By James Barker, Staff Writer
What if I don’t want to be one of the good ol’ boys, but still want to be a cowboy? The songs on this list all reflect on the way constructs of “masculinity” are deployed in our culture and especially in country music. These ten gay-ass songs showcase how we as country queers can take what works for us and discard the rest.
“All American Boy,” Steve Grand
“All American Boy” drew some controversy when it was first released around its depiction of a gay man’s desire for his best friend. Yet I find something darkly relatable in this song and the experience of desire wrapped in ideas of what it means to be a man and an American man at that. “All American Boy” was one of the songs that was key to me hearing a place for myself in country music with its emphatic statement that a good ol’ American boy could be gay.
“Ride Me Cowboy,” Paisley Fields
The first of many cowboy songs on this list: “Ride Me Cowboy” is a proud gay-ass honky-tonk song that makes it clear that there’s a place for queer desire even in the most and traditional sounding country music. In a genre where direct expressions of even “family friendly” queer love are hard to find, Fields gives us a rocking anthem to queer sex for cowboys everywhere.
“Man of Steel,” Brandon Stansell
It can be hard to be open about our sexuality, and for some men it can also be hard to be vulnerable and open up about our feelings. “Man of Steel” beautifully represents trying to live up to this image: “You cover up another night” and in suppressing these emotions, they get harder to understand and deal with: “With a heart that doesn’t feel / ‘cause you’re nothing but a man of steel”.
“Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X
This is the country rap anthem to cowboy masculinity, both a campy send-up of country masculine stereotypes and a fantasy of cowboy nostalgia. The song is arguably the most well known and most commercially successful song on this list, and Lil Nas X came out at the height of the song’s success. “Old Town Road” challenges racist and homophobic gatekeepers to proudly proclaim that Black gay artists belong in country music.
“Smalltown Boy,” Orville Peck
The incredible range of Peck’s voice is perfectly showcased in this song, transforming this 80’s queer dance anthem into a country rocker, as Peck belts some parts, croons others, and uses his falsetto in homage to Jimmy Sommerville. In re-capturing this important part of queer history, the song particularly resonates with experiences of homophobia and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Peck’s song is an important reminder of this historical tragedy, which country music institutions barely acknowledged at the time.
“Cowboy Take Me Away,” Cameron Hawthorn
As one of my favourite of The Chicks’ songs, I was excited when I discovered that there was a gay version. Hawthorn strips the song down to a piano for the verses, giving it a greater sense of intimacy, and in his performance conveys all the tenderness and longing suggested in the song’s lyrics. Thanks to Hawthorn, “Cowboy Take Me Away” is the ultimate romantic gay cowboy fantasy that it always had the potential to be!
“Ain’t We Brothers,” Sam Gleaves
Many of the songs on this list touch on the way our sexuality does not have to be separate from our social kinship networks and class identities, but are interwoven with it. “Ain’t We Brothers” is a celebration of solidarity within working class culture as a “blue collar man” that just happens to have “a man waiting on [him] at home”. This is not to say that we are or should be all the same, but we all deserve recognition for our shared humanity. (Nadine Hubbs’ work is very eloquent on this point!)
“Old Man’s Boots,” Brothers Osborne
Gay and bi men can have the crushing experience of being alienated from our families. After T.J. Osborne came out, listening to “Old Man’s Boots” has a new meaning for me, especially when I hear the line: “I’d be lucky to walk a mile in my old man’s boots”. When the world can make us doubt whether we can live up to its standards, this song gives us hope that we can be loved and accepted, and should see ourselves as more than adequate, just the way we are.
“Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Jake Blount
With this cover of the folk song first made famous by Lead Belly – and also recorded by Bill Monroe – Blount gives this murder ballad a queer cover by making the love – and murder – object, “my boy”. When we talk about the importance of LGBTQ+ representation, this not necessarily the kind of representation we have in mind. But it may be just as important. The violent misogyny in this ballad can happen in same-sex relationships just as easily as it can heterosexual relationships. Don’t turn away.
“Kiss Me, Cowboy,” Tommy Atkins
A different kind of cowboy song that reflects on the confusion and excitement of young love and first times, as well as how these experiences for LGBTQ+ people can be tinged with homophobia, shame and secrecy. “Kiss Me, Cowboy” is a tender love song that shows the softer, more vulnerable side of the cowboy. It is a testament to why we need more gay cowboy songs and more queer country songs in general.
Special Mention: “Cowboys are frequently secretly fond of each other,” Ned Sublette
Although Sublette is not a queer artist, this song was inspired by gay cowboy iconography of the 1980s, and, in addition to the version made famous by Willie Nelson for the 2006 film “Brokeback Mountain,” it’s recently been covered by gay country crooner Orville Peck. This song goes to show that claims of cowboy homosociality that are used to erase the presence of LGBTQ+ people can and should be discredited. There have always been and will always be gay cowboys!