By: Nashville Naturist
Summertime. Summer camp. Summer sun spills through wavy cabin windows onto quilt-covered cots. Hot summer winds send ripples across muddy lakes, fields of switchgrass, fields of sideoats. Softball on the back forty. Fried bologna soaks through paper plates. Bare feet tread on damp earth. Sunburned shoulders. A June bug pesters a pup on a porch. A screen door with a hand-painted “office” sign swings open and a sunburned woman greets me. “Boy, get your butt in here!”
I discovered a fellow could be country and queer after spending a summer in an old nudist camp, where all the fundamentals of my small town, dirt road, dirt poor upbringing were filtered through the kooky kaleidoscope of an offbeat naked backwoods community. The woman in charge of running things was known as “mom,” and every visitor was one of her “young uns.” Good old boys in pickup trucks with gun racks. Hippies in hybrids covered with progressive bumper stickers. Country folk. Country queers. All mom’s young ‘uns. All welcome. All family. All greeted the same.
“Get your butt in here!”
All kinds of folks, all getting along. Maybe our butt-naked vulnerability diffused any tribalistic tendencies toward fussin’ and cussin’ and carryin’ on. Maybe we all knew that “mom” didn’t tolerate any such nonsense among her “young ‘uns.” Whatever the reason, the camp was a rare oasis of inclusivity in a region that can sometimes feel a little unfriendly, a little uneasy. It was a reminder that there’s beauty here, goodness, decency, creativity, weirdness, qualities we sometimes forget about because of all the other stuff. The mean stuff. The hateful stuff. End-times highway signs promising fire and damnation. Preachers proselytizing. Politicians posturing. Hateful glares. Hurtful murmurs. The old camp was a reminder that beyond all the malice and spite and judgement, there’s kindness here. In the silence between the shouts, sweet whispers. Country beauty doesn’t trumpet its presence, it lies still, quietly waiting to be discovered. Newborn fawn hidden in hawthorn. Hoot owl in a hollow. Single sunflower swaying in a sunny pasture. Country beauty’s a little shy. You gotta look for it. You gotta pay attention. Listen for its sweet song.
Like a lot of folks that grew up in Nashville during the nineties, I loathed country music. Before the building boom, before boozin’ became its brand, Nashville was a city struggling to come to terms with its kitschy, corny, country reputation. Nashville was spoof. Country was spoof. Cool Nashville kids were listening to Seattle grunge, L.A. punk, Detroit hip-hop. Country music had gone pop, and in doing so, it had traded its hillbilly realness for cartoonish commercialism. Country was campy crooners wearing hideous southwestern dresses and two cans of White Rain, wailing unconvincingly about the men that done went and broke their durned hearts. Country was campy crooners in poly-blend Brushpopper shirts and three cans of White Rain, crying unpersuasively about the women that done went and took all their durned money. Country was theme parks and gift shops and wax museums. Corny lyrics. Corny duets. Country kitsch. White Rain manes. Hee Haw, yee haw and hey ya’ll. Cool Nashville kids didn’t do country. We went to punk shows in a downtown drag bar called Victor Victoria’s, where the no-bullshit queens might pull a butterfly knife on you if you got mouthy. We nodded along to experimental noise bands at the scruffy Springwater Supper Club. We dug through dusty bins of 45s at The Great Escape Record Store, rediscovering Nashville artists that few folks seemed to remember. The ones that changed the rules, changed everything, quietly, while others stole the spotlight.
Cool Nashville kids didn’t do country. Cool Nashville kids plotted to get the hell out of the south. I shared the desire to bolt, but I couldn’t escape the notion that we were abandoning our culture when we should be shaping it. Following someone else’s plan rather than sketching out our own. Giving up too easily. Did all cool kids, weird kids, queer kids have to flee the region, lose the accent, embrace metropolitan identities and never again speak of the life we knew here? Forget all the things that we loved? The experiences that shaped us? Creeks teeming with tadpoles. Sickly sweet sorghum sopped up with biscuits. Gatherings and get-togethers.
The first thing you learn in a nudist camp is that your truth is not something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. It was a good lesson for a country queer. If we don’t embrace our rural roots as a crucial component of our identity, aren’t we simply giving other folks the power to define what it means to be country, what it means to be queer? If we dismiss country beauty because someone tells us it’s not for us to enjoy, or walk away from country music because someone tells us it’s not the appropriate platform for sharing our stories, aren’t we letting someone else define the boundaries of how we may express ourselves? Define our truth?
There’s a lot of queers in the country, and a lot of country in a lot of queers. There’s beauty in the country, beauty worth embracing. You gotta look for it. You gotta pay attention. Skinny-dipping in spooky streams on steamy summer nights. Lonely whippoorwills whistling in witchy woods. Haunting music in the air, everywhere, like campfire smoke swirling through cedars, circling toward stars.