of Memphis Quartet, and Little Axe and the Golden Voices. His tenor vocals made his voice particularly distinguishable on songs such as “Waiting and Watching” and “You are My Sunshine”.
A performer that pulled at the same heartstrings as “tear in my beer” songs came in the form of Rock N’ Roll pioneer (and gay man), Jonny Alvin Ray from Dallas, Oregon. With an original vocal style and emotional delivery, he would sing a song that was originally intended for a woman to perform called “Cry”. Like the blues pioneers, these artists deserve a tip of the hat for contributing to other genres that would further influence country music.
By the mid 1950’s, with the emergence of Rock n’ Roll and the phenomenal success of Elvis Presley, country western sales began to drop. In an answer to this change in the music industry, Chet Atkins developed the “Nashville Sound” to serve as a compromise, marrying traditional sounds with new and exciting advancements in popular music. Much like the approach that Jimmie Rodgers took, The Nashville sound would prove that Country Music has always been some sort of “crossover”. So, for you “purists” out there, don’t roll your eyes so hard next time you here “Old Town Road”.
1960s-70s: Progress, Allies and Foes
Wilma Burgess came into popularity in the late 1960’s and topped the Billboard Country Western charts for a decade, following the success of Patsy Cline. She would eventually purchase Cline’s house in Nashville after her passing. Though she maintained a long career hiding her sexuality from her fans, she would open the very first women only bar in Nashville called, ‘The Hitchin’ Post”.
It should be noted that public knowledge of her sexuality came from her colleagues and family. So, as certain as this detail of Burgess’ life and identity seems, we never heard it from her. Another rumor surrounding Burgess’ career would be her song choices. In compromise with her producer, Owen Bradley (who also produced Cline), she would sing love songs of his choosing in exchange for also singing more gender-neutral selections like “Don’t Touch Me”.
By the 1970’s, the advancement of the LGBTQ+ community would reach significant strides. The Stonewall riots of 1969 had kicked off the Gay Pride movement and opened the doors for gay individuals to serve their communities. In Michigan 1974, Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly gay elected official and in San Francisco 1977, Harvey Milk would become the first openly gay male elected official.
People like notorious homophobe Anita Bryant saw this movement as a direct threat to her own livelihood and narrow-minded opinions. In 1978 she led an anti-gay movement that would ultimately backfire.
Having become one of Modern America’s original “Karens”, Bryant’s hate speech and nescient cause caught the attention of country singer, David Allen Coe. Being part of the Outlaw country scene of the 1970s, Coe spent much of his early years in reform schools and prison. In response to Bryant, he suggests throwing “that bitch in prison, maybe then she’ll see, how much them God Damn homosexuals mean” to him in his underground x-rated song, “Fuck Anita Bryant”.
Coe excoriates Bryant and paints ‘homosexuals’ out to be contributing members of his world as a prisoner in an almost endearing way. “Fuck, Anita Bryant. Who the Hell is she? Tellin’ all them faggots, that they can’t be free”. The lyrics to this song make Coe seem like a cool, but publicly inappropriate older brother that would bust someone’s nose in your defense:
“Because they, wash your clothes, clean your cell, help ya drain you hose. Give you smokes, laugh at jokes, sew up all your clothes. Rub your feet, beat your meat, heaven only knows, what I’d do without those homosexuals.” Nadine Hubbs has argued that often (middle-class) listeners (mis)identify this song as working-class homophobia for its rhetoric, but its message is an anti-homophobic statement.
In Good Hands
While the white middle class is driven to ignore the concerns of those who are seen as peripheral to them, an increasingly smaller number adhere to this nonsensical exclusion. No matter the art form, vocation, or place of origin, there’s a queer in there somewhere. Even though visibility still threatens LGBTQ+ individuals, being discriminated, arrested (or worse) does not deter them from being who they are. (That, right there, is some real country shit.)
The 1970’s would also see, what in some spaces has been regarded as the very first LGBTQ+ themed country album ever recorded, Lavender Country, but more on that next week!
The editor and author would also like to say thank you to Nadine Hubbs for suggesting some of the artists featured in this article.