I used to tell people I hated country music. Growing up in the conservative suburbs of the Deep South, hating country music was a quiet rebellion against a culture that intrinsically did not align with my values. Throughout high school, I walked a wide berth around the Morgan Wallen tours that passed through my hometown every year and was careful to clearly enunciate my “you guys,” lest a shameful “y’all” slip through my anti-Southern vocabulary.
This counter-culture gut hatred of modern country music seemed only natural as a queer woman existing in an environment that didn’t accept either of those identities. After all, it was the same people blaring twangy banjos that were freely saying in their deep southern drawls that they would disown their child if they were gay or posting online after Roe v. Wade was overturned that “babies shouldn’t be punished for women being whores.”
So you can imagine my hesitation when several friends and family members told me I would love Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour after it won Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammy Awards. After years of subliminal brainwashing from every song on the Country Hot 100, I thought I had heard it all, but Kacey Musgraves’ name did not ring a bell. It wasn’t until I was driving through the countryside with my grandpa on our way to ride horses and help his friend wrangle a baby cow on his friend’s farm that I thought if there were ever a time to try out some country music, it was then. The album opened with the peaceful, soft guitar strumming of “Slow Burn,” filled with simple lines about Tennessee sunsets, her grandma crying over her nose piercing, and doing things your own way regardless of what people say. The song oozed warmth. From late-night firefly sunsets, walks through boutique-lined streets on the South Carolina coast, humid Sunday morning farmer’s markets, and skipping rocks off the lake dock, the sound and lyrics of Golden Hour conjured images of a South I understood as my home. The lyrics portrayed both the innate comforting mellowness of the Southern atmosphere as well as the nuanced conflicts of self-exploration and experimentation as a girl growing up in a generationally rooted misogynistic, conservative, yet tightly-bound familial culture.
I listened to Golden Hour on repeat for the rest of the summer, and when Musgraves’ following album star-crossed came out, I dove right in. When I watched the music video for “simple times,” I was shocked to see the drag queen Symone strutting alongside Kacey. It blew my mind that a mainstream country artist would not only be allowed by her record label to have a drag queen in a music video, but also would include one in a way that drew no special attention to her identity. The video features Kacey Musgraves strutting through a mall with Symone as well as You actress Victoria Pedretti and rapper Princess Nokia. The golden rule in country music, especially for women, has always been to stray away from “political” or controversial stances ever since The Chicks, a once beloved country band, all but ended their career after receiving death threats for their public criticism of President George W. Bush in 2003.
Upon research, I discovered that Kacey has always been a supporter of the LGBTQ community, and suddenly it made sense why I had never heard her songs on the country radio in a Publix grocery store. I learned one of her earliest hits, “Follow Your Arrow,” was a song about self-love and the individual pursuit of happiness that urges listeners to “kiss lots of boys or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” The message to “follow your arrow wherever it points” got her blacklisted from country music radio stations, and her radio career never recovered, even after her Grammy wins. My hopeful portrait of a more progressive American country music culture quickly crumbled, but Golden Hour and Kacey Musgraves’ defiant success completely changed my opinion of the genre and heightened my awareness of the growing queer movement in both the country and pop industry.
In 2018, indie pop singer Mitski released her fifth studio album titled Be The Cowboy, featuring a fusion of pop and Western country motifs. During an interview on The Daily Show, Mitski says the idea of this “arrogant” Clint Eastwood cowboy American mythos, and the freedom that comes along with this hyper-emasculated white man “walking into town, wrecking shit, and then walking out like he’s the hero,” was inspirational to her, particularly as an Asian American woman. Be The Cowboy was a message for both her and her fans, a large portion of whom are queer, to never apologize for existing and, essentially, to “have all the confidence of a mediocre white man.” It was a triumphant reclamation of the Western cowboy that listeners, and other artists, readily embraced.
In December, I went to Rina Sawayama’s Hold the Girl tour in Boston with a friend. On the train ride there, other concert-goers were easily identifiable by their cowboy hats, a nod to the album's country-pop lead single “This Hell,” a tongue-in-cheek anthem about overcoming homophobia through the power of community with the hook “This hell is better with you.” The music video features Sawayama in a three person marriage with masculine- and feminine-presenting people, at a cowboy-themed wedding, and line dancing at a country bar. She opened the concert in a cowboy-inspired mini skirt and hat and later covered “The Story” by country artist Brandi Carlile. For an album like Hold the Girl, which explores themes of childhood and identity, country motifs may have broader appeal beyond Western or conservative-raised queer people because the idea of the cowboy as a “lone ranger” in itself draws upon acute feelings of isolation that many queer people experience as children and teenagers. Rina Sawayama expands upon the reclamation of the cowboy as a self-sufficient anti-hero with a flippant disregard for the judgment of others—a persona appealing to anyone who grew up with an identity that was villainized by their community.
Within country music, other artists besides Kacey Musgraves have been making waves. Orville Peck, a new country artist known for hiding his face behind a mask to conceal his identity, shot to fame with his album Show Pony, which explores similar motifs of a “lone ranger” character and yearning for connection as a young queer person. In 2020, Lil Nas X’s country rap fusion “Old Town Road” remained at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks. Although he faced backlash in both the rap and country communities when he came out as gay shortly after, he asserted that part of the reason he did it was that he would be “opening doors for more people,” likely given the size of his platform and influence on both genres. Grammy-winning singer Maren Morris has been an outspoken ally of the transgender community and raised $100,000 for transgender youth organizations selling merchandise after Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson called her a “lunatic.” Innovative country artists are redefining the face and values of the country music industry, and it is this representation that is so important in changing the hearts and minds of the typical country music demographic while uniting polarized Southern and Midwestern communities. Although there is still rampant bigotry in the country music industry, the reclamation of the American cowboy by minority communities, trends of country-pop fusions, and the capacity to rethink American traditionalist themes through its own sonic medium have proven country music can be more than just guns, trucks, and beer.
I would no longer say I hate country music as a whole. Artists like these are paving the way for country music to mean everyone—for “y’all” to mean all. Now when I’m home on my sunset walks, I put on Golden Hour, breathe in the red Georgia clay, and listen to the modern sonic visions of a more inclusive South, celebrating queer artists and listeners.