A Lesbian’s Defense of Country Music, by Eleanor Prytherch
Every midwestern kid, whether they like it or not, has some opinion about the genre of country music. In southwestern Ohio, it’s inescapable. My own relationship with country music began with the popular country radio station my bus driver played every day on the ride to school. I heard the songs enough to know the words and have favorites, and to love how they told stories in a way the pop music I was hearing didn’t. The music I heard was the music I liked, so I came home and made my mom help me download Chicken Fried by Zac Brown Band onto my iPod Shuffle.
She thought the song was cheesy then, and still hasn’t let me hear the end of it. My academically oriented family has never been a stranger to middle-class pretension with my dad’s preference for alternative rock, my mom’s fondness for R&B, and no hesitation to look down on country music. I grew out of the phase pretty fast and learned quickly that all-too-common refrain: “I like most music except for rap and country.”
Later, I learned the slightly more intellectual version of the anti-country rhetoric: that country is only about drinking beer, trucks, and objectifying women. It wasn’t until years later that I’d learn to differentiate classic country from “bro-country,” or stadium country. It took even longer before I heard the terms “outlaw country” and “alternative country,” or learned how the bluegrass my dad played in my childhood fit into the genre.
My own country renaissance occurred around the same time I stopped wearing dresses and started experimenting with calling myself butch. I was talking to the only other butch lesbian my age I knew, who also has a defensive passion for country music as a queer person. I began to unpack things about myself that I hadn’t expressed openly since I was a tomboy kid on the bus.
After cultivating a music taste with a heavy alternative-folk bent for most of my teens, I circled back to the bluegrass of my early years. I branched from there to greats, like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and John Prine. I also delved into the old political folk of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Harry McClintock. I had still barely scratched the surface. Banjo solos and fiddle riffs felt deeply nostalgic and gleefully organic.
It gave me the same feeling that fooling around with a more masculine gender presentation did. Country music helped me understand this shift in myself.
I liked stadium country until my parents told me I shouldn’t, and I learned how problematic it is. I liked being a girl until it became claustrophobic and performative. It wasn’t until I found how truly expansive both of these things could be that I found myself at home in either of them, and I see this pattern in a lot of other lesbians who grew up in rural areas. It’s not that we really hated womanhood or country music, we just hated the artificial, commercial version that was forced on us as kids. Now we’re rediscovering more authentic versions of both on our own terms.
The politics of both are also fascinating; lesbianism is not only a sexual identity or a gender identity, but a historically political identity. Country music is a historically political genre, used to spread worker solidarity, environmentalism, class consciousness, social justice movements, etc. The country music we think of with disdain today is a propagandized version, made for noncritical consumption and avoiding the left-leaning politics that defined so much of the original genre.
In the political climate of the last several years, queer country and folk artists have reclaimed the genre. Politically oriented music has also made a comeback. Queer people have continued to carve out space for themselves in a genre that is often thought to be the domain of quintessential American masculinity and traditional gender expression.
It took me years to separate the genre from it’s association with the kids that cracked gay jokes in the hallways, but it’s helped me reconcile my identity with my love of the rural midwest. I can identify as a butch woman because I understand how to expand the definition of woman for myself. I can appreciate the parts of my rural upbringing that hold meaning without those two things being in conflict with one another. They’ve both helped me understand the other in odd ways that I never could have predicted that kid.
I don’t claim rural culture, since I’ve lived in a university town my whole life, but parts of it inevitably found their way into my life and took root as I was growing into myself. I know this isn’t an uncommon story for rural queer people: the struggle between their queerness and the culture of where they grew up. In any case, it’s a lesson in not turning your back on where you come from, because it may still have something to offer you.