In its most public aspects, country music lags behind in accepting and promoting LGTBQ artists. The genre’s deep religious roots and traditionalism, at least in the mainstream, have made for a very slow cultural evolution, with just a handful of ’90s Nashville A-listers having come out (most notably Chely Wright and Ty Herndon, and both well after their most visible periods). Even now, very few contemporary artists, like Brandy Clark, have found success on Music Row while being out and proud. Behind the scenes, however, there’s growing acceptance. Read the small print, and you’ll find that a number of country radio’s biggest hits are frequently, (not very) secretly by queer songwriters.
Despite limitations, LGBTQ artists have carved out a rich history for themselves in front of the mic, too. Out singers turn up in the record as far back as the ’50s, but queer visibility in country is still a relatively recent development, coinciding with the emergence of Americana and alt-country—in other words, the more progressive, experimental fringes. There is no singular “queer country” movement, but rather a robust, sonically (if not racially) diverse group of artists pursuing paths that either directly align or occasionally intersect with country-western sounds. We’ve assembled a two-hour playlist to celebrate as many generations of these musicians as we could, with a notable boom in recent years.
“Frequently Secretly,” as we’ve lovingly, winkingly titled it, kicks off with Wilma Burgess, the iconic lesbian singer modeled after Patsy Cline, then makes a few crucial stops in the ’70s—at Lavender Country’s gloriously irreverent debut and Elton John’s trip to the American West, Tumbleweed Connection—before jumping to the ’80s, when k.d. lang arrives in Nashville to shake things up.
Actually, while we’re on the topic of lang, how good is this 1988 video of her, a handsome young butch, crooning next to Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee? Even in 2019, it is a radical juxtaposition.
Not far behind lang are the big ’90s hits from Wright and Herndon, then incisive country-folk songwriter Mary Gauthier. Shelby Lynne, remade in button-down and tie for Identity Crisis, brings us into the 21st century, when the bulk of these songs were released. From there, they run the gamut from knowns like Orville Peck and Brandi Carlile to lesser-knowns like Amethyst Kiah and Sarah Shook. Big moments from allies on country radio are included, too, like Dolly Parton’s “Travelin’ Thru,” from the Transamerica soundtrack, and Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” which she famously co-wrote with Clark and Shane McAnally (both out songwriters whose solo work features here).
There were a handful of songs we intended to include but that tested the limits of Spotify’s catalog, and those are listed under “further listening” below. Please do yourself a favor and seek those out.
1. Wilma Burgess, “Baby”
2. Elton John, “Country Comfort”
3. Peter Grudzien, “The Unicorn”
4. Lavender Country, “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears”
5. k.d. lang, “I’m Down To My Last Cigarette”
6. The Topp Twins, “There’s A Hole In My Bucket”
7. Ty Herndon, “Living In A Moment”
8. Mary Gauthier, “Drag Queens In Limousines”
9. Chely Wright, “Single White Female”
10. Shane McAnally, “Are Your Eyes Still Blue”
11. Shelby Lynne, “Lonesome”
12. Dolly Parton, “Travelin’ Thru”
13. Willie Nelson, “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other”
14. Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”
15. Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
16. Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, “Nothin’ Feels Right But Doin’ Wrong”
17. Sam Gleaves, “Ain’t We Brothers”
18. Lady Antebellum, “American Honey”
19. Brandy Clark, “Big Day In A Small Town”
20. Amythyst Kiah, “Darling Cora”
21. Luke Bryan, “Most People Are Good”
22. Trixie Mattel, “Seen My Man”
23. Karen & The Sorrows, “Back Down To The Dirt”
24. H.C. McEntire, “Quartz In The Valley”
25. Glen Meadmore, “I’ll Teach You To Steal My Man”
26. Miley Cyrus, “Inspired”
27. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, “Untogether” (a stand-in for the Gillian Welch cover we really wanted)
28. Erin Rae, “Bad Mind”
29. Amy Ray, “Sure Feels Good Anyway”
30. Orville Peck, “Dead Of Night”