By James Barker, Senior Writer
Trigger warning: sexual abuse
Sad songs are a proud country tradition rooted in empathy, community and solidarity and so have strong potential resonances with queer listeners. These kinds of sad songs also provide an alternative to critique of toxic positivity or a politics of pride that is all party and no protest. That is not to say that sad songs cannot be problematic too, often by individualizing or moralizing experiences of suffering and sadness. All the more important for queer artists to engage with this, and these ten songs show just how wonderful and vital it is when they do.
“I’ll Be the Sad Song,” Brandy Clark
What better way to kick off this list than with this song? This sad opener to an album of sad songs on Your Life Is a Record reaches out to its listener with a sense of comforting empathy that reassures them that they are not alone. Directed to a past lover of a relationship that did not quite work, the song’s protagonist accepts her place in memory as “your sad song” to reflect on the regrets, the what might have been, and the “bittersweet” parts of love and relationships.
There is something soothing and cathartic in this recording, the cinematic production, the gentle uplifting tilt of the melody, and Clark’s cool vocal. No record or life is complete without a sad song or two, as Clark sings: “they’ll all make sense when they’re together”.
“Darlin Corey,” Amythyst Kiah
No area of country does sad-ass better than bluegrass, and Amythyst Kiah shows exactly why on “Darlin Corey”. Bluegrass ballad forms and the gothic excesses of its imagery (including murder, hauntings and abject misery) that scholar Teresa Goddu has argued are much more suppressed in mainstream country albeit with traces and sporadic eruptions.
Kiah brings this all here in an old folk ballad of loss and moonshine that lingers on the burial of the title character: “we gonna lay darlin Corey down”. The banjo playing gives the song an intoxicating sense of motion and Kiah’s voice rises and falls, belts, and quivers, hitting those high lonesome sounds that mark out this kind of music.
“Winnsboro Blue,” Justin Hiltner & Jon Weisberger
Speaking of bluegrass, this list would not be complete without queergrass trailblazer Justin Hiltner. Whereas the terror and misery in a lot of bluegrass can have elements of the supernatural or otherworldly, here the sense of sadness is much more grounded: in the misery of remaining in an old mining town where the mine has since closed: “the quarry is my prison but my sentence ain’t in years”.
Here the real fear is that “there’s nothing else for me” beyond the town, and being stuck there. The memories of the mine haunt the protagonist and this song both subverts poverty being represented too nostalgically and critiques the failure of the American economic imagination to transform post-industrial towns.
“April Fool,” Mya Byrne
Break-ups can elicit many a sad-ass song, and “April Fool” is a shining example of this. The song captures the mix of sadness and regret that can befall the end of a relationship, in wishing that the mistakes can be made right, but their very memory makes the load heavier. The song’s protagonist wishes she could simply forget with the wiping away of the tears, like the children she observes “playing little boy and little girl games”.
“April Fool” is the poignant reminder that some wounds stay with us and that our actions have consequences that we have to live with. This kind of sad song is less cathartic and does not “cleanse” us, but perhaps it is important that we aren’t cleansed of some things – lest we forget.
“19 & Cryin’,” Hayden Joseph
Young heartbreak is often overshadowed by the experience of coming out in queer narratives. So it is refreshing to hear a sad break-up song that reminds us that queer hearts break just as others do. Yet this song has a twist with the protagonist looking back on a teenage relationship that came to end, not only from the perspective of an adult, but still feeling some of that same old heartache.
Even more special is Joseph’s gorgeous voice and never has heartache and sad-ass been catchier: ‘hearts don’t heal fast’ indeed, and when sad sounds this good you’ll want to go through it (at least in the song) again and again…Taylor Swift eat your heart out!
“Broken,” Chely Wright
Speaking of coming out, “Broken” is a sad-ass coming out song if ever I heard it. The opening track to Wright’s 2010 album Lifted Off The Ground, the first released after her public coming out, and many of the album’s songs reflect on this. “Broken” captures the raw emotions behind this, from the sadness that meant Wright needed to speak her truth to the potential for finding happiness that can only come from being authentic.
As the song starts with the singular “I’m broken” in the first chorus, to “you’re broken” in the second and the final two choruses the collective “we’re broken”, the song mirrors the way that coming out, although fraught with fear and risks, can be an experience that through our honest sharing of ourselves can lead us into shared empathy and solidarity.
“Taxidermy,” Jett Holden
Sad songs in country can too often be depoliticized, where often the sadness is a matter of weathering the storm instead of changing the structural conditions that create the situation of the song. Holden uses feeling not to depoliticize but to infuse politics with empathy and a reminder that Black lives are not just a statistic on the news or a social media post.
Holden’s lyrics articulate this better than my words ever could: “I’ll believe that my life matters to you/When I’m more than taxidermy for your Facebook wall”.
Holden’s voice soars against a sparse backdrop of an acoustic guitar, as his voice rises and falls in different registers, bristles with anguish as he belts the start of the line “But they’ll argue I deserved it in the courts” before concluding the line on a softer, breathier twang. Jett Holden is a name to remember, as one thing’s for sure, you’ll remember his voice.
“Sunday Dress,” Rae Spoon
The song both draws you in with its beauty and leaves the listener feeling hollowed out by the end – just like the Prairie home or Sunday dress in this song: “My Prairie Home fits just like a Sunday dress”. In this case it means : not very well. The violence of transphobic oppression is concealed behind the falsely benign image of the Prairie home, the church and the Sunday dress that seemingly promise belonging, but are restrictions on our lives, identities, and bodies.
The song coveys a sense of emptiness where these discourses and institutions do not fit, and as much as the song in part works to increase empathy in the listener, there is no catharsis. Things will not all magically be ok unless we work to change them.
“Wild in the Wind,” Tommy Atkins
This is a personal song, but one that listeners can relate to, not least because of Atkins’ voice who delivers one of his finest vocal performances of his career so far on this song. The song is beautifully structured and paced, as it meditates on memories of the good times and then works through the experiences of grief and loss in the chorus.
There is a yearning to “see you again” but there’s a wistfulness in the image and memory of this person being “wild in the wind” that suggests that our loved ones never truly leave us as they live on in our memories and in how they’ve helped form who we are today. Only country, and only country this good can work through these kinds of feelings.
“4th Day Prayer,” Allison Russell
Russell’s album, Outside Child, is a real tour-de-force, and with its subject matter reflecting on Russell’s own struggles growing up, abuse, and life between intersecting marginalization, has all the components for an album of sad songs. Yet the album does not leave the listener feeling sad. The closest the album gets is on “4th Day Prayer” where the trauma of familial sexual abuse is unflinchingly addressed before the transformative chorus that movingly conveys the sense of trauma:
“One for the hate that loops and loops/ Two for the poison at the roots”.
In these lines the individual experience of trauma becomes a collective call to action to take the poison out at the root, especially resonant with the important work we need to do to address racism in country music right now. The chorus then moves to a cathartic moment of triumph: “four for the day we’re standing in the sun”.
Been looking for a sad-ass playlist? You can find it HERE
James is a PhD student at Newcastle University UK, his thesis focusing on Dolly Parton. He wants academic work to be engaging and accessible to everyone and to have a real impact on the ground, not least changing country music to be more inclusive. Contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org