By Dr. Matthew J. Jones
Ed. – Dr. Matthew J. Jones has done extensive research on how HIV has been handled in popular music across all genres, resulting in his forthcoming book ‘How to Make Music in an Epidemic: Popular Music-Making During the AIDS Crisis, 1981-1996’ from Routledge publishers. When he offered to compile a list for us of country and country-adjacent songs that deal with the topic, we jumped at the opportunity… knowing full well he was the best man for the job.
The country music industry took longer than most other areas of popular music to get involved in AIDS activism, a likely result of conservative executives and the false sense, held by many Americans, that HIV/AIDS was only an issue for gay men and drug users in urban areas. HIV/AIDS eventually arrived in rural communities, however, where country music was the lingua franca.
For a brief period in the early 1990s, country artists and industry executives created powerful responses to the epidemic; more on that below. Meanwhile, here are ten tracks ‘At the Corner of Country & HIV,’ which we’ve packed into a handy YouTube playlist and a somewhat abbreviated Spotify version since some of the tunes are missing from their library.
10. K.T. Oslin “You Can’t Do That” (1993)
In the 1980s, Oslin (1942-2020) became one of country music’s most popular artists and feminist voices by chronicling the trials, tribulations, joys, and sorrows of middle-aged women in the 1980s in songs like “80s Ladies,” “Younger Men,” “Come Next Monday,” and “Hey Bobby.” In 1993, Oslin released Greatest Hits: Songs from an Aging Sex Bomb, which contained the new song “You Can’t Do That.” With wit and humor, Oslin chronicles the changes that have followed her into middle age, including the loss of sexual liberation.
9. Rosanne Cash “Jim and George” (2013)
The daughter of country music superstar and political activist Johnny Cash (1932-2003), Rosanne Cash established her own artistic point of view, first as a country-pop crossover with “Seven Year Ache,” “Blue Moon with Heartache,” “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want me,” and more straightforward country fare like “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” and “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” The release of Interiors (1990) coincided with a shift away from country-pop toward a highly literary style that she has continued to develop on later projects like Ten Song Demo, Rules of Travel, and The River and the Thread. In 2013, Cash released “Jim and George,” a song about a gay male couple who lived down the street from her in New York City. Proceeds from the single went to HIV/AIDS charities and homeless LGBT teens. The single was available for purchase through St. Luke in the Fields church and is now something of a rarity in Cash’s catalogue.
8. Rodney Crowell, “I Wish It Would Rain” & “Wandering Boyd” (2001)
While married to Rosanne Cash, Crowell helped his wife create her own literate musical style. In his own musical projects, Crowell carried on the songwriting tradition of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Primarily known as a musician’s musician, Crowell penned songs for Waylon Jennings, Oak Ridge Boys, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Reed, and Johnny Cash. Crowell enjoyed his own mainstream popularity in the 1980s and 1990s with the albums Diamonds and Dirt (1988) and Keys to the Highway (1989). In 2001, Crowell released the semi-autobiographical album The Houston Kid, which included two songs about twin brothers, one of whom left home after coming out as gay. In Los Angeles, he survived through sex work, though drug addiction and HIV-infection soon followed. In “Wandering Boyd,” the wayward brother returns home to his brother, who processes his own homophobia and cares for his brother until his death from AIDS-related illness.
7. Peter Alsop “Gotta Lotta Living to Do” (1989)
An educational psychologist and songwriter, Peter Alsop has been producing music since the 1970s. Alsop’s songs address a variety of issues with wit, humor, and love from a distinctly male feminist perspective. His song “It’s Only a Wee Wee” (1972) confronts the limits of gender norms and the way society polices gender expression, while “My Body” (1973) celebrates bodily agency and control. By the 1980s, Alsop began to focus almost exclusively on music for children, though his songs never pander or talk down to kids. Instead, his albums offer sophisticated yet age-appropriate models for conversations with young people about real world issues. Pluggin’ Away (1991) features “Gotta Lotta Livin’ to Do,” a folky children’s song about AIDS. Staged as a conversation between a father and child, “Gotta Lotta Livin’ to Do” poses questions about HIV/AIDS from the child’s point of view, and offers serious answers that strike that difficult balance between education and entertainment.
6. Pierce Pettis “Stickman” (1993)
Pierce Pettis made a name for himself as part of the “Fast Folk” movement in New York in the 1980s alongside Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega. While Pettis is not a household name, he is lauded among musicians, and his songs have been covered by Joan Baez (“Song at the End of the Movie”), Dar Williams (“My Family”), Garth Brooks (“You Move Me”), and others. Pettis’s 1993 album Chase the Buffalo included “Stickman,” a portrait of a gay man dying of AIDS in a hospital. Although Pettis no longer performs the song publicly, it remains a moving portrait of a person with AIDS at a moment when stigma and fear were the norm, and compassion for PWAs, especially from straight communities, was in short supply.
