The Hidden History of Queer Country Music

Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman aren't alone.


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Pop-country star Ty Herndon, long rumored to be gay, finally came out of the closet this week. Another country singer, Billy Gilman, almost immediately followed suit. The double revelation is being hailed as big pop-culture news, and I suppose it is: There just aren't many openly gay musicians in mainstream country music. There's k.d. lang, but she left the genre long ago. There's Chely Wright, of "Bumper of My SUV" fame, but honestly, I'd forgotten she existed til I saw her mentioned in one of the stories about Herndon. The alternative-country world has more than a few gay performers, of course, but they aren't really mainstream. And then there's that time Willie Nelson kissed Charlie Pride on the mouth, but that wasn't about sexual attraction, or so they say.

But if the country middle is only barely bi-curious, the country margins have long had room for queer themes—and no, you don't have to go looking for esoteric meanings in the lyrics of "Bareback" or "Where Is My Sailor Boy?" to find them. Here is a brief and far-from-complete tour.

We'll start with Salty Holmes' band the Prairie Ramblers, which sometimes recorded novelty songs under a different name, the Sweet Violet Boys. In 1939, wearing their Sweet Violet hats, they released a catchy sequence of double entendres called "I Love My Fruit":

Billy Briggs' "The Sissy Song," from 1951, is a lot less good-natured:

Holmes and Briggs were straight guys (as far as I know), and their songs were aiming for laughs. But when Lavender Country released an entire album of gay country music in 1973, the band was genuinely out 'n' proud. (Except the dobro player. He was the token heterosexual.) They didn't get much airplay, and the airplay that they did get didn't always end happily—when the Seattle outlet KRAB played their song "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears," the FCC slapped the station with a fine. (*) But the band sounded pretty good, sort of a queer northwestern version of the Flatlanders:

Lavender Country wasn't just genuinely gay; it was genuinely country. More often, if you heard honky-tonk music with gay-themed lyrics in the 1970s or '80s, you were listening to interlopers doing a Nashville pastiche. When Ned Sublette's "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other" came out in 1981, for example, it appeared on a poetry record, alongside not-so-country tracks by William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Amiri Baraka:

Similarly, the lesbian trio Two Nice Girls came out of the punk and "women's music" scenes, though they did a pretty good approximation of the Opry sound when they recorded this in 1989:

By the '90s and '00s, the genre had room for gay-focused niche acts like Doug Stevens & the Outband and the CowGirl Sweethearts. A few openly gay country musicians made bids for mainstream success in the Clinton years, though Nashville wasn't quite ready for that yet. And in 2006, Willie Nelson released his own version of "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other," which if nothing else showed that the margins and the middle were starting to meet.

Burt Reynolds has a cameo in Nelson's video. I assume he's there because he's macho in a kind of camp way and because he has that mustache, but maybe he just happened to be visiting Willie that day.

Bonus links: JD Doyle describes still more queer country songs here. Tiny Tim sings "I'm Gonna Be A Country Queen" here. A "collection of links to websites dedicated to gay and lesbian country western dance events, organizations, dance clubs, and dance classes" is here.

* Correction (8/3/2017): Chuck Reinsch, keeper of the invaluable KRAB Archive, writes to tell me that he doesn't think the story about KRAB is true:

I've been trying to run this down, as after going through Haley, Bader and Potts [KRAB's lawyers] files, and speaking with people that were on the board of directors, I cannot find any evidence that KRAB was ever fined by the FCC, or even cited for obscenity.

He's probably right. Back in the '90s, when I was writing my book Rebels on the Air, I spent a fair amount of time talking to old KRAB hands and going through those Haley, Bader & Potts files myself. But that's not where I heard the Lavender Country story; I picked it up from some press coverage of the band when their music was reissued a few years ago, and I assumed I'd either missed the tale the first time around or forgotten it. Apparently not.

So how did the rumor start? Reinsch has a theory:

I am aware of a KRAB volunteer who says she was visited by the FBI regarding the broadcast of the song, and, she says the agent confiscated her third class permit. Although I was not working at KRAB in 1973, I know who was there (now deceased), and suspect it likely that the "agent" was an imposter, who was employed to convince the volunteer of their wrong doing and "fire" them from the station.

If that's true, it's an even better story.

NEXT: Brooklyn Man Killed By Police Officer, For No Actual Reason at All; An "Accident" Says NYPD

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  1. Queer country music? THE HELL THERE IS?!

