Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

Mixtape, October 28: Willi Carlisle

By Eryn Brothers, Mixtape Editor

Welcome to our second installment of Mixtape, featuring insightful conversations about queerness inspired by a playlist selected by our favorite musicians. This week, we’re sitting down and talking to Willi Carlisle, who uses his theme, “Barn Dance,” to talk about music history, the melting pot of American traditional music, Jake Blount, and queerness at dance halls.

You have a focus on old timey music in your background, which is why you picked the theme Barn Dance, correct?

Yeah, I do. It’s been in my family, but it’s been in everybody’s family. I am just crazy about it. Especially right now, when we can’t hold hands with strangers and shimmy on a dance floor – it’s really important to me.

What drew you to this kind of music in the first place?

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To be honest, it was the interpersonal connection. I cared about the dancing long before I cared about the music. I loved being able to hold hands with strangers. In the environment in which I discovered square dancing was queer friendly, easily gender bent. It was sort of a group of old hippies holding their grandparents’ tradition to the extent that they were able. I felt really lucky to have those good experiences with it. That was in Illinois. There’s Southern dance music in Illinois! I believe that there is just dance music everywhere. That there is almost always some kind of old time music tradition, if you sort of expand your idea of it. The moment that I got to the Ozarks in Arkansas I encountered — as opposed to  a revivalist tradition — a scene that was still very much alive and still had sort of, for lack of a better word, OGs. They are still out bumping and making big changes and big moves. You know, the legends who had taught legends who had taught legends kind of down the line.

What exactly does being a revivalist mean?

I think there’s some intellectual and cultural exchanges that occur when you don’t grow up with the music, but come to it in your own sort of unique way. I think a revivalist has to-which I, I am a revivalist, I should say-has to discover something they’ve been deprived of through the forces of homogenization and globalization. We would all have a vernacular dance music tradition if it wasn’t for a commercial sort of music.

And so your intro into this were these very queer friendly hippie versions of square dancers and barn dances? That’s pretty wild. I’ve always wanted to know what the difference was between a square dance and a barn dance.

It depends. A square dance is a kind of dance, a barn dance is a place. A barn dance is a noun and verb, a square dance is a form. You might be surprised to find that square dancing and contra dancing as American vernacular dancing have been a place where queerness and hippiedom have flourished for a long time now. 

So with your experience being informed by this and also coming to the Ozarks, could you tell me about the first track of this playlist, “Going Down the ‘Leven Point to Get A Load of Corn” by The Ozark Highballers?

The Highballers have played the best square dances that I’ve ever called, and they are the band on this mix that is mostly the reason that I learned to call square dances. They were so infectious that I had to learn to call dances. In the Ozarks, you get music that’s simultaneously Midwestern and Southern. You can sort of hear that in the performance, the negotiation between those regions. The music takes a similar tone to fiddle and banjo ensembles in the Appalachians, but adds a ton of multicultural influences like German, Swedish, Scots, Irish, and even Native and African American influences.

When you say you “call a dance,” what exactly does that entail?

In square dancing and even contra dancing, there’s a person that delivers instructions to dancers via some patterns. Some classic pattern is “hello man, left to your left, hand back to your partner right and left grand, hand over hand, and heel over heel, the more you dance, the better you feel.” That sounds like a song poem, but really it’s a set of instructions that tell everybody in a square what to do. When a caller guides the dancers through it, it is really intuitive. If you think of it a little bit like a pattern in a quilt, you have to do the same sewing. You have to use the same patterns with the needle over and over and over again. You make something really beautiful out of it.

Aren’t these dances rather genderized? You know, the whole, “take your gal do-see-do,” kind of thing?

I think the best single thing I’ve ever heard about this is that it’s not the parts you have, it’s the part you play. There’s of course examples like lumberjack squares that were all men dancing. Nowadays there are totally gender neutral dances in a ton of places where they’ll use the names of birds: larks, ravens, stuff like that. These dances are really designed to be egalitarian and totally inclusive. They come from times where a whole community would get together after working for a whole day and then dance for a whole night. 

At a basic look, it’s a community get together, but it’s so much more than that, right?

These are big time social events in older communities. It’s not entirely dissimilar to a church basement except in a lot of cases, there’s a rowdy version. These would have been square dances that were expressly forbidden in a lot of communities because they were not godly and they had booze at them. In this playlist, there’s a lot of dances that would have been culturally treated quite differently. 

What’s the biggest saloon number on here?

Definitely “Old Corn Liquor” by Joe Thomspon. There’s a bunch of sort of musical scenarios in this mix. Everything is designed to be in a dance hall, to be in the corner of a room. I think that the space and time of these are really important to consider. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Hey, what was this music designed for? Who was it made for? And when was it made?” If you don’t think of it in terms of its utility a lot of history goes away. 

What’s the utility behind “Gary’s Polka,” by Karl and the Country Dutchmen?

These were performed in big dance halls. These big dance halls would have a hundred couples in them in one place. You have these big time brass bands with the loudest of the blown reed instruments, the accordion and they’d all be firing on the same frigging cylinders. This is from a time when every little town would have their own brass bands. In many cases, different nationalities would have their own brass bands in the same way that in an industrial town you might have a Polish automakers union and here across the street is the Ukrainian automakers union hall. You know what I mean? There are these extremely regionally, and culturally specific experiences that can happen at scale where the instruments all have to be loud enough to keep everybody moving. Can you imagine being in a big beer hall or in a big gymnasium having a just fiddle and a banjo? It doesn’t scale. It doesn’t work that way. 

I really love how you included Jake Blount’s “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone.” Blount’s so talented. He works diligently and very, very effectively on making sure that we understand context while being able to listen to history and recreate it as his own. 

I picked this track because Nick Garris is on it and he is this fantastic kind of Pan American queer step dancer. The dancing and the music is – to me – queer futurism that in some ways isn’t certainly rooted in the past. As opposed to being a mere reviving and a fanciful reimagination of a different time, it insists that these deeply rooted behaviors can create a future out of what feels like a near apocalyptic present. That’s probably a little too fucking heavy, but it’s how I feel about it.

You’ve dedicated a lot of your own personal life to helping not only the preservation of this kind of music, but in trying to expand it and make it more inclusive for the queer community, like the work you did for trying to make The first Queer and Trans Old Time Music Gathering.

I think that work is just beginning. I like to be able to talk about being queer and that has made it so that I liked to talk to other people about it too. I’m extremely grateful to have some community to sort of step into. Trying to be an organizer in the age of COVID is nigh impossible. I’m mostly just grateful that all of these institutions exist in our areas and are persisting. As for QTOTMG, We’re kind of still exploring. We’re hoping to have a gathering that was only non-straight and trans artists that appreciate American vernacular music. We imagined it as a skill share and a conversation as opposed to kind of a public facing festival so that we could begin to share resources. Hopefully we can get together soon.

Ok. So let’s pretend it is not 2020. We are able to have the big queer barn dance of our dreams, we got a potluck cooking, and we’re all about to get together and dance. What do you think that song is? Who’s calling it?

Well, I hope I’m calling it because I’m missing it so badly. But as for a song? Oh god, anything on this playlist will do …… Country music is about kissing your buds and dancing like your grandma’s still proud of you.

How very Springsteen of you, Willi.

Here’s Willi’s Mixtape:

You can follow Willi at: https://www.willicarlisle.com/