Posted June 22, 2023

What does queer performance have in common with country music?

Boyer Professor Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, author of Queer Country, explains the similarities between queer performance and country music, including topics of longing, isolation, community, sincerity and wearing a costume. 

Shana Goldin-Perschbacher holding her book, Queer Country
Photography By: 
Ryan S. Brandenburg

A recently released book Queer Country, written by associate professor of music studies at Boyer College of Music and Dance Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, has received recognition as one of the best music books of 2022 from Pitchfork, Variety and other notable publications.

Goldin-Perschbacher specializes in popular music studies and identity studies, which is reflected in her book. Queer Country is an in-depth study of queerness and transness in country and Americana music and references the work of artists such as Lil Nas X, Trixie Mattel, Orville Peck, Brandi Carlile, k.d. lang, Amy Ray and Patrick Haggerty, all of whom can be heard in a Spotify playlist Goldin-Perschbacher made to accompany the book.

Following the success of Queer Country, we spoke with Goldin-Perschbacher about what motivated her to dive into the topic of queerness in country music, how the topics in country music lend themselves to queer narratives, and how people in the worlds of both country and queer performance have reacted to the book’s publication.

Temple Now: This is the first book that has been called an in-depth study of queer country artists. Why do you think it’s taken so long for someone to really dive into this subject?

Shana Goldin-Perschbacher: It’s taken a really long time for any queer or trans artists in country music to feel safe enough to be out and for the industry to pay any attention at all to them and for anyone to be welcoming enough to allow for sexual and gender variety within their genres.  

TN: How did you become interested in the queer performers in country music? 

SGP: I thought about how country music was an interesting genre in which to think about questions about queer and trans identification because there are different kinds of ways that LGBTQIA+ people in rural areas and working-class communities navigate identification politics around non-normative gender and sexuality issues. And so I was curious—how do you navigate expressing an identification that seems transgressive in some ways within a genre that’s so defined by ideas of naturalness and tradition, that expresses strong feelings about home, pride and nostalgia about America? Yet as Mary Gray argues in her research on LGBT youth in rural areas, queer and trans people don’t necessarily identify their queerness as being against their rural home or community, or, by extension, country music. And as queer cultural historian Nadine Hubbs explains, working-class and rural people are often aligned as different—one meaning of “queer”—in comparison to middle-class and urban people. There’s regret and longing expressed in country and folk music and some dark stories, too. So this music, I realized, resonated perfectly for queer and trans musicians and listeners, those stories about regret and longing, sadness, being far from home, missing everyone, missing that place, feeling like you’re an outcast. And songs about valuing a place or person or activity that others do not seem to value. 

TN: I was reading some reviews of Queer Country on goodreads.com, and there were a number of comments that said, “This book made me feel so validated.” Did you expect that type of reaction when you started working on it? 

SGP: I was so honored to read those comments! As I was writing the book, I felt lonely. I was writing this during Donald Trump’s presidency, and I worried that the musicians I was writing about were in danger. I wasn’t sure how people would react to a book like this. I hoped that it would resonate with people who cared about this music. I hoped that the musicians would hear their voices and feel that it sounded true to them. I wanted to represent them as accurately as I could, and to make sure that their voices were heard, their music was heard, in the book. So I’ve been deeply moved by the listeners writing in to talk about feeling heard and seen in this book. 

TN: Your book is rare in that it’s an academic book published by an academic press but it has mainstream appeal. Do you think that that’s evidence of hunger for information about this subject?

SGP: I think that the timing was terrific for the recent release of my book. When I first started the book people would ask me what I did for a living and what I wrote about and they would ask, “Are there any LGBT country musicians at all?” And then by the time I was finishing up the manuscript people were like, “Oh, right, like Orville Peck?” And Brandi Carlile and Lil Nas X and Trixie Mattel. They even knew Patrick Haggerty. People finally knew who some of these musicians were and I wanted them to know who the rest of these musicians were, that this music had a real history and that there was a lot to say about it. It wasn’t just a fad. It was part of a much longer story.

TN: Those artists you named—Orville Peck, Trixie Mattel, Lil Nas X—why do you think people are paying so much attention to them right now? 

SGP: All of them have such a polished and flashy look to them. And yet as listeners we know that that costume, that mask, draws you in to their sincere, expressive, personal music. For example, Orville Peck is using the allure of the cowboy to convey both authenticity and also performativity. And Trixie Mattel spoke to me and my 2018 queer country class at Temple that all country music is drag, that Dolly Parton is in drag. And so these are all costumes that draw our attention to the way we perform our identities as a role, in the same way a stage actor performs with a costume and script. These musicians are always balancing their intimate private persona with the public character that they're playing.

TN: How has the world of country music reacted to your book? 

SGP: There’s a whole group of people in country music who are very eager for LGBTQIA+ people to be acknowledged and welcomed. But I think that it’s important to stress how our culture and our country is so divided around these issues right now. For example, Republicans have been encouraging states like Tennessee to ban drag, and Texas to ban gender affirmative healthcare. This has devastating impacts on country music artists who simply won’t be allowed to perform as themselves. Those that live in Nashville and Texas may feel that they need to move because it’s not safe.  

So country music publications have been much more friendly to any discussion of non-normative country musicians and their songs. But it’s hard to even say ‘normative and non-normative’ because it just further instills the idea that there’s nothing normal about LGBTQIA+ people. And Andre Cavalcante wrote in his book Struggling for Ordinary, about how trans people don’t all want to be transgressive, constantly pushing boundaries, that some people just want to fly under the radar and simply live their lives. 

TN: Why is it important to study pop music or think about it critically? 

SGP: As the famous rock critic and sociologist Simon Frith explains, popular music helps us understand identity and maybe even gives us identity and it helps us manage private emotional lives because it expresses publicly the things that we often feel or do privately, and it helps us navigate those things. It’s not simply that music reflects realities in the world, but that music also impacts how people understand the world. It’s not simply beautiful and entertaining, although it is also those things, but it’s also a way for us to be better aware of what’s going on, what people argue about when they debate about music. Those very judgments have to do with who listeners are and how their tastes have been shaped by their lives and their community. This is a moment in our world where it helps to understand where people are coming from and why certain stories sound resonant and sympathetic to some people, and how we can reach one another. 

Purchase Queer Country from the University of Illinois Press for 30% off using discount code F21UIP. 

- Kiki Volkert 

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