By James Barker, Staff Writer
Canada has produced some of the most recognizable country artists including Shania Twain, Hank Snow, Anne Murray and Terri Clark. And the impact doesn’t stop with straight country musicians. LGBTQ+ country artists, from k.d. lang to Orville Peck, have also had an impact on the Canadian country scene.
Canadian country queers have produced some great genre-defining music but have often not had the support from the industry that they deserved. I spoke to Canadian filmmaker Jeremy Leroux about his short film “Dominant Chord,” (available on YouTube.)
The film portrays the choice facing a country star between damaging his career through coming out or losing his long-term partner. “The reality is that in the United States and Canada the country closet is alive and well and this has led to the continued erasure of LGBTQ+ artists from the genre,” Leroux said. “Because if they aren’t visible, it’s easy to say they don’t exist.”
I also asked Leroux about the Canadian country scene that has many of the same structural issues as the US industry.
“Canada really takes its lead from the US. The goal is to record in Nashville and become a name in the States,” he said. “That’s how people get into mainstream consciousness. The same homophobia, racism and misogyny seem to be in the Canadian system and though I have heard rumblings from the organizations they are open to being more inclusive and diverse, the actions have not backed that up.”
For some artists, the best way forward is to create their own scene. As Drake Jensen told me, his main focus is his fans. They are what’s important.
‘Together we create our own scene, and that is a scene of inspiration, hope and inclusion,” Jensen said. He acknowledges that in terms of Canadian queer country icons, “there’s not many choices” but that does not mean that these artists are not significant: k.d. lang was a major influence on his music and who he is as a public person.
Even with these institutional barriers, Canadian LGBTQ+ country artists have still made their mark. We thought a celebration of some of Canada’s best country queers was long overdue!
Arguably the most famous country queer on this list and winner of CQ All Star-Poll’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Lang became a trailblazer for country queers after coming out in the 90s, and her status as one of the biggest lesbian icons, across any genre, hasn’t waned. Lang’s deep, powerful voice has shone across country, pop, jazz and folk, but perhaps her finest queer country moment is “Constant Craving,” a ballad where her voice perfectly conveys the song’s heartache and longing.
Our favorite masked cowboy, Orville Peck, is also Canadian. He mixes alt-country with traditional country, outlaw country-rock with country pop, and a sense of camp performance with a crooning voice rich in sincerity. All these contradictions flow together seamlessly within Peck’s music. On the edge between mainstream recognition and subcultural credibility, if there is any justice in the country industry, Peck will be regarded as a country great in the decades to come.
D’orjay the Singing Shaman
Speaking of outlaws, D’orjay the Singing Shaman showcases her magnificent voice and her rocking country sound in her debut album New Kind of Outlaw while reckoning with more than 50 years of the country music industry’s racism, misogyny and homophobia, including the lack of recognition for Linda Martell, country radio refusing to play Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free,” the misogynist backlash to The Chicks, and current industry barriers facing Mickey Guyton.
With the Canadian country scene structured by the same racism and bigotry as Nashville, this is the anthem we need, and D’orjay is a major talent to look to for the future of country music.
As D’orjay said in a recent interview with Country Queer, “It’s important to be ‘D’orjay the Singing Shaman’ because music is a big part of my medicine now. I will always resonate with the role of healer. At my shows, I say, ‘one of the things we do as Shamans is create sacred space’ and then I have a sacred prayer that I sing. Then I say, ‘the other thing we Shamans do is bring light into the darkness,’ and my hair lights up.”
Take a listen to her music and you’ll hear just that!
If you’re a fan of more traditional sounding country, then you can’t go far wrong with Patrick Masse. He came out in 2002 and was essentially pushed out of the country music scene.
As much as Canada is recognized globally for its strong record on LGBTQ+ rights, the same cannot be said for its country music industry. Masse’s music, the perfect blend of traditional heartfelt country and catchy melodies, is a reminder of the real cost of institutional homophobia and what we’ve all lost because of it.
It was thanks to Country Queer colleague Rachel Cholst that I discovered Mariel Buckley, a wonderful singer-songwriter whose latest single “No Surprise” captures what makes a perfect country song. The song conveys the angst, loneliness, and defensive sarcasm at the heart of a break-up.
With a beautifully expressive voice that is catnip to a country fan like me, a talent like Buckley’s deserves to be heard by many more people.
Jensen mixes traditional sounds with a country-pop sensibility and a desire to shift mainstream country to be more outward looking. This should be the musical and political status quo of Nashville in 2021.
About his latest single, Jensen told Country Queer, “I felt it was time to bring Neo-traditional country music back, to show where country music came from. The choice of song itself was in the context of the pandemic, to pay tribute to the frontline workers dedicated to seeing us through these challenging times.”
Modest as it may be, Canada’s queer country scene is rich in tradition and more vibrant than ever.