New Book ‘Queer Country’ Delves Into Identity, Meaning and Representation in the Genre
The flash of inspiration came in a bookstore. When Shana Goldin-Perschbacher saw Girlyman -- made famous by their prominence in the soundtrack of LGBTQ+ classic But I’m a Cheerleader -- perform at a local bookstore in Virginia, she knew there was something there: something about the intersection between LGBTQ+ identity and country music. She transformed that inspiration into her new book Queer Country, published by University of Illinois Press and available on March 22.
“It got me really thinking about the different kinds of expressions that people expect in different genres and the way that queer and trans people might find themselves,” Goldin-Pershbacher tells The Boot.
Thanks to movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Transamerica, there was a broader interest in bluegrass and country music in the mid-2000s. While these phenomena ultimately led to the recognition of Americana as a distinct genre of music, it also normalized a space for LGBTQ+ people in country music.
This idea of genre is the heart of Queer Country. The book provides a comprehensive history of the genre that is invaluable to any fan of country music, queer or otherwise. Goldin-Pershbacher, a professor at Boyer College of Music and Dance at Philadelphia’s Temple University, argues that the meanings we have assigned to country music allow LGBTQ+ artists to navigate sincerity and camp simultaneously. “Camp” refers to the playful sense of exaggerated reality commonly associated with queer culture, such as Dolly Parton, a great unifier of queer and/or country fans.
As Goldin-Pershbacher worked on Queer Country, the meanings of musical genres and their histories have were being called into question. Country music itself comes from the racialized division of rural southern music: Black artists were relegated to “race records,” while white artists appropriated those sounds, forging lucrative careers in “hillbilly” and country music.
Ultimately, musical genres are a tool of marketing, not musician preference. “Musicians are interested in such a wide variety of inspiration and collaboration. They play it like loose around genre categories,” Goldin-Pershbacher observes.
But for everyone else, musical genres come to symbolize specific aspects of identity and meaning. While many associate country music with tradition and rural lifestyle, others associate it with bigotry and an aggressive assertion of straight, white, Christian identity – the very opposite set of values that would be inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community.
One thing can be agreed upon, though: country music focuses on sincerity and authenticity.
The book primarily focuses on trans artists Coyote Grace, Namoli Brennett, and Rae Spoon, and how they navigated the country music world when they were active in the mid-2000s, when both the trans community and queer country community were quite small.
“I mean, they knew each other for that reason because they were trans and they were musicians. Coyote Grace used to have an unusual situation where they would find themselves on a bill with a band because of queerness or transness rather than their sound. It leads to kind of an odd concert, right? I think that was difficult for some of those bands in terms of making a steady career for themselves.”
Because LGBTQ+ artists are still seen as antithetical to mainstream country music, they are often sidelines (or, put another way, welcomed) into Americana. Goldin-Pershbacher observes that artists like Mary Gauthier, who regularly performs at the Grand Ole Opry, and Chely Wright, who was iced out of the Opry after she came out, are not considered country artists.
“These genre boundaries have been cruel to queer and trans people. It's been a way of gatekeeping and to keep certain people out of country music.”
As a scholarly work, Goldin-Pershbacher uses queer studied to examine how LGBTQ+ artists navigate – and bend – genre boundaries and expectations. These complex ideas are broken down easily enough for the lay person to understand them, and Goldin-Pershbacher hopes that the casual reader will already feel familiar with theorists like bell hooks and Jack Halberstam, who are frequently quoted on social media.
“I definitely knew that I was writing for a couple of different audiences. One audience is the graduate seminar of PhD students," she notes. "There's that classroom of people sort of picking things apart and thinking about the concept of sincerity. But on the other hand, I think that there's an entire realm of people who are curious about our world and the kinds of stories that musicians tell; the way they share their truth.”
Overall, Goldin-Pershbacher hopes that queer country music can dispel stereotypes about rural life – particularly that LGBTQ+ do not or cannot live in rural areas. She also hopes that queer country musicicians can gain more recognition with the broader LGBTQ+ community.
“Generally a lot of queer people listen to straight musicians and identify with them and invite them to Pride. But there's all these terrific queer and trans musicians who are definitely having a trickier time in the music industry for the most part," she says. "I'd love for people who are interested in these topics to learn about some of these musicians, listen to their songs, go to their shows, and hear what they have to say about their life experience.”
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