By Sydney Miller, Staff Writer
One of the biggest misconceptions about non-binary identities is that they are a “third gender” that takes the gender binary and simply turns it into a trinary, where the third option is a perfectly androgynous person who uses they/them pronouns. Sometimes that’s true – but not always. There is no “right” way to be non-binary. Being non-binary simply means you are refusing the traditional labels of male or female and labeling yourself as you see fit.
It should come as no surprise that there is an active and diverse community of non-binary and genderqueer country artists. After all, country music is the music of storytelling, self expression, and passion.
Here are eight artists that not only reject the gender binary but also create amazing music. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start.
Paisley Fields spoke about their non-binary identity in a recent interview with Country Queer. Their latest release, Electric Park Ballroom, is a collection of stories that chronicle a variety of experiences with a jaunty and retro sound that includes some of the most basic staples of country music, such as a song about killing an abusive man (“Time’s Up, Brad”). But in songs like “Other Boys,” there’s also a touching tribute to Fields’ fluid relationship to gender and the impact it had on how their parents and other people treated them.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
Sarah Shook is probably the most famous non-binary act in country and Americana music today. Shook doesn’t care what anyone thinks of them, especially not the gender binary, and their songs perfectly encompass that outlaw country mindset. In almost every song, there’s a guitar riff you might hear on a Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash record. “No Name,” off their first record, Sidelong, is a jaunty, stick-it-to-the-man outlaw track for the ages. But Shook is also very capable of taking things to a more personal level, such as “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” on her second record, Years, where they sing about their addiction and personal life. (As an aside, Shook recently reached one year of being sober!).
While Sarah Shook & the Disarmers make loud and jaunty outlaw country, other non-binary country artists have a very different sound. Ismay is a non-binary artist who released their debut album, Songs of Sonoma Mountain, earlier this year. The album is introspective and folk-influenced, with an emphasis on Spanish-influenced acoustic guitar and soft, subtle vocals that focus on the peaceful and powerful nature of the mountain.
Though Ismay just released their first album, non-binary identities and gender nonconforming musicians aren’t a recent development. Mary Gauthier describes herself as a two-spirited (an Indigenous term referring to someone who has both a masculine and feminine spirit) lesbian. Gauthier has been releasing albums that feature her stellar writing since the late nineties. The “godmother of queer country” continues to make classic folk/Americana albums that deliver rich acoustic sounds that highlight her powerful lyrics. Her latest release, Rifles and Rosary Beads, is a songwriting collaboration between Gauthier and American veterans. It features the song “Brothers,” a powerful testimony to the bond that soldiers create during their deployment and how those bonds can transcend gender — as Gauthier writes, “your sisters are your brothers too.”
While Gauthier’s music is a very down-to-earth form of storytelling, artist Evil brings an otherworldly and ethereal sound to their music, incorporating banjos and guitars in an almost haunting way. Their soft vocals float above the music to create a very indie-country sound. Their latest single, “A Child Shamed,” (reviewed here) is full of distorted vocals and slow, mournful banjo riffs that make for a chilling listening experience.
Genderfluid artist Al Riggs is from Durham, North Carolina. They create a soft indie acoustic sound that, paired with an unapologetic drawl, draws the listener into Al’s stories. Their song “Local Honey” was featured on the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” and became their most listened to song on Spotify, but they also deliver highly personal songs that listeners can connect to. “asperger’s” details their struggles with autism and anxiety, and “Boyfriend Sweater, Boyfriend Jacket,” the first single from their new album, Bile and Bone, is a mournful testament to the monotony of modern lifestyles. Their song “Alice,” which was first released on the Country Queer website, is a love letter from Al’s male self, “Alex,” to their female self, “Alice.” It’s a quiet, introspective look into the fluidity of gender, set to soft backing violins and acoustic guitar.
An independent musician from Boston, Jessye DeSilva blends piano and guitar to create an alternative, soft folk-rock sound. Their delicate covers of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” and a mash-up of Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers” and Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” show their appreciation for and influence by these iconic performers. In their original songs, there’s a sense of urgency and pain as DeSilva sings about their own life, like the love and loss they mourn in “Missouri,” the first track off their EP Quarantine Sessions. But they’re also fully capable of delivering a track with a more upbeat energy. Their most popular song, “Wake the Dead,” off their first album, Hoarfrost and Crocus Shoots, bounces and rocks with a defiant confidence that captures the spirit of country music.
Like Mary Gauthier, Neko Case has been around for a while. She’s been on the edges of alternative and country music — her songs capture the spectrum of human emotion through a wide range of instrumental backing, from traditional guitar riffs to more electronic influences in her more recent albums. Case has always chosen to follow her heart rather than follow what people expect from her. In a 2013 interview with NPR, after the release of her album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You Case told interviewers that she doesn’t see herself as a man or woman; rather, she feels like she’s a “critter.” This comes across most explicitly in the song “Man” on that album, a rowdy and defiant anthem in which Case asserts that she’s a man, and “not just casually.”
These eight artists are by no means a definitive list of non-binary artists in country music. Society’s perceptions of gender is changing rapidly, and there are probably many artists who have a fluid relationship with gender who may not yet be comfortable sharing it – or haven’t come to grips with it themselves. And of course, we’ve likely just overlooked some. (Tell us if we have.)
None of these artists are more or less non-binary than others. Some use they/them pronouns, some use she/her or he/him, and some use any pronouns. You may think some are more or less country than others, but every one of these artists is creating amazing music about the things they’re passionate about, without much regard to what anyone thinks about them, and to me, that’s just about as country as you can get.