By Denver-Rose Harmon, Staff Writer
Before Women’s History Month comes to a close, we must take a moment to celebrate the legendary women who have influenced queer country. From traditional country singers, to folk singer/songwriters, to allies, here are ten women who have established themselves as queer country icons.
Let’s kick this off with probably the first ever openly lesbian country singer: Wilma Burgess . She may not have had the lasting, superstar career of Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn, but this sometimes forgotten legend left quite a stamp on the industry.
In fact, her career was kicked off by a partnership with producer Owen Bradley, one of the primary creators of the Nashville Sound. It’s said that she was never in the closet to him or anyone else in the industry, although it wasn’t public information to fans.
Burgess went to college with the goal of becoming a gym teacher (did I mention she was lesbian?), showing no interest in music until a songwriter friend convinced her to take his songs to Nashville in 1964. She released multiple charting singles in 1965-’67, including the oft-covered “Misty Blue”, and mostly managed to avoid songs with any gendered love interests. When she did cut a song about a man, she did it in exchange for being allowed to cut a song of her choice that her producer would have rejected otherwise.
Besides a laudable musical career, Wilma also opened The Hitchin’ Post, Nashville’s first (ahem) “women-only” bar. So basically, this legend brought the lesbian nightlife to Music City in the 1980s. She also won money from Ernest Tubb at poker. What a badass.
Being a country music icon is more than enough. But k.d. lang is a lesbian icon that transcends genre. In fact her first record after coming out in 1992 is only loosely influenced by country. Before that she snagged three Juno Awards and two Grammy awards as a country artist – one for a collaboration with the legendary Roy Orbison, on the single “Crying”.
Before coming out, she already had an androgynous style and a desire to be subversive to the genre. Since coming out, she has produced amazing music outside of the genre and been an activist for HIV/AIDS awareness, animal rights, and Tibetan human rights.
Chely Wright is a staple in any discussion about LGBTQ+ people in country music. She made waves in 2010 when she bravely came out, a full decade after finding commercial success. It is heartbreaking that she had to hide herself for so long in order to fit into a genre that struggles to accept progress. The fact that she eventually came forward and declared who she truly was the whole time is an inspiration to women and country queers everywhere.
Since then she has been heavily involved in LGBTQ+ activism, performing at Pride events, speaking at the GLAAD awards, and establishing the non-profit organization LIKEME. Her most widely beloved and successful song may be the super-closeted “Single White Female,” but Chely herself is an icon that paved the way for more acceptance in country music, a path we are happy to be following.
Songwriters are the bones of country music, so we’re proud to have one of us seated comfortably on Music Row, co-writing radio hits galore. Brandy Clark is a formidable solo artist, but she’s really made an impact through writing songs released by other artists. She has written for/with Reba McEntire, Jennifer Nettles, and Keith Urban, just to name a few.
Her impact on the industry extends beyond simply writing hits; her writing has a progressive bent that’s much-needed in country. Two of her most successful songs, both co-written with Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally, are substantially feminist. “Mama’s Broken Heart” by Miranda Lambert is a fiery anthem hell-bent on sticking it to mama’s idea that a woman must be a quiet Southern belle. “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves is an undeniably progressive song encouraging people, especially young women, to do what they want and love who they love.
The chorus even expresses acceptance of weed and homosexuality, topics that are unfortunately still taboo in mainstream country, especially when sung by a woman.
A lesbian legend who dropped out of high school to make music and now has eleven Grammy nominations and four wins under her belt? We have no choice but to stan.
Brandi Carlile is a prolific musician. Since 2005 she has released six solo albums and one in the supergroup, The Highwomen. Among the four producer credit’s she’s earned in the last two years alone is Tanya Tucker’s much-praised 2019 album “While I’m Livin’.” Every album she releases does better than the last, cementing her reputation as an icon primed to change the country, folk, and Americana genres forever.
Though Carlile’s musical accolades are more than enough to earn her a spot on this list, she is also a tireless activist. The Looking Out Foundation, which she established with Phil Hanseroth in 2008, has donated millions to various causes in support of racial justice, women’s rights, and Covid-19 relief. She also released a benefit album, Cover Stories, in response to the refugee crisis, and performed “A Beautiful Noise” with Alicia Keys to urge people to vote in 2020.
I find it impossible to talk about icons of queer country without considering the folk scene as well. When pure country is letting me down, I turn to folk – and I am sure the same can be said for the great songwriters of country music.
Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is an example of why she has a spot on this list. It may not have all the twang of country-proper, but it certainly has all of the story-telling and small-town angst. Beyond that song, this multi-platinum, four-time Grammy award winning legend’s music is heavily steeped in blues and rock, genres that themselves have heavily influenced country.
As soon as Amy and Emily burst onto the scene in the early ’90s they made themselves queer icons, and they haven’t stopped since.
They are the muses of queer women of folk music, including Mary Gauthier, an icon herself (see The Power of Two). Powerful songwriters and beautiful harmonizers. Show-stopping performers. The Indigo Girls are nothing short of iconic.
Gauthier summed up their impact better than I could ever hope to:
The Indigo Girls had shattered the glass ceiling, the ceiling that no “lesbian-looking lesbians” had been able to smash through before them. Soon, lesbian artist after lesbian artist made their way through the opening the Indigos created. I became one of them.— Mary Gauthier
It is fascinating how Dolly has become an icon to LGBTQ+ folks while simultaneously steering as clear as she can of politics her whole career. But what Dolly does best is make it clear that there is space in her audience and her heart for absolutely everyone, and that is something that every queer person wants to hear. Her absolute confidence and ability to laugh at herself are cherry on top.
Dolly loves how diverse her audience is, and we love her for it. In the podcast Dolly Parton’s America, there is an episode dedicated to “Jolene” in which its sapphic undertones are discussed between scholar Nadine Hubbs and host Jad Abumrad. Hubbs went on to write a new, final verse in which the narrator and Jolene ditch the man and get together. It was played for Dolly herself and got her stamp of approval. Dolly is the ultimate ally, confirmed.
With their proud revival on their newest record, Gaslighter, The Chicks have solidified their place as allies. They were already icons, in spite of or because of their fall from grace when they dared to express distaste with Bush’s administration. With this return 14 years later, they have musically declared that they don’t give a damn if they fit in with the rest of Nashville.
This sentiment is all too familiar to queer folks. If you don’t give us a space where we belong, we will make one. The way their newest record sounds unmistakably country yet sonically different from anything on country radio is their way of carving their own space.
On top of that, the themes of resilience and the outright support for LGBTQ+ rights and Black Lives Matter on “March March” are inspiring listening for country queers.
Kacey came out the gate swinging in 2012 with her first single “Merry Go ‘Round” where she shined a cynical light on the traditional values of America’s heartland. She has maintained an incredible balance of progressive lyrics, authentic country sound, and camp.
She has co-written with Brandy Clark many, many times. For a heartfelt song that has become a queer anthem, look no further than “Rainbow”.