Graphic by Nieves Winslow
Folk and country music has long been a staple of American culture. A person with a guitar strapped across their shoulder and a voice that rings through the night becomes a storyteller of love, relationships, travel, and even just pure celebration. However, country music’s association with conservative values and politics has given the genre a bad rap among young, progressive people. Despite the genre’s majority of traditional hetero- and gender-normative themes, recently queer artists Brandi Carlile and Trixie Mattel have taken the spotlight to offer the world of country music a new perspective on “the American life.”
Brandi Carlile is an artist who began performing in Seattle with her music on the border of rock, folk, and Americana. Having identified herself as lesbian in 2002, Carlile has incorporated LGBTQ themes in and helped normalize LGBTQ lives through her music. On her most recent album, By the Way, I Forgive You, which was first on iTunes’s Singer/Songwriter chart in early April, her song “The Mother” describes her experience as a first-time mother and as part of an LGBTQ family: “The world has stood against us, made us mean to fight for you.” Similarly, in a cover of the Avett Brothers’ song “Murder in the City” on her fifth album The Firewatcher’s Daughter, Carlile adjusts the lyrics, singing “Make sure my wife knows that I loved her / Make sure my daughter knows the same” and ending with the original “Always remember there was nothing worth sharing / Like the love that let us share our name.” Out of her six total studio albums, five are still among the top 50 Singer/Songwriter albums, attesting to her great successes as a vocalist and as a representative of the LGBTQ community in the music industry.
A newer and quirkier musician than Carlile, Brian Firkus is more commonly recognized for his drag career as Trixie Mattel. Although his music is often fitted with staples of his doll-influenced character, his folk songs also take inspiration from the life and culture of small-town America. With subtle LGBTQ elements in his songs “Red Side of the Moon,” “Seen My Man,” and “Mamma Don’t Make Me Put on the Dress Again,” he helps introduce queer experiences into mainstream music. While his two albums Two Birds and One Stone topped the Singer/Songwriter charts in late March, Firkus has also appeared on his Viceland TV show The Trixie and Katya Show and won the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. His mainstream stardom and his interplay of drag and folk music pierces the bubble of the conservative tradition associated with small-town country life and injects images of the queer community, promoting diversity, discussion, and acceptance.
Now, Brandi Carlile and Trixie Mattel are not the first openly queer artists in folk and country music and certainly not in the overall American music industry; many others have opened up about their sexuality within the past decade and earlier, including Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls, and more recently Chely Wright, Brandy Clark, Ty Herndon, and Billy Gilman. Although these artists initially feared that their open sexualities might negatively affect their success as musicians, now it has only helped their success grow. Overall, the recent stardom of Brandi Carlile, Trixie Mattel, and other queer artists has made significant moves in promoting the queer community and its open presence in folk and country music.