5. Mary Chapin Carpenter “Willie Short” (1994)
In 1991, the Visual AIDS Artist’s Caucus unveiled the red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS awareness, and the ribbon was soon ubiquitous on celebrity lapels. While preparing the 1992 Country Music Association award show, organizers allegedly forbade artists from wearing red ribbons, offering green environmental awareness ribbons instead (a second version of this story suggests that red ribbons did not arrive in time for the broadcast). Having lost several friends to AIDS-related illness, Kathy Mattea bravely pinned three red ribbons to her outfit that night, and said the names of her friends, all gay men, before she presented an award that evening. Her defiance of CMA’s orders caused a controversy, and Mattea responded by approaching the Red Hot Organization about a country music album to benefit rural AIDS organizations.
Released in 1994, Red Hot + Country was curiously silent about HIV/AIDS. Of its seventeen tracks, sixteen are covers of classic country and country-influenced pop and rock. Only Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of John Jennings’s “Willie Short” was about HIV/AIDS. Jennings had written the song after seeing an article in Newsweek about the impact of HIV/AIDS in 1987. Jennings was touched by a short caption beneath a black-and-white picture of a Houston dishwasher named Willie Short, who had died in 1986: “Don’t Forget Me. Mention my name now and then.” Thus far, my research into Short’s life has produced a few clues, which are now housed in Houston historian JD Doyle’s Texas Obituary Project, though I am still trying to find people who may have known Short to interview for my book.
4. Mark Weigle – “I Remember” (2002)
Mark Weigle should have been a superstar. From his 1998 debut, The Truth Is, through his 2007 self-titled album, Weigle has produced sophisticated, sensitive songs that document that experiences of being gay at the turn of the millennium. Like other openly LGBTQ+ artists, mainstream success eluded Weigle, largely because of his refusal to closet himself in song. “I Remember” is not Weigle’s only song about HIV/AIDS. “If It Wasn’t Love” from his debut album resists the messages of shame and stigma that LGBTQ+ people receive from the broader culture and celebrates the power of love between gay men in the face of AIDS, and he covered “AZT,” The Kinsey Sicks HIV/AIDS-themed parody of the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” on his 2003 album Different and the Same.
3. Doug Stevens and the Outband “HIV Blues” (1993)
A pioneer of the Out Country movement, Doug Stevens founded The Outband in 1991 as the first group to write, perform, and record gender specific country music. Their first album, Out in the Country, contained two songs about HIV/AIDS. “HIV Blues” deals with the way people living with HIV were abandoned by their loved ones, including their lovers and LGBTQ+ friends, because of fear and ignorance about the virus. “ACT UP” chronicles Stevens’ encounter with the well-known activist collective, which was founded by Larry Kramer and others in 1987. Stevens and the Outband recorded two other albums, When Love is Right (1995) and From Christopher to Castro (2001) before Stevens’s retirement from music. Later, Stevens came out as transgender, married, and began publishing science fiction novels.
2. Reba McEntire “She Thinks His Name Was John” (1993)
By 1993, Reba McEntire was one of the giants of country music, and she used her fame and platform to record songs with important social messages. “Is There Life Out There” (1991) tells the story of a married mother who questions the possibilities beyond domesticity, while “All Dressed Up” (1991) addresses the treatment of elderly people living in isolation. In 1993, McEntire recorded Sandy Knox’s “She Thinks His Name Was John,” a song about a young woman who contracts HIV from a one-night stand and dies. The first country song about HIV/AIDS by a major artist, the song marks an important turning point in country music’s relationship with the epidemic, which had already begun to impact rural America when the song was recorded. The song is an important country music milestone, but its shimmering, sentimental surface masks a lot of victim blaming and politics that have not necessarily aged well.
1. Mary Gauthier “Goddamn HIV” (1997)
Whereas McEntire’s “She Thinks His Name Was John” blames PWAs for having HIV, queer singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier takes a different approach in this song from her debut album, Dixie Kitchen (1997). Its opening lines identify the speaker as “Michael Joe Alexandre….a queer since the day I was born,” and throughout the song, Alexandre observes the impact of HIV/AIDS on gay communities with empathy and strength. “Goddamn HIV” continues the tradition of American and English ballads, including the Dust Bowl Ballads of Woody Guthrie, and the socially conscious music of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and lesbian writers like Cris Williamson and Meg Christian. As such, it’s an important entry in the American songbook, one that insists on the existence and experiences of queer subjects and a testament to those lost to HIV/AIDS during the worst years of the US AIDS Crisis.
This list represents most of country music’s response to HIV/AIDS, though I would be remiss not to mention an important ad campaign initiated by Mark Chestnutt and Mary Chapin Carpenter. The Country Music AIDS Awareness Campaign (CMAAC) sought to educate country music fans about the realities of HIV/AIDS, using print and broadcast media. A short-lived project, the CMAAC published print ads in major magazines and newspapers and aired PSAs on music video networks (though, importantly, not on Country Music Television, which refused to participate).
Their ads featured luminaries like Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, and Dolly Parton alongside newer voices including Kathy Mattea, Mark Chestnutt, and others. After a year, the CMAAC disappeared.
