Pride Month Events Spotlight A Years-Long Surge Of LGBTQ Voices In Roots Music
In the Fall of 2016, a Raleigh, NC bar and music venue called the Pour House surged past midnight with bluegrass and old-time music from a multi-artist lineup. It was the eve of the World of Bluegrass convention, so nothing unusual about that. But the content, tone and message of the event, the first Shout & Shine Celebration of Diversity In Bluegrass, was a fist in the air, and possibly a virtual middle digit, directed at homophobia.
“It was really in response to HB2, North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill,” says the night’s organizer and emcee Justin Hiltner, a recording artist and editor at The Bluegrass Situation. HB2, which became law in March of 2016 (and since was largely repealed), nullified local ordinances extending civil rights protections to LGBTQ individuals, setting off a tempest of protests and business cancellations. For Hiltner and some key bluegrass allies, it galvanized the will to hide no longer and to affirm space for less visible or marginalized groups in traditional music. “That same first year, there was also a roundtable diversity panel for the first time at IBMA,” Hiltner said. “And (veteran record executive) Marian Leighton Levy mentioned diversity and inclusion in her keynote speech. And so, it ended up being like an unofficial theme of that week.”
Amythyst Kiah performed that night, having only recently come out publicly in a Bluegrass Situation interview, and she remembers Shout & Shine as “an iconic moment.” The showcase came at a challenging time for her, making her way as a new, solo Black Appalachian folk singer. She had almost bailed out on her touring career. But the affirmation in the room and by extension at the bluegrass convention she was attending for the first time, was part of her pivot to the award-winning, Grammy-nominated songwriter she is now.
“It’s a really unique feeling to walk into a space where other people in the room know exactly how you feel,” Kiah said this week. “How many of us were playing the music and were in the closet, and we just mysteriously never dated. How many of us have gone through that? And now we are at this really big bluegrass event and doing it openly. That sense of camaraderie was really important and special.”
Hiltner, who is 28 and a proudly out banjo player, has been hailed by NPR as “a leader in the burgeoning movement to welcome and highlight queer voices in bluegrass.” He and a cohort of artists and music business folks brought Shout & Shine back every year since, growing what he calls a “holistic” view of inclusion beyond LGBTQ, supporting people of color, the disabled and immigrant voices. Around the same time, these allies spearheaded the birth of Bluegrass Pride, a non-profit advocacy organization that puts on events and workshops with a mission “to recruit, encourage, and support LGBTQ+ bluegrassers of all levels, promoting their advancement and acceptance within all areas of the bluegrass music industry and musical community.” Its origins lay in a group within the California Bluegrass Association that pressed the organization to sponsor a bluegrass float, complete with live bands, at the San Francisco Pride Parade in 2017. The float beat out 270 others as the parade’s Best of the Best, an unprecedented honor for a first-time entrant and a high visibility moment for queer roots music.
Bluegrass Pride is conspicuous because of its challenge to the archaic narrative of bluegrass as 70 years of white Christian men making music for conservative Southern audiences. But it’s far from alone in its quest to generate opportunities and welcoming spaces for gay and trans fans and musicians in roots and country music. That’s particularly visible during this Pride Month, with live and online events happening through June.
Amythyst Kiah is a headliner for Saturday’s The Future Is...Queer Country,presented online by the National Queer Arts Festival. Also on that bill is Lavender Country, the band formed in 1973 by Patrick Haggerty, who is generally attributed with the first openly gay country album. Bluegrass Pride is presenting a month full of events, in particular Juneteenth: A Rainbow Revival on June 19 and the fifth annual Porch Pride on June 26 and 27 featuring a range of artists in virtual festival mode. And on June 30, CMT sponsors another year of The Concert For Love & Acceptance, hosted by out country singer Ty Herndon, with sets by Brothers Osborne, Gretchen Peters, Kathy Mattea, Jaime Wyatt and more. And of course Pride Month is a focus of ongoing outlets supporting LGBTQ art-making and audience-building, such as Apple Music’s Proud Radio hosted by veteran country music journalist Hunter Kelly.
Of course, gay country music is a story that stretches back decades, because gay people have been making and loving country music all along, with varying degrees of freedom and visibility. An article from 2000 in the Journal of Country Music by Chris Dickenson is often credited as the first big picture take on the subject, with a seminal history of Lavender Country. Landmarks in the larger arc have been as institution-rattling as Chely Wright’s coming out as a lesbian country star in 2010 or as anodyne as actor/singer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdRctRKm0Io?t=1444">Leslie Jordan’s recent duet with freshly out T.J. Osborne of the hit country act Brothers Osborne on the Grand Ole Opry.
Ask around about the leaders and instigators of the contemporary movement in the Americana wing of country music, and you’ll quickly hear admiration for Karen Pittelman, leader of the band Karen & the Sorrows and founder of the Gay Ole Opry and Queer Country Quarterly, a regular showcase in Brooklyn that celebrates its tenth birthday this year. “There always have been queer and trans people making country music, but there just wasn't an intentional space for us to come together. And I was needing that so desperately. So I was moved to try and create it,” Pittleman told me this week. “Certainly, a lot has changed in the last couple of years and in the 10 years since I've been doing this, and I'm really happy that there are all these new spaces for queer and trans artists to be making country music and Americana and roots music.” She has caveats, but let’s put a pin in that.
