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Indigo Girls Expand “Country Radio” With Black, Brown and Queer Musicians

Jun 30, 2020

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Hollywood, the 2020 Netflix series from director-screenwriter Ryan Murphy, is a resplendent show dripping in Art Deco that does not wholly reimagine Los Angeles’ golden era, but rather subtly inserts a quintessential question: “What if?”

What if Hollywood hadn’t been as… ___-ist? (Sexist, racist, misogynist, ageist, etc.) If one happens to be born into a region, a folkway, a culture, an art form that doesn’t include you, or that doesn’t quite love you back, one often doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. And then what? Do we, the rural, country-loving queers, wait around for our Ryan Murphy to reimagine the world to better include us? Not quite.

For Emily Saliers and Amy Ray of Indigo Girls — and, for that matter, almost each and every queer who has ever loved roots music — that “What if?” question is existential, but it also doesn’t matter. What if country music loved LGBTQ+ folks? The lyrics of “Country Radio,” a track off the duo’s sixteenth studio album, Look Long, tell it plainly: “But as far as these songs will take me/ Is as far as I’ll go/ I’m just a gay kid in a small town/ Who loves country radio.”

While curating the following playlist of their favorites from country music airwaves and songs they wish were included there, Saliers and Ray offer a quite simple solution actionable in each present moment: Be who you are, listen to the music that brings you joy, love who you love — and be anti-racist.

Emily Saliers: [I began with the idea:] What are the songs that I listened to that I latched onto, that sort of gave me a feeling of “I can’t get into this song [because of its heteronormativity], but I love this song so much”? One of the first songs that came to mind is “Mama’s Song” by Carrie Underwood. 

I should preface this by saying, I don’t expect that there can’t be heteronormative country songs, or that queer life has to be explicitly represented in songs, it’s not that. It’s the feeling of the way a song moves me emotionally, but then it stops me a little bit short of being able to fully experience it because of the language or the obvious implications of man and woman.

I love Carrie Underwood’s voice and she’s taken more of a harder, pop direction since “Mama’s Song,” but she sings this so beautifully. She’s talking to her mother, “He is good… he treats me like a real man should,” and yet the beauty of her song [is in] her telling her mom that’s she’s going to be okay. 

Amy Ray: For me it’s a little different because I never had the experience of feeling like I wish I could put myself in a song. I think it’s because, gender-wise, I always just related to the male singers. I kinda have that gender dysphoria, you know? [Chuckles] I have these filters that sort of make it my own — probably out of necessity, from growing up loving the Allman Brothers, Pure Prairie League, and Randy Travis so much. [Sings] “Amie, whatcha gonna do?” Pure Prairie League!

It’s very odd — Emily’s perspective on this is something I can understand, and I agree that it’s this weird disconnect with country music. We have to kind of acclimate it to ourselves, in some way, using some kind of trick in our minds. But I’ve always had that internal translator…

ES: Another example is Brett Young’s “In Case You Didn’t Know.” Now this is a song that you can listen to and fit your own queer life into it — as far as I remember it doesn’t have any gender pronouns. Then I watched the video and of course he’s singing to a woman who comes into the audience and he plays to her, alone. It’s a love song to his girlfriend — or wife or partner or whatever — so I could live in that song and think back to relationships and apply it in my own life, but then I watched the video and that door shut a little bit.

AR: I love Angaleena Presley, the Pistol Annies. Presley is such a great writer. “Better Off Red” is one of my favorite songs that she’s written… Honestly, if I hear songs, if I like it, I just put myself in it. I don’t really think about it or worry about it. It’s a survival mechanism from my youth, not that it’s the right thing to do. It’s built inside me.

…I thought you couldn’t be a country singer if you were gay and left-wing and a complete dyke. That made me feel more alienated than the songs themselves, that idea of its inaccessibility. Or, if you went to a show and you were sitting there in that audience, in the early days before it all kind of busted open, you would feel scared. Or judged. Or uncomfortable.

