By James Barker, Staff Writer
When you think country music, you don’t usually think of the UK. Yet there has been a thriving scene in Northern Ireland, and large folk and indie traditions in the rest of the UK that have featured country and Americana. As some US country artists (Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Shania Twain) achieved global recognition, more and more UK listeners grew up with country music as part of their soundscape.
Artists like The Shires, Twinnie and Lucie Silvas have achieved recognition both in the UK and in Nashville. There are also non-profit organizations such as the British Country Music Association, the Americana Music Association UK, and (pre-COVID) a growing live music presence that has supported the UK country scene. It would make sense that LGBTQ+ artists would be part of this. Let’s take a look at some of the finest country queers the UK has to offer.
Tommy Atkins has raised the international profile of both LGBTQ+ country artists and UK country artists, performing in Nashville and charting in the UK, New Zealand and Canada. Atkins infuses 90s neo-traditional sounds with an infectious pop sensibility, all brought together by his stunning voice. Atkins pays homage to a fellow UK queer icon, George Michael, through a cover of “Freedom” that really works as a country song. Atkins is unapologetically country and unapologetically queer; he released his debut EP Kiss Me, Cowboy last year.
Delila Black is one of the most exciting artists in country music right now. On her website Black describes her sound: ‘Imagine k.d. lang, Grace Jones and Jack White at church, then imagine them at Fight Club.’ Black pushes the borders of genre, which can just box people in, but her (alt) Americana sound – what she calls “Electro-mountain” music – deserves to be right at the heart of country. Black is also a member of the Americana Music Association UK. Merging emotional intimacy with political fervour, Black’s work brings together music with visuals to push us to confront the world’s injustices and fight for a truly anti-racist and queer-embracing future.
2020 was a great year for queer UK country music; for one, Phillipa Cookman released her debut country album, Cookman, in tribute to her father, blues musician Brian Cookman, who wrote all the songs on the record. In recording this material, a number of these songs are transformed into queer country anthems. ‘Greasy Mabel’ tells the story of a trucker falling in love with a waitress from a diner, and, with Cookman singing, this becomes a love song about two women, a testament to how queer communities have reimagined objects from mainstream culture to tell our own stories.
Roseanne Reid hails from the Americana side of country. Reid’s album Trails really showcases her songwriting and the sophistication of her sound, receiving critical acclaim in the UK, as well as praise from Steve Earle, who she duets with on the album. With songs like “Amy”, “Sweet Annie” and “I Love Her So”, what in other cases would be just implicit sapphic subtext become openly lesbian lyrics amongst the seductive Americana soundscape.
Man of the Minch
Wrapped up in queer folk mythology, Man of the Minch’s music embraces its listeners in its expansive sonic world: melding Celtic inspired fiddle work with a rootsy Americana sensibility and electronic elements. With openly queer lyrical content, Man of the Minch presents a euphoric vision of what queer country can be, taking what works from the past and blending it with the potential offered by the future.
For UK readers, you may remember Joe McElderry as former winner of X Factor UK back in 2009. He released a new single, “Baby Had Your Fun,” on January 21st, his first offering in the country genre. I doubt McElderry will fully go down the country route long term, but with his fantastic voice and the song’s fusion of country and disco, “Baby Had Your Fun” is an irresistible slice of pop-country.
One of the most talented artists to come from the UK, Joan Armatrading received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Americana Music Association UK in 2020. Armatrading’s music transcends categorization – her talents deserve to be recognized regardless of genre. For country fans, her lyricism and the sophisticated emotional expression of her voice is what gives her music a particular appeal, and they make Armatrading an important icon in the history of country, Americana and roots music.
A Note on the Future of UK Queer Country
When I was looking for UK LGBTQ+ country artists to feature in this list I reached out to Delila Black and Tommy Atkins to get their takes on the UK country scene. Atkins felt that for LGBTQ+ people in the UK, country music has been a bit of a slow burn.
“LGBTQ+ people are only just cottoning to country music in the UK. A lot of young, queer people I know assumed country was just about beer and trucks and daisy-dukes, but they were pleasantly surprised when they heard artists like Kacey Musgraves. I think they enjoy her kind of country music because it’s relatable, so it’s important that LGBTQ+ people continue to hear the right kind of country music. And reaching them is becoming easier thanks to streaming services and publications like this.”
Black thinks that a person’s sexuality does not really affect their taste in music and that LGBTQ+ people in the UK are open to country music and any other music “as long as they think it’s good”. Black spoke to me about her own relationship with the genre.
“Country music has a special place in my heart because it’s my mother’s music. She lived it, she loved it, she listened to it, she sang it to herself. My mother passed away a few years ago. The music still gives me access to a part of her. It’s part of my feeling of home.”
Country music has the potential to reach out to all listeners and relate to their lives in powerful ways. But as we know all too well, the genre and its institutions have not done this enough. Black had a profound analysis of the issue, saying that “Nashville is romanticized” and that “People or organisations sometimes aspire to be validated by Nashville”. The problem with this is that Nashville is “A purpose-built institution that proudly practiced exclusion. Created to uphold supremacist ideology. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly.”
When I spoke to Atkins and Black about the country music community in the UK, both were cautiously optimistic about the future. Black told me that part of her decision not to move to Nashville was that she felt she would find a more supportive community in the UK. Her involvement with the Americana Music Association UK has been positive. She says its CEO, Stevie Smith, is “genuinely trying to promote inclusivity in the organization”. Similarly, Atkins has had a positive experience with country radio stations in the UK and Europe playing his music with openly gay lyrics. He suggests that as “the UK country market is relatively new – it’s only become a “scene” in the last 6-7 years – I don’t believe those structural issues are as deeply ingrained or widespread as they are in the US.”
As much as there is cause for optimism in the UK, it is important to remain vigilant. Atkins remarked that there are country radio stations and publications “who clearly want nothing to do with us queer country artists,” so it is still important to keep up the fight in the UK. Atkins is doing just that via his show “Proud to Be Country”, where 100% of the artists featured are LGBTQ+. Black told me that since the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, the music industry as a whole is starting to have conversations, including “tiny sparks of conversation starting about tokenism”.
There is the potential for change, and the newness of the UK scene is perhaps an opportunity to develop a country scene that is free of some of the structural pitfalls of the more established US scene – but if this is to happen it is on all of us within the UK country music community to play our part.