One way to measure the value of today’s more self-aware and supportive environment has been the profusion of songs and albums explicitly claiming space, narrative, experience and expression by LGBTQ artists. There may be more overtly queer-positive roots and country recordings on the charts and at the forefront of the music press in the past six years than in the prior few decades.
In bluegrass and old-time, there was an eager audience when Virginia old-time banjo player Sam Gleaves went bold on his debut album Ain’t We Brothers in 2015, whose title track centers a story of a gay marriage in the heart of the rural South. He later joined his regular performing partners, the long-married couple Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, to set the welcoming concept of Shout And Shine to music with their 2018 album of that title.
In Americana, Alex Caress, who plays as Little Bandit, pursued a man (played by his real-life partner) in a smoky honky tonk in the 2017 music video for “Bed of Bad Luck.” Erin Rae processed her closeted youth in conservative rural Tennessee in songs like the poignant “Bad Mind,” while emerging star Katie Pruitt built her debut album Expectations around her similar story in rural Georgia. Garrison Starr made the trauma of being outed involuntarily at an Old South sorority decades ago the lynchpin of her 2021 album Girl I Used To Be. Waylon Payne’s powerful 2020 album Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me implies that being disowned by most of his family after coming out at age 18 led him to self-destructive addiction, while the love of a man pulled him back to the light. Twanger Jaime Wyatt touches on the same terrain with “Rattlesnake Girl” and her album Neon Cross. And this is far from a comprehensive list.
Meanwhile the number of proudly LGBTQ artists in Americana with long-term career viability has been visibly surging. Long familiar are Brandi Carlile, Amy Ray, Mary Gauthier and Brandy Clark. Taking the stage more recently have been North Carolina’s Sarah Shook, DC banjo player Jake Blount (and his collaborator, foot percussionist Nic Gareiss), Canadian high-style songwriters D’orjay The Singing Shaman and Orville Peck, fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, Louisiana folk activist Lilli Lewis, New York and Nashville singer Paisley Fields and many more. The website Country Queer maintains a directory here.
In the media space, Country Queer has emerged rapidly as a leading voice and focal point for the movement. The news website and social feed appeared late in 2019 and grew robustly during the second half of the pandemic. Founder and editor Dale Geist built his career in filmmaking, multi-media and digital design in San Francisco. He’s a singer/songwriter too, and when he got the job designing the new website for No Depression magazine, his interest in roots music journalism was piqued. As a recently out bisexual middle-aged man, he saw a gap. “I thought, man this has to be an underserved audience,” he says. “There have to be people out there who are queer who love country and Americana.”
So working with Oakland based artist Cindy Emch, he retrofitted a dying website and launched as Country Queer in September of 2019. Geist says it started slowly and when the pandemic hit, he grew demoralized with a slow trickle of news leads, growing debt and a need for more help. He took his plight and his plea to social media and heard back from a bigger community than he’d realized was out there. “It really took me out of myself and gave me a sense of purpose that I hadn’t quite had before,” he says. “I got an overwhelming response from people that wanted to write for Country Queer. Probably eight people ended up writing for us regularly. Once that happened, I started being able to publish three, then four, then six pieces a week.”
Geist needed some marquee interviews to stoke traffic and he credits Nashville's Mary Gauthier (a “godmother of queer country” in his estimation) with giving him interview time when few knew what the site was all about. Then he felt momentum build when his long-standing request to Brandy Clark came through. He and his staff writers also profiled Orville Peck, Amythyst Kiah, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Bonnie Whitmore, Jaime Wyatt and many others. This year, CQ launched its first podcast, Country Queer Spotlight, hosted by veteran podcaster Rachel Cholst.
Few have as clear a view of the contrasting atmospheres of country music and Americana as Chely Wright. Indeed, her transition, if you will, from working in the former to the latter as a recording artist was integral to her personal journey. “I hadn't yet made the decision to come out,” she says of the time running up to 2010 when she was working on her album Lifted Off The Ground with producer Rodney Crowell. As he consulted on her career goals following her run as a country radio star, the Americana direction looked amenable to her aims as a career artist and as a gay woman. “Rodney kind of holding my hand through this, setting a course for me musically, actually had a huge impact on my imagination and designs of eventually coming out, because I could see myself in the Americana world,” she told me. Lifted Off The Ground, released in the spring of 2010 alongside her memoir, was reviewed as a turning point in her writing and artistry. For Americana, her experience validates its conception as a universe of progressive thinking and artists being themselves.
“They seem to have no fear,” she says. “And they seem to really operate under the sentiment that everyone does have a place at this table. So, I have observed the changes in Americana music with great awe and great hope, knowing that I really feel like I fit in there.”
Wherever one sees progress, one is compelled to ask what’s next? Where is there still work to do? “There's definitely room for growth,” says Kiah. “Because there's always been this very specific stereotypical idea of what an Appalachia person is. And I feel like with every one of us taking a stand, things can only continue to get better.”
For Karen Pittelman, the road ahead has to do with institutional, systemic influence. “There's a difference between having a more diverse roster and who has power the industry. And I'm not sure we've gotten to that level or even begun to ask those questions,” she says. “You know, like, who's on the board? Who are the directors? Who makes the decisions about what music gets made and who performs? And who hires not just who's on stage, but who's behind the stage? Who's working at radio stations? Who's doing the rigging? Who is running the front of house? There's a much broader, deeper question we need to ask within the industry, not even thinking more broadly about larger issues of social justice.”
It's clear from this year’s resurgent, post-pandemic Pride Month momentum that there will be time and energy ahead to investigate all of the above.