The flash of inspiration came to a bookstore. When Shaina Goldin-Perschbacher saw Girlyman – made famous by her place in the soundtrack of the LGBTQ+ classic But I’m a cheerleader — performing at a local bookstore in Virginia, she knew there was something there: something about the intersection between LGBTQ+ identity and country music. She turned that inspiration into her thesis, and now the rest of us can read it in her new book. queer countrypublished by University of Illinois Press and available March 22.
“It really got me thinking about the different kinds of expressions people expect in different genres and how queer and trans people might come together,” Goldin-Pershbacher told The Boot.
Thanks to movies like O brother, where are you? and transamericathere was a broader interest in bluegrass and country music in the mid-2000s. While these phenomena eventually led to the recognition of Americana as a distinct musical genre, they also normalized a space for LGBTQ+ people in country music.
This idea of gender is at the heart of queer country. The book provides a comprehensive history of the genre that is invaluable to any fan of country, queer or other music. Goldin-Pershbacher, a professor at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University in Philadelphia, argues that the meanings we’ve assigned to country music allow LGBTQ+ artists to simultaneously navigate sincerity and camp. “Camp” refers to the playful sense of exaggerated reality commonly associated with queer culture, such as Dolly Parton, a great unifier of queer and/or country fans.
As Goldin-Pershbacher was working on queer country, the meanings of musical genres and their histories have been questioned. Country music itself stems from the racialized divide in rural southern music: Black performers were relegated to “racing records”, while white performers appropriated these sounds, forging lucrative careers in the ” hillbilly” and country music.
Ultimately, music genres are a marketing tool, not a musician’s preference. “Musicians are interested in such a variety of inspiration and collaboration. They play like cowards around gender categories,” observes Goldin-Pershbacher.
But for everyone else, musical genres come to symbolize specific aspects of identity and meaning. While many associate country music with tradition and the rural way of life, others associate it with bigotry and an aggressive assertion of a straight, white Christian identity – the starkly opposite set of values that would inclusive for the LGBTQ+ community.
One thing can be agreed upon, however: country music emphasizes sincerity and authenticity.
The book focuses primarily on trans artists Coyote Grace, Namoli Brennett and Rae Spoon, and how they navigated the world of country music when active in the mid-2000s, when the trans community and the queer country community were quite small.
“I mean, they knew each other for that reason because they were trans and they were musicians. Coyote Grace had an unusual situation where they ended up on a bill with a band because of their homosexuality or their transited rather than their sound. It leads to kind of a weird gig, right? I think it was hard for some of these bands to make a stable career for themselves.
Because LGBTQ+ artists are still considered antithetical to mainstream country music, they are often marginalized (or, in other words, welcomed) into Americana. Goldin-Pershbacher observes that artists like Mary Gauthier, who performed regularly at the Grand Ole Opry, and Chely Wright, who was kicked out of the Opry after leaving, were not considered country artists.
“These gender boundaries have been cruel to queer and trans people. It’s a way of controlling and preventing certain people from accessing country music.
As a scholarly work, Goldin-Pershbacher uses queer studies to examine how LGBTQ+ artists navigate – and circumvent – gender boundaries and expectations. These complex ideas are broken down easily enough for the layman to understand, and Goldin-Pershbacher hopes the casual reader will already feel familiar with theorists like bell hooks and Jack Halberstam, who are frequently quoted on social media.
“I really knew that I was writing for several different audiences. One of the audiences is the graduate seminar of doctoral students,” she notes. “There is this class of people who sort things out and think about the concept of sincerity. But on the other hand, I think there’s a whole world of people who are curious about our world and the kind of stories that musicians tell, the way they share their truth.
Overall, Goldin-Pershbacher hopes queer country music can dispel stereotypes about rural life — specifically that LGBTQ+ people don’t or can’t live in rural areas. She also hopes that queer country musicians can be more recognized by the wider LGBTQ+ community.
“In general, a lot of queer people listen to straight musicians, identify with them and invite them to Pride. But there are all these great queer and trans musicians who definitely struggle more in the music industry for the most part,” she says. on some of these musicians, listen to their songs, go to their shows and hear what they have to say about their life experience.
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