In early 2011, Karen Pittelman recalls, she was having a hard time finding a place for her new country band, Karen & the Sorrows, to play that “felt like home.” Her previous band, the punk quartet Royal Pink, had encountered plenty of queer-welcoming venues. But though their music fit in the alt-country mainstream — narrative songwriting with touches of pedal steel and twang — there was not yet a space in the New York country music scene that centered on queer performers.
Pittelman, co-founder of the Trans Justice Funding Project and author of Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change, decided to take matters into her own hands. She organized the first Gay Ole Opry in April 2011, under the tagline “country music for all cowpeople.” The show evolved to become the ongoing Queer Country Quarterly series at Branded Saloon in Prospect Heights, and has been taken on the road to several Southern states, and also to the West Coast with the help of San Francisco singer-songwriter Eli Conley. These events feature queer-positive performers whose music ranges from banjo-picking Americana to rock-influenced alt-country, all united by their love of “traditional” country music and the desire to see their own realities reflected in both lyrics and performances.
Now Pittelman is expanding her sights, organizing the all-day festival Another Country, at Littlefield in Gowanus on July 2. Her stated goal for the event is to question what country music stands for, and how that more broadly reflects the values of our nation. To that end, Another Country will feature performances by more than a dozen country artists who are queer, trans, and/or people of color, with the goal of opening up dialogue about the history of country music, who it is for, and who can answer these questions, while providing a welcoming space to help (re)define the genre for modern times.
While Pittelman coined the term “queer country” in 2011, she makes it clear that she sees herself as an organizer of a “time-honored queer musician tradition.” Other musical genres such as punk or folk had long been more accepting of diverse perspectives and performers, while country music had skewed conservative, almost by definition. “The moment that country music was named ‘country’ was to differentiate [it] from the increasingly politicized folk music,” Pittelman says. “People think that genre is a thing that’s been handed to us. But I think it’s less about music and more about politics.” And, she adds, “Gender plays into that. Especially when you are singing about love or loss.”
Country music historian Patrick Huber, author of Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South, has noted that “what began as merely marketing categories soon evolved, for all intents and purposes, into musical genres.” Thus the song styles that had evolved from black and white Southerners, while also incorporating the storytelling, falsetto singing, and whooping of Native American music, were segregated by the recording industry: If it was sung by white musicians, it was “country and western”; otherwise, rhythm and blues. This is one reason mainstream country today skews politically and socially conservative — something that Pittelman seeks to reverse through the Another Country festival.
“Queer country music is not inherently different” from mainstream country, says Pittelman. “What we’re doing is taking a pretty wide-tent definition for what country music should be, and I think that’s important because it’s recognizing the complicated history around it.”
James Wilson, the frontman of the Paisley Fields, another scheduled performer at Another Country, agrees. The only way his music might signal to a listener that it isn’t mainstream alt-country is in his choice of pronouns in a love song to his husband. Owen Taylor of My Gay Banjo, also performing at the festival, says his band initially thought of themselves as folk, but eventually came to embrace the queer country sobriquet and the community it’s helped create: “We had a lot of people reach out to us and say, ‘I love country, but this is the first time I had someone write a song about me and my experience.’ ”
Wilson, like other performers at the festival, says that while queer country is not always explicitly political, the social and political climate of the past year has had an impact on the music. “There’s a way as an artist that you want to respond to the forces of the moment, especially when it’s a sense of injustice,” says Ganessa James, a singer-songwriter on the festival lineup. She says she is striving to honor country music’s oft-ignored diverse history while expanding the definition of the genre: “I’m bringing cultural history, as a person of color and a gender-nonconforming queer.”
Kandia Crazy Horse, who fronts the “Native Americana” band Cactus Rose, is joining the festival as a self-described queer country ally. Born in the South and based out of Harlem, Kandia spent much of the last year doing activist work in U.S. Indian country and writing for her band’s next album. “People need to be reminded [country] is not this narrow definition of what’s coming out of Nashville,” she says. “I sing country in part because I am Native American and African and Scottish and that covers the original nations that made country music and Southern culture thrive from the start.”
Not that political can’t be fun, too. Allen of My Gay Banjo says, “We’re lifting up what is meaningful in country — not reacting against it.” Taylor speaks of learning clawhammer banjo from an older black musician, and wanting to honor the traditions he passed down. My Gay Banjo’s new album, To the Wolves, coming in July, will be a “balm for the spirit,” Allen hopes. “Music can reach people in a way that nothing else can. It’s a direct line to the soul.”
To that end, the Paisley Fields have been working with Pittelman since the first Gay Ole Opry to establish a queer country touring circuit. Their tours have taken them as far south as Nashville, most recently this April, in support of their most recent release, the 2015 EP Oh These Urban Fences. Wilson says his reception outside the Northeast hadn’t always been welcoming: They once had a show canceled after the band showed up to the venue because the promoter realized they were queer, and they’ve had audience members walk out after Wilson mentioned his husband from the stage. “So now I want some sort of queer factor at every show,” he says. This may mean sharing the bill with another queer band, working with a queer promoter, or promoting the show to the local LGBTQ community.
Notwithstanding Pittelman’s commitment to social justice and education — the festival will also feature speakers, and a bake sale fundraiser for the Trans Justice Funding Project — she insists, “The music comes first, second, and third.” And while she hopes the artists inspire a dialogue about intersectionality, ultimately her goal is to provide a welcoming space for everyone.
“I think with music, you need to see yourself reflected back,” she says. “I want people to know that they’re seen.”