As I mentioned in my Raw Yee-Haw post, country and honky-tonk has always had a variety of rebels. I use the term “variety” because the type of rebellion is really up-for-grabs. For example:
- David Allan Coe: He really deserves his own post: spent a large part of his life in prison, lived in a hearse, says the “n-word” quite a bit (yikes), and made a country-metal album with Pantera. Many of his songs cover issues of class-consciousness.
- Dixie Chicks: America’s sweethearts until they pissed off much of the conservative country fandom when they were critical– rightfully so– of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. The Dixie Chicks held their ground, never apologized, and, honestly, it was awesome. “Not Ready to Make Nice” was a song that was a result of the incident. It’s also a song that has gotten me through some of my most pissed off times.
These are two different presentations of rebellion with quite different motivations. I could discuss so many other examples, but these are two that come to my mind more immediately.
Overall, in contemporary country music, rebellion of a romanticized, mainstream flavor is accepted: drinking, driving a big ass trunk, cheating, smoking, sex, fights, etc. It is a genre that’s mainstream is mainly white and often has a conservative, Christian, heterosexual leaning. While there are country artists (DOLLY) and fans that do not possess these characteristics, beliefs, or orientations, I feel fairly confident in leaning on my implicit bias about a typical country fan here.
However, there is also a rich tradition of vulnerability among country singers. Although mainstream country music is pretty masculine, is a genre where those passing as straight white men sing about heartbreak with such honesty and frequency? I can’t count the number of Johnny Cash songs that make me want to cry, die, or both at this point.
Country music also has a rich tradition of class-consciousness. Birthed as “hillbilly music” in the Appalachian Mountains, country music has almost always been embraced by working class and blue-collar Americans who “blended popular songs, Irish and Celtic fiddle tunes, traditional English ballads, cowboy songs, and the musical traditions of various groups of European immigrants” (source). Like rap music, many artists and fans walk around as if they have a– very understandable– chip on their shoulder: it’s hard to survive, but I will do what I have to and have some fun along the way. Damn the man.
Growing up, I remember very little diversity in country music. Shania Twain dabbled with feminism and gender roles in “Man I Feel Like A Woman“. There were a few black artists like Charley Pride (who is one of my all-time faves) and Darius Rucker (HOOTIE!), and there were some *interesting* instances of rap and country crossing over.
It appears we are in a new era of country with many queer and PoC artists, along with allies of both. Let me share a few of my favorite country and honky tonk artists that are breaking the mold right now.
I haven’t been infatuated with an artist as much as I am with Orville Peck in quite some time. While his identity is still somewhat a mystery– though we basically know who he is, which makes him even more interesting— he is incredibly vulnerable. The elasticity of his vocals is something to behold, and he pays homage to the old country that many of us (it’s me) love and miss dearly.Did I mention he’s queer?
Sam says Orville Peck is “the country version of Morrissey.”
Charley is keeping me alive.
There are so many artists I know I did not mention and some that I do not know about. I would love to learn about others that you like. Feel free to message me or leave a note in the comments.
Let’s hope the Roaring 20s will bring more interesting stories to add to the pot.