Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series that…eh, fuck it: Beanie Goddamn Feldstein!
As a black queer boy who grew up on a healthy diet of Motown, disco, and hip hop, country music wasn’t always the most accessible genre for me, but it is—like most things considered truly “American”—firmly rooted in black culture. For a perfect exemple of this, look no further than the 2016 Country Music Awards, when Beyoncé joined fellow national treasures the Dixie Chicks to perform an extra-honky-tonk version of “Daddy Lessons,” from her seminal masterwork Lemonade.
What a glorious moment! And what a shitty reaction to it.
“Why are you showing Beyoncé & Dixie Chicks? One doesn’t believe in America & our police force while the other didn’t support our President & veterans during war,” one commenter wrote on Facebook, alluding to each act’s past political moments.
Another added: “Neither are country, and Beyoncé could not be bothered to put some clothes on for the occasion.” Beyoncé, according to another sentiment, “isn’t even what country represents.” Other remarks were plainly racist.
While I and many other red-blooded humans were getting our full lives to this rousing rendition of country & b, the internet decided to let its racist flag fly. It was a true harbinger of the 2016 election and the oft-cited divisions clawing at our society.
But in the intervening years, country music has gotten far more inclusive, whether the old guard likes it or not. With the recent record-breaking success of an adorable young gay black boy on the country charts, and the wonderfully endearing faggotry of recent Album of the Year winner Kacey Musgraves, I’m certainly more willing to give country a chance, having already been a fan of that Patsy Cline kind of twang as well as the Pointer Sisters, who not only won a historic Best Country Song Grammy for “Fairytale”—later covered by Elvis Presley—but performed at the sacrosanct Grand Ole Opry (the live version of the song appeared on the 1975 low-key classic Live at the Opera House).
And what better way to mosey deeper into the genre than with the Highwomen, an all-female supergroup in the spirit of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt, who released two iconic collaborations, Trio and Trio II, in 1987 and 1999, respectively.
However, the Highwomen are also a direct and intentionally feminist interpretation of the legendary all-male supergroup the Highwaymen, which included Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.
Consisting of lez superhero Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires, the Highwomen formed earlier this year, contributing a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” to the soundtrack of the disappointing lady-mob movie The Kitchen before releasing their eponymous debut album last month. Carlile takes the lead on one of The Highwomen’s standout tracks, “If She Ever Leaves Me,” a love song that is both quintessentially country but also defiantly 21st-century: It’s dedicated from one woman to another.
I’ve loved her in secret
I’ve loved her out loud
The sky hasn’t always been blue
And it might last forever
Or it might not work out
If she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you
It has a classic country melody and features classic country subject matter—but it also has such a lovely queer twist that it turns the entire genre on its ear.
If she ever leaves, it’s gonna be for a woman with more time
Who’s not afraid to let her dreams come true
If she ever gives her careful heart to somebody new
Well, it won’t be for a cowboy like you
I’m not at all familiar with Carlile’s work, so she may very well have songs as equally or more affecting than this one, but I’ve been listening to it on repeat ever since I was turned on to the album last week. As a fan of a gorgeous melody, it speaks to me and kind of inspires me—the very fact of the song, and how it’s so traditional but also kind of radical.
In 2019, it’s so depressingly easy to focus on the differences between us rather than shine a light on what we all have in common. Music is most often the language of that commonality. When Queen Bey joined the Dixies—whom the country music establishment apparently still shuns after they spoke out against President Bush and the Iraq War—the whole idea was commonality. Here were these two disparate worlds, two disparate sounds, that share the same roots, the same instruments, the same chord structures, and the same lively spirit of togetherness that was all but jumping off the stage.
Now, full disclosure: I don’t really care for “Old Town Road.” It’s not my cup of Country Time tea, but I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad Lil Nas X is shattering boundaries and enjoying so much success. But where would he and Billy Ray be without Bey and the Dixies? Luckily for us, their epic recording lives on. We even (finally!) got it in studio quality.