There have been no major country music projects related to HIV/AIDS since the 1990s. This is distressing for several reasons. The parallel epidemics of methamphetamines and opioids have disproportionally impacted rural communities, leaving many vulnerable to HIV infection through sharing needles and unprotected sex. New developments in HIV treatment and prevention have been spectacularly effective. People living with HIV who maintain a treatment regime can achieve undetectable status (when the amount of virus in their blood is so low it cannot be detected or transmitted), and pre-exposure medications for the HIV negative reduce the chances of HIV transmission through sex to virtually zero.
While overall numbers of new HIV infections in the US are down, poor rural communities (where country is often the most popular genre and occupies the most space on the radio dial) remain especially vulnerable to HIV infection. Education, awareness, and access to HIV treatment remains an issue in rural areas, where cuts to public health have shuttered clinics and hospitals.
It is not uncommon for people with HIV in rural areas to travel hundreds of miles for care. Those who cannot make the trip go without treatment, and untreated HIV will progress to its terminal stage, AIDS. According to the most recent data from the Guttmacher Institute, only seventeen states require that HIV/AIDS education programs be medically accurate, while only twenty-six require such instruction to be age appropriate. Only ten require HIV education to be culturally appropriate and unbiased against any race, sex, or ethnicity. Generally, the states with the worst record for HIV/ AIDS education are in the South and Midwest.
Country music cannot save rural America from HIV/AIDS, but country artists and executives could be using the genre as a tool to help curb new infections and save lives, as they once had tried.
Response from Other Genres
In my forthcoming book, How to Make Music in an Epidemic: Popular Music-Making During the AIDS Crisis, 1981-1996, I explore the ways that musicians responded to HIV/AIDS and used their art to intervene. Pop, rock, hip-hop, Broadway, and dance music artists were active in the fight against AIDS early in the epidemic, largely because of its devastating impact on those communities.
Michael Callen (1955-1993), a New York-based, openly gay singer-songwriter and co-author of one of the first safe sex guides (How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, 1983) as well as the AIDS Self-Empowerment Manifesto The Denver Principles, began writing songs about HIV/AIDS in the mid-1980s. “Living in Wartime” is a fiery synth-pop anthem that was played as exit music during the initial run of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985). “Love Don’t Need a Reason,” a beautiful ballad co-written with award-winning lesbian songwriter Marsha Malamet and the late, great Peter Allen (1944-1992), became the anthem of AIDS activism in the 1980s. “How to Have Sex” was a jingle for the booklet of the same name, a campy commentary on the importance of safe sex, and an archive of the gay sexual culture that had developed in major US cities after the 1969 Stonewall Riot.
Pet Shop Boys produced dance-pop about HIV/AIDS, including “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” “Dreaming of the Queen,” “Being Boring,” and “Your Funny Uncle.” Likewise, Elton John has written and recorded several songs about HIV/AIDS: “The Last Song,” “The Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes,” and “One More Arrow.” George Michael (1963-2016) penned “Jesus to a Child” as an homage to his late partner, Brazilian fashion designer Anselmo Feleppa (1956-1993), while his song “Spinning the Wheel” meditates on the dangers of sexual infidelity in the age of AIDS.
Women of color used music and music videos to educate, enlighten, and entertain their audiences, delivering important messages about HIV/AIDS. Gwen Guthrie’s “Can’t Love You Tonight,” touches upon both HIV/AIDS and herpes, while Millie Jackson’s “Love is a Dangerous Game/ ShoNuffDanjus,” encourages women to take charge of their sexual health with Jackson’s trademark straight talk and humor. Salt-n-Pepa’s re-recorded their hit “Let’s Talk About Sex” as an HIV/AIDS PSA called “Let’s Talk About AIDS.” TLC burst onto the scene in the early 1990s with condoms fastened to their colorful costumes, and tucked a verse about HIV/AIDS in their smash hit “Waterfalls.”
Musicians have raised millions of dollars for HIV/AIDS research and services. Queer industrial band Coil turned “Tainted Love,” an obscure soul song from the 1960s and a New Wave hit for Soft Cell in 1981, into a powerful commentary on the impact of HIV/AIDS on gay men in the UK. The song was used to raise money for The Terrence Higgins Trust. In 1985, Dionne Warwick gathered some famous friends (Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John) to record their version of Burh Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager’s “That’s What’ Friends Are For” for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFar). In 1989, John Carlin and Leigh Blake founded the Red Hot Organizationto “fight AIDS with pop culture.” Red Hot has released more than twenty benefit compilation albums, each with a specific theme, genre, or geographic focus, and raised millions of dollars for AIDS charities around the world.
There are thousands more songs about HIV/AIDS. For more, see JD Doyle’s extensive Songs About AIDS episode of Queer Music Heritage, and keep an eye out for my forthcoming book, How to Make Music in an Epidemic: Popular Music-Making During the AIDS Crisis, 1981-1996 (Routledge).
Matthew J. Jones is a queer musicologist, writer, performer, Joni Mitchell fanatic, and assistant professor of musicology at Oklahoma City University. He lives in Oklahoma City with his cat, Ouiser.