  2. Not like cowboys are a gay archetype.

    But hell, who gives a shit…though I am waiting for Kenny Chesney to come out.

  3. 1970s-80s gay-themed country music? David Allan Coe’s Fuck Anita Bryant

    1. All reason needs is a pot article for the trifecta!

      1. Mentioning Willie Nelson is the functional equivalent of writing a pot article.

        David Allen Coe – The Devil Went Down To Jamaica

  4. My brothers at reason: there is no way in hell I’m watching six videos just to grok a blog post. More texty, less showy.

    1. *takes a shit*

      Thank you for your input. I couldn’t agree more.

      *reaches for the air freshener*


    1. Ferguson schools have Monday and Tuesday off in anticipation of the announcement.

      Brilliant. Let’s give the age demographic with the highest propensity towards rioting and the worst time-horizon idle time during an announcement that is sure to set them off.

      I swear, sometimes it seems like our leaders want to create a race war more than Charles Manson did.

      1. Eh, they’re probably trying to minimize the polar bear hunting at school. Some poor white kid gets attacked because he’s part of the wrong group.

        If school’s out, you can just stay home. No getting ambushed in the halls.

      2. I was in the Navy mid-70s and there were times I was convinced the top brass was actually trying to goad both blacks and whites with stupid policies. I am torn between “stupidity trumps malice” and the “The floggings will continue until morale improves” kind of Top.Men attitude.

      3. “Sudden|11.21.14 @ 8:24PM|#

        Ferguson schools have Monday and Tuesday off in anticipation of the announcement


        You’re kidding.

        Fuck, you’re not kidding.

        “With the heightened anxiety and activity, we thought it would be better for students and staff to extend the holiday at this point,” Jennings School District superintendent Tiffany Anderson told the paper.”

        Jesus. In some bizarro-universe rationale, they claim this in in aid of ‘keeping people off the streets‘?

        what else? providing the neighborhoods with free bricks and gasoline… in case they want to build a barbecue?

  6. Lerner emails recovered, conveniently, after the midterm election:

    1. “After the mid-term” or “Now that we’ve had time to go through them and decide which ones to find?”

  7. Black Rose by Waylon Jennings. I’ve heard it’s one of those “undercover” gay songs, like Son of a Preacher Man.

    1. I always thought “Black Rose” was about interracial sex, but I guess it works as a gay song too.

      1. “Her mama was a Messican Blackbird….and her daddy was the Ace of Spades….”

        In’t that a ZZ Top song? Pretty country. Not very gay, though.

        Not like Rhinestone Cowboy gay.

        1. Yeah, it might be bullshit. But songs regularly switch between “his” and “hers” depending on the gender of the singer. It was explained to me that, not to be too graphic, but Black Rose refers to the forbidden b-hole.

  8. I always liked the DISCOURAGE INBREEDING – BAN COUNTRY MUSIC bumper stickers.

    Now I learn they’re gay?

    *runs to the corner and cries*

    1. Couldn’t be any worse than the bible:

      18 When she carried on her whorings so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned from her sister. 19 Yet she increased her whorings, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt 20 and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions. 21 Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians[c] fondled your bosom and caressed[d] your young breasts. Ezekiel 23

      1. …I’ll be in my tabernacle

        1. I’ll be in my spaceship.

  9. Saw Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives at Renfro Valley, KY a couple months ago. There was absolutely nothing gay about that show. Fucking tremendous.

    Roy Clark’s outfits on Hee Haw back in the 70’s, on the other hand…

  10. Chely Wright, of “Bumper of My SUV” fame

    So sad that that’s what she’s remembered for. I’d note that she came out only after her career went belly up.

  11. my co-worker’s step-sister makes $69 hourly on the internet . She has been out of work for nine months but last month her pay check was $13181 just working on the internet for a few hours. Go Here this site….


  12. No k.d. lang? Come on!

  13. ????????? ONLINE JOBS ??????????
    You make 27 Dollar per hour good for you! I make up to 85 Dollar per hour working from home. My story is that I quit working at shoprite to work online and with a little effort I easily bring in around 45 Dollar per hour to 85 Dollar per hour heres a good example of what I’m doing more detail here….

  14. Jim Stafford had a big hit in the ’70s with My Girl Bill, but that was actually a heterosexual song masquerading as gay.

  15. Billy Gilman is immediately followed suit and Willie Nelson released his own version but they aren’t really and lesbian country western dance events, organizations, dance clubs, and dance classes can be seen in the website.

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