ES: Think about what a splash that song by Little Big Town, “Girl Crush,” had. Just the implication of a lesbian relationship or feelings! That song was a big hit, but it got people talking. [Probably] the majority of the people in this world lean more heteronormative, so they’re representing themselves in these songs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. 

I wouldn’t want to listen to just albums that are for and by queer people, oh my god. No way! But we have to have them as part. I think about what an influence Ferron was, how much Amy and I love Ferron. When her first album came out, it was like, “Oh my gosh this is one of the best songwriters in the country and she’s queer!” I can’t describe how important it was to have an artist like that.

Even Lil Nas X, who had the number one hit forever-ever-ever with Billy Ray Cyrus. It’s awesome to know that he’s queer! And a guy like Young Thug, a rapper out of Atlanta, who’s not gender normative by any stretch, to me. It’s interesting. It’s good to have a mish mosh! It’s not that the majority of songwriters out there can’t be represented in their own songwriting, we just have to have ours, as well.

AR: [We] should add Amythyst Kiah. Amythyst is amazing.

[Racism] is the pivotal struggle of the Americana scene and the roots scene. How do you honor Black and Brown folks who want to be in this scene — and maybe some of them don’t even want to be in this scene because even Americana is rooted in questionable legacy. How much do people of color want to be immersed in that scene when it still feels so racist? Even the best parts of it. It’s a huge question to unwrap and it has to do with such a long history of where country music came from.

We stole the banjo and put it in our hillbilly music in the mountains and called it our own. We forgot all the stuff we learned from “our slaves,” you know? It’s crazy to me, if you think about the racist roots of where a lot of this comes from. Merging this racist legacy with this incredible populist music — music for the people, like Woody Guthrie, like the Carter Family. You get those two things bumping up against each other constantly, how do you entangle that and make this a space where it doesn’t matter what color you are? Where it doesn’t matter what your religious persuasion, or your political party, or your gender, or your sexual preference, or anything.

I think the way we deal with it is by all of us thinking all the time and being mindful of [that racist history]. And including [Black artists] in our playlists and touring with them. Some people are like, “What does it mean if you’re forcing this integration? Is it just going through the motions?” No! No, no, no.

ES: I’ll [echo] the things that Amy said, practically: Tour with Black musicians or Brown musicians or musicians who have not been able to feel that they’re welcome and make everybody welcome. Like Amythyst or Chastity Brown. Those are artists of color who have been discriminated against, who feel other-than in the world of their genres.

I think, first, we all — we white people, we people “of no color,” we “colorless” people — should dig deep, identify our own racism and how far it goes, how much we use it. Break it down, talk about it, identify it in each other. Really start from the core of things and hopefully act outwardly as a result of what we’ve dug through, inwardly. Try to heal and fix, you know? We’ve got to ask artists of color what their experience is like and why it’s like that. I’ve got to assume that there must be some Black artists, who if they hear a song from a white, country, roots singer about the freedom of driving down a dark, country road, they’re not going to feel the same way about the history of Black people down dark country roads. A lot of it is context and, as Amy says, there’s so much to be unraveled. But we are at a tipping point.

AR: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, I feel like there’s a lot of crossover, to me from that and the beginnings of early rock ‘n’ roll. That’s kind of what Elvis Presley was doing and borrowing from. I think about that sometimes, that territory. I like old recordings, like field recordings almost, of all the Alan Lomax type stuff he would collect. Field songs, prison songs. I think a lot of country writers have taken from that stuff, you know? 

I remember an interview with Kathleen Hanna that really resonated with me. She said, when they ask you who your favorite artists are, most of us name all these male artists. That’s who we can think of, because that’s who’s archived the best. Straight men, bands, and writers. If you sit down and really think about who you love and make a list of the women and the queer folks — this is what she was talking about, she wasn’t talking about color at the time or race or the social construct of race — and you take that list to your interviews and rattle off those names, you’ll be more honest, because you’ll be talking about who you really listen to and not just trying to remember [anyone] off the top of your head. 

People are so out of the habit — and so in the habit — of white supremacy that we don’t even know how to do the right things, just in our instincts. We have to learn, write it down, so we remember to do it.

Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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