By Hank Adams, Contributing Writer
Editors’ Note: This is the sixth installment of our Regional Queer Country series, which has so far included the Northeast, Texas, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Mountain West regions of the US. This week, we’ll be diving into the queer country of the West Coast.
If the American West is a place of wide skies and rolling prairies, desert sunsets and a place to lose yourself on a classic cross-country ramble; then the West Coast is the golden shimmer road haze that haunts your journey like a promise. It’s the West beyond the West, a chance not just to lose who you were but discover the full possibility of who you can be.
I’m from central Pennsylvania, where the land is green and beautiful and entire clans of families have been entrenched since back before the Revolution. Where “normal” has been codified for centuries. It’s hard to be different, here, as it is in so many other places. Hard to not fit in, to be “other” in some fashion. To my mind, the West Coast has always held that whisper of a promise, that it was somewhere else, where life is better and everyone can be just who they want to be.
The artists below each fulfill that promise, in their own way, in their own voices. Natives or transplants, the musicians from Washington, Oregon and California all explore themselves with an unselfconscious freedom that inspires me, a crick hick from the trailer park, to be a little bolder in my own self expression. To try on a West Coast frame of mind, no matter where I am or where I’m from.
Where else would we start? Where else could we start? Lavender Country is the vanguard of queer country music. Their eponymous 1973 album is widely acknowledged as the first queer country album. Not just maybe-sorta gay. Openly gay, and proud.
A recent revival has brought their album, and the story of Lavender Country, back to the stage. Lead singer and Washington State native Patrick Haggerty now performs with a new incarnation of the band, backed by a variety of younger queer country musicians.
Haggerty has a Pete Stampfel kind of voice – high, reedy, powerful. There’s an early Holy Modal Rounders/Gram Parsons/cosmic country feel to the album. The piano is perfectly plunky, the harmonies fun and easy to sing along with.
Julian Talamantez Brolaski
Two-spirit poet and scholar, Brolaski, is also a talented singer-songwriter who has fronted a number of country music bands, including Juan and the Pines and the Western Skyline. Inside that tender poet’s heart beats a love for classic country and the way it has for cutting right down to the bone. Brolaski performs both poetry and music at powwows, pride events and festivals around the world.
The Secret Emchy Society
Led by Oakland-based Cindy Emch, who has performed with the current incarnation of Lavender Country, The Secret Emchy Society has a sound that blends roots country, rockabilly and a bit of throaty soul. That last bit is mostly courtesy of Emch’s rich and rugged voice.
I’m sure the “strong as a belt of good whiskey” comparison has been made before so I’ll skip that part and just say it’s the kind of voice that makes you pay attention. If you met her at a bar and she gave you a piece of hard-won advice, you’d listen.
Conley is the host of Queer Country West Coast, a regular showcase for queer country artists and sister to the East Coast’s Queer Country Quarterly. A talented singer-songwriter, he’s also a “teaching artist,” and offers music classes in Sacramento, CA.
His voice mirrors the strident sometimes harsh/sometimes soft voice of the cello his work often features. A delicate strength, not shying from what hurts. “I dressed myself in black today/without thinking why./Too many people who I love/are watching people they love die.”
A trans Xicanx artist and musician originally from New Mexico, Florez is now based out of San Francisco. Florez uses his art to explore elements of intersectional trans and queer identities. He is also an actor, producer and award-winning documentary filmmaker. His voice is soft without being weak, and feels like it echoes from afar, like he’s standing up somewhere a little higher than the rest of us.
Emily Ayden and Chan Barraza
From Belligham, WA, this duo’s music goes deep and dark while exploring what they call “ghost folk.” A jazz influence is notable, but this group slides easily and comfortably into the murder ballad and madness side of traditional folk. Any band that incorporates the Theremin-like warble and wail of a saw to their instrumentation is well on the wonderful side of creepy.
“Claws” manages to be eerie and soothing at the same time, a pretty voice crooning slightly sideways lyrics. “I was planting flowers in the weeds/I’ve been collecting the constant rain/but the birds took all of their seeds/maybe you’ll find the claws in my brain.” A perfect gothic rainy afternoon kind of tune.
Jenn Cuddigan, Anna Dickinson, Coda Gardner
Playing pop-y, queer, folk punk at its finest this all girl band from the San Francisco area is fun in a weird way and weird in a fun way. Incorporating kazoos and moaning sound effects, being funny and satirical is their way of joyously celebrating being queer, being alive and just having a pretty good time.
Or, as they sing in “Middle-age transsexual theme song,” “Let the anthem ring/‘cause we were born to sing.”
Jack Nathan Harding
Texas transplant Jack Nathan Harding is now making music in California – his kind of music, done his way. Harding brings an openly gay approach to the honky tonk branch of country music that he loves. Creating fun songs that people can get up and dance to.
This “dude-centric” approach to songwriting is clear throughout his 2019 album, Cowboys and Tattoos. It includes the dance-in-the-kitchen love song “You’re the Best Man” written for his husband as an anniversary gift.
Cassata has performed at SXSW and the Lincoln Center, and he’s on ones-to-watch lists everywhere from Billboard Magazine to Sirius XM Radio. In short, people are and have been talking about Ryan Cassata. And with good reason. Though he’s not afraid to take a walk through pop, rock or even hip hop, his raw emotional lyrical explorations ring as pure country. He also puts that powerful voice to work as an actor, filmmaker, writer and public speaker.
Grammy winning Brandi Carlile is a Washington state native whose career has navigated multiple genres while never straying too far from her country roots. A talented storyteller, she’s worked with a roster of music celebrity who’s-who, from T. Bone Burnett to Tanya Tucker. She’s part of the super group the Highwomen and in the spring of this year released her memoir, Broken Horses.
Americana meets punk meets the general don’t-give-a-damn attitude of a San Francisco artist who’s been out as trans for thirty years. You can hear this confidence in her voice, which rubs along the skin like a coarse-nubbed towel. Rough and soothing, saying just exactly what she meant to say.
Country and punk have a lot in common, when it comes to being angry. Anger isn’t always about shouting. Sometimes it’s just about putting your foot down and saying, This is who I am, and if you don’t like it you can lump it. And Virago’s got the talent and the nerve to do just that in spades.
Okay, so this last one isn’t an artist or a band, but it delights me. I love bluegrass, and I adore that there are people actively working to make the genre a home for everyone who loves it and loves to play it.
The California Bluegrass Association founded Bluegrass Pride in 2017, and their small armada of bluegrass bands on parade floats won them the Best of the Best at SF Pride. Bluegrass Pride is now its own separate entity dedicated to its mission of making bluegrass an all-inclusive music genre by offering video lessons, hosting events and mini-grants to artists. How cool is that?
Hank Adams is a writer, country music lover and bona fide hillbilly from White Deer, PA