Queer Country

Emily Sumlin

Being queer and country have never been mutually exclusive. Country Artists Sam Gleaves and Jaime Wyatt discuss the challenges of loving the craft while tackling the industry.

Transcript

SUMLIN_1

Country Music. 

For some, it’s the embodiment of freedom, authenticity, and down-home values. For others, it feels like someone flipping you the bird from a pickup truck. 

Queer Musicians feel connected to country music as part of their heritage but also are simultaneously excluded because of their sexuality Both within and without. Being queer and being country have never been mutually exclusive, but in the modern country landscape, you’ve got to love the craft to walk the line. 

This is telling true stories in sound, I’m Emily Sumlin.

[banjo music intro]

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Sam Gleaves is a singer-songwriter from Wytheville, Virginia. He’s got an Appalachian twang, a degree in folklore, and a rainbow woven strap that runs across the back of his banjo, just one of five instruments that he plays.

He turned off the air conditioning in his car to talk to me, which during a southern July is no small sacrifice.

GLEAVES_1

I remember older people making a joke and saying, well, there’s only two kinds of music, good and bad 

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Sam grew up in what sounds like an episode of Andy Griffith, developing his love music on back porches and in barbershops. 

GLEAVES_2

I didn’t know it when I walked into Lloyd’s barbershop where he taught lessons. But when I walked in there, a whole new world of music opened to me. You know, people would be in there playing music that were in their 80s and people my own age, you know, it was a wide range of folks that hung out in there and told stories and dirty jokes and played, you know, these instruments I was so fascinated with.

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There was a while where Sam was afraid to write his sexuality into songs. But when he started seeing the powerful effect his songs like Ain’t We Brothers had on people he knew he could no longer sideline his experiences.

GLEAVES_3

 One of my closest friends We met because I played in an event in Lexington, Anthony walks up and says, you know, I really appreciate that song. And he was he had tears in his eyes and he was telling me that he had never heard that sound of Appalachian music, the banjo and the singing, that sort of a high lonesome style that reminded him of what he grew up with, he said he’d never heard that sound, paired with words about men loving men. 

[Aint We Brothers plays}

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Country music reaches people at their foundation, and for those who’ve grown up around it, it’s hard to separate from their own sense of self. Jaime Wyatt, another queer artist, has always been country to the core.

WYATT_1

I was wearing my cowboy boots and vest and wranglers and the hat to kindergarten and like no one else is wearing that. I remember the first day of kindergarten, I was like, where’s everyone’s hats? 

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Jaime’s story is a rollercoaster. She signed a record deal at 17, moved to L.A., and became a heavy drinker and drug user. The record deal disappeared and Jaime was arrested for robbing her coke dealer at the age of 21 and served eight months in county for it. She says keeping her sexuality under wraps caused a lot of inner turmoil, and it manifested itself in those ugly ways.

WYATT_2

 For me as a young person, I had to conform a lot and I would talk to myself. You know, those little self-talks and be like, “just get your foot in the door. And at some point, you get to be happy”

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For Jaime, it wasn’t until crossover artists like Brandi Carlile, an openly gay artist from the folk and Americana scene that she felt like there was a space for her queerness in her career. She defines her career as pre-brandy and post-brandy… It was that impactful. 

WYATT_3 

These people came to country music and absolutely saved us like they were examples that I needed to see,  I was never going to come out. I was never going to come out and be like, fine, I’ll keep my personal life and my career separate. Guess what? I have no personal life. It is my career because music is my life 

 [Jaime Wyatt’s Neon Cross plays ]

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From there other queer faces began making headlines for their ground-breaking but sometimes disputed, connection to Country Music. Queer artist Lil Nas X took the world by storm with “Old Town Road” which was removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Charts after being deemed “not country enough”. After substantial backlash to Billboard’s decision Lil Nas X collaborated with country Artist Billy Ray Cyrus on the remix which became even more popular than the original, but it still brought up important questions of who gets to be called country. 

[Old Town Road plays faintly]

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Some might wonder why queer people would try to hack in a genre that seems overwhelming white, male, and straight. We all know the stereotype. It’s Blake Shelton drinking a  Bud-Light with the logo facing out. It’s Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”, it’s Brad Paisley trying to solve racism by collaborating with LL Cool J. It’s exhausting. 

But at its roots, Sam says Queer people can find a home in Country because the honesty of the music is profoundly relatable. 

GLEAVES_4

I think that’s why LGBT people are drawn to traditional music because it’s so. Emotional and it’s so tied to real gritty experience, you know. A lot of people too have written about Appalachians being outsiders and a lot of cultures and LGBT people are also outsiders in some senses. And so there’s a kinship there.

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When it comes to performing, Jaime and Sam have played for conservative crowds but find that leading with the music is the quickest way to win them over 

GLEAVES_5

 If I saw that an audience appeared to be more conservative or appeared to be more fundamentalist in some way, I might choose to incorporate more music that I feel like will connect with them and then put in something about my queer experience. You know, I might try to sneak up on them in that way, present some music that builds a bridge and say, look at all we have in common, and then show that I’m different in some way 

WYATT_4

 I’ve done my homework on classic country so I can step into that on that stage and prove myself, you know, I’ll play some Buck Owens and then I’ll play my stuff and it’ll impress. And then later they see me walking around the crowd with my girlfriend holding hands and they’re like “Woah”

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Even with these challenges, both Jaime and Sam are afforded certain privileges due to their ability to camouflage themselves inside a country audience. Not all artists have that luxury. 

GLEAVES_6

I may be gay, but people wouldn’t necessarily know that just by looking at me unless I was holding my partner’s hand or something. So I’ve experienced a lot of warm welcomes and inclusivity and kindness, but if I was a black transwoman playing this music, I don’t know how that would be received.

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And it turns out I was speaking to Sam on a monumental day for people of color in-country and queer artists as well.

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I think that today, actually June 29th, 2021 Amythyst Kiya is making her debut on the Grand Ole Opry, which is a huge deal for a woman of color, queer woman to be performing on the Opry, it’s fabulous, and I love her music and support her all the way. But. It is 2021. 

For years and years, this music has been written about as a white music form. And that is such a disservice to the music and to the people that play it 

[Amythyst Kiya music ]

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Amythyst Kiah has since earned a grammy nomination from her song “Black Myself” and now she is touring and opening for-you guessed it, Brandi Carlile.

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For whatever progress is made there is substantially more to go. Until queer artists on famed stages like the Opry and Country Music Awards are commonplace, consistent work needs to be done to bring exposure to their art. But artists never want to forget why they started playing in the first place.

GLEAVES_8

I feel a resonance when I hear singers from the mountains, even singers that were that had died before I was born, you know that I knew only through recordings. I feel like I knew them in some way, you know, I feel like there’s a kinship and this is the music that’s in my head and in my heart all the time

WYATT_5

I’d love to see festivals. I’d love to see a channel on Sirius XM Satellite Radio. It’s exciting to see what’s going to come. But, you know, we’re gay year round and it’s more than Pride Month.

Sumlin_15

Regardless of whether the crowds swell or shrink, the music and the musicians who make it remain. Queer artists are more than just their sexuality but utilize it to connect with others as they write about life, loss, and the open road. They connect with past generations while providing a more inclusive space for future ones. A country music that has room for the multitudes.  After all, Cowboy boots come in every size.

[Neon Cross]

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