By Tyler Morgenstern
When I answer a call from Nashville singer-songwriter Cody Belew, he sounds a little worn. Speaking through a thick Arkansas accent, he tells me, “I’ve been working on this upholstering project all day, but it’s been fighting me.”
Belew, you see, is an accomplished textile artist. “I started in alterations and tailoring, then worked in drapery for a while.” It was a way to keep accounts settled while working on a full-length pop album with his long-time producing and songwriting partner, Dustin Ransom.
Then came an unexpected divorce, then the shelving of that pop album, then the scramble “just to keep the house.” Then came upholstering.
You might call it a hidden talent. But to anyone who’s ever seen Belew, whether in press photos or on stage, it will come as little surprise. His palette is all crushed velvet and satin, rhinestones and fringe, maybe with a little something sheer thrown in for spice.
“So many of the people representing country music now, you see them at awards shows, and they can barely manage a dingy t-shirt, jeans, and a solo cup. I think back to people like The Judds. When they won an award they could barely get on stage their outfits were so big.”
As quick with his turns of phrase as with a needle and thread, Belew makes it clear which camp he falls in: “I’m never going to waste my waist. I made a decision to be as loud and fashion-forward as I can. I’ll never let a TV appearance go to waste.”
Lucky for Belew, those appearances may now be coming faster and more furious than ever before. With the backing of a new label and a self-titled EP set for release on March 18, he’s poised to join the likes of Fancy Hagood and Orville Peck in bringing some camp theatricality (and plenty of vocal prowess) to the Nashville playbook. Blending previously unreleased material with reimagined cuts of earlier offerings, Belew’s forthcoming EP wheels freely between stomp-along, anthemic party country (“Great Expectations”), tender folk balladry (“Rodeo”), and snarling Southern blues (“Crimes Reloaded”). The result is an ambitious and eclectic collection that punches well above its weight.
“The landscape, sonically, is a little dipping of the toe into all my influences,” Belew tells me. “It’s an introduction to what someone should expect from me going forward. My music is never going to be just one thing.”
It’s a new approach for Belew. “I’m generally very conceptual. I like something with a beginning, middle, and end.” But after a tumultuous few years, it seems he’s ready to embrace a more fluid and kinetic sense of genre, leaning into the points of connection between country, pop, soul, blues, R&B, and disco, even as he fully claims his place within country as a queer artist.
This new perspective was not easily won. After struggling for years to carve out a stylistic lane of his own—some middle course between his country pedigree, his pop sensibilities, and his obvious theatrical flare—Belew came to see country as a non-starter. “I understood that, as myself, I didn’t have a place in country music. It felt like trying to ride a dead horse.” And so he dismounted and tried a different tack. If the solo route was closed, perhaps collaboration would offer a way forward. “I started to explore and was really trying to form a trio in the vein of The Chicks, with me in the Natalie Maines part, naturally.”
This, too, eventually fizzled.
Then, something broke. “I had this meeting with God…or maybe it was just a panic attack and I didn’t know it.” Belew recalls, “I was standing in my kitchen, and it was like that moment in Big Fish: the dust fibers in the air stopped and froze, and I was suddenly in this cosmic time out, like God was scolding me. He said ‘Look, you were created in this way. I intended for you to be the way that you are. And I’m sorry it’s difficult and hard, but I fully planned on you being this person in this space.”
This is what Belew calls “getting whipped by the Divine.”
It’s a scolding he hasn’t forgotten, and it’s one that resonates between the bars of tracks like EP opener “Great Expectations.” Blending quippy personal affirmations with pithy bits of home-spun wisdom, the track roars to life with a ragged holler and bristles with the energy of an unapologetic showman owning his stage.
Belew’s cosmic time out echoes as well through his sweetly rendered take on the lead single, Dolly Parton’s iconic crossover hit, “Here You Come Again.” Here, though, Belew’s nimble vocals take the spotlight, fluttering delicately across the surface of the lyric, almost glancing off of it, as if to help us hear (maybe for the first time) its real weight.
But nowhere does the crack of that divine whip ring more clearly than on the nervy “Crimes Reloaded,” which finds Belew squaring off with those pulpit-pounding preachers, both within the church and without, hell bent on criminalizing queer lives and ways of desiring. Built atop an insistent kick drum pulse and thick with gnashing guitar, the track meets its moment exactly, confronting with rage and resolve the rising tide of transphobic and homophobic legislation currently sweeping many US states. For an artist who once struggled to imagine any room at all for queerness within country music, it’s a bracing about-face. Here, country becomes the very terrain where queer life stands in defiance and refuses to cower.
This knack for transformation may, in the end, be Belew’s signature strength. Ever the textile worker, he has a unique capacity for grabbing the old threads of country convention and weaving them into something vibrant, surprising, assertive. And maybe just a little form-fitting
In fact, aside from whatever he happened to be upholstering before I picked up his call, Belew also has another project on the go. It’s the costume he’ll be wearing in the forthcoming video for “Rodeo,” a plaintive, mid-tempo ballad that recounts the turmoil of his divorce. It’s a striking, all-white ensemble, elaborately embroidered with a peacock motif inspired by a set of stained-glass panels Elvis Presley had installed in the living room of his Graceland estate in 1974. For Presley, the peacock was a symbol of resurrection.
“I’m rhinestoning it myself,” Belew tells me, “because the money ran out.” Hand-hewn and a little scrappy, but a sign of resurrection all the same. It’s a look that fits Belew like a well-tailored suit.
Cody Belew’s self-titled EP is available March 18. Belew plays the Lipstick Lounge in Nashville on Saturday, March 19.
Tyler Morgenstern is a writer, communication professional, and musician currently based in Kelowna, British Columbia. His writing focuses on the intersections of culture, media, and technology. He holds a PhD in Film & Media Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara.