I grew up in The Country with a capital C. Cruising back roads without a care kind of country. Friday nights under the lights kind of country. So country, I found the stench of fresh cow manure in the morning to be a comforting, nostalgic scent. Ride-Your-Tractor-to-School Day was a staple unofficial holiday in my tiny high school.
We were out in the boonies, which meant the closest Walmart was 30 minutes away. You could reach the closest farmer’s market in a third of that time. From my recollection, my hometown had a single stoplight — maybe two if I’m being generous.
I was entrenched in rural redneck America, but not of it. I was one of the few “chicks” in my class to rock fake combat boots instead of cowgirl boots. I also fell into the minority of kids who managed to show up to the classroom on the first day of hunting season.
I pronounced it “crEEk” not “crIck.” What more can I say?
Rejecting the term “redneck” was the first degree of conscious separation from my geographic location. Fellow students would ask me what was so bad about being a redneck. It reminds me of the countless instances in which I asked my misguided anti-LGBTQ+ classmates what was so bad about being gay.
My reply was rattling off stereotypes; their reply was rattling off stereotypes. At the end of the day, we weren’t opposed. We were just taught that there were two kinds of people in this world: Those suited for country life (rednecks) and those suited for life outside of it (gays, atheists, liberals, freethinkers, creatives, etc.).
Unlike most of my classmates, I did not share DNA with at least half my class and one third of my church. My family had moved there from halfway across the state when I was a toddler. I was an outsider for as long as I could remember in my own hometown.
The older I got, the more I distanced myself from the stereotypes that follow rural Americans. In high school, I was a closeted gay, closeted liberal, closeted nonbinary, closeted spiritualist, closeted open-minded individual.
My closet felt comfy at the time. I knew the day would come when I would want to trade the box I stuffed myself into for life out in the open. If I pushed space between myself and my rural roots, leaving it one day wouldn’t be as excruciating of an extradition. At least, that was the theory.
Eventually, I did leave behind my little town with more cows than people. My rural beginnings didn’t follow me in my next moves. Sure, when people asked where I was from, I answered “a tiny town X hours from Y small city.”
It became a fun fact ice breaker that quickly blew over. A figment of my distant past overshadowed by my overturned worldview. I could ignore my country side. Except when the radio came on.
I discovered the simplest way to say “I’m not a small town bigot” was this:
- Scrunch up the face (as if you just got a whiff of week old roadkill)
- Boisterously shriek “EW! I hate country music!”
Coworkers, friends, and peers will inevitably ask: Didn’t you grow up in the country, though?
You can proudly assure them: Yes, but I never got into the music. Or the state of mind.
Let them read between the lines.
Country music is tuned into right leaning, conservative, Christian values. There’s nothing wrong with these ideals in moderation. Even to the extreme, if that’s your cup of tea. I can’t police your freedom to believe anymore than you can police my freedom to believe. However, when I first ventured from the middle of nowhere, I associated all things country with all things prejudiced, anti-LGBT, and hurtful. That was my small town experience.
It has taken time to realize that I don’t hate the country genre as a whole. I actually find many country tracks comforting. What I hate is the assumption that all country music lovers think, feel, and live the same as cisgender, heteronormative, Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian individuals.
I am a gender non-conforming, same sex loving spiritualist with a healthy dose of skepticism for organized religion. Man, I don’t feel like a woman (or a man). My partner is also nonbinary, so I don’t really want to kiss a girl. Country music’s adherence to strict gender roles and heterosexual relationships makes much of the music difficult to relate to and closed to interpretation.
The country music industry has tapped into the interests of its main audience. It sets artists who don’t fit the mold at a disadvantage. Die hard country music fans in my hometown had a tendency to disparage people with different beliefs and ideals, claiming they loved “God, guns, and country music.” It was their identity. With my queer identity at the forefront, I found it difficult to claim that I was one of their kind.
When I first started dating my soon-to-be-spouse, RJ, we bonded over reclaiming the painful, the uncomfortable, the taboo. I played “Kiss a Girl” by Keith Urban as a joke driving between cornfields with them. While they don’t identify with their female biology, the concept of being a lesbian does resonate with them. Rediscovering these ditties with my same sex partner made me realize that country music held a soft spot in my heart.
Listening to tracks like Dave Barnes’ “God Gave Me You,” Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” and Matt Stell’s “Prayed for You” felt wrong at first. It was like bringing my nonbinary love to Sunday services in a small minded church in an even smaller town where we weren’t welcome.
While I connected to the lyrics on a profound level, I knew that the majority of fans of that genre would be offended if I tried to take their wholesome tunes and spin them in the light of my alleged heathen relationship. I don’t eat at Chick-fil-a because of the company’s anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. Country music fell in the same category for me.
It took time to acknowledge my God and my gayness in the same breath. Similarly, it took time to braid my country roots and the queerness that had always bloomed within me together. I can be a country enby, if not a country gal. I can still turn up to Shania Twain. I can still break out my inner jaded middle schooler and sing throwback Taylor Swift at the top of my lungs when “You Belong with Me” comes on the radio.
My queerness has a complicated relationship with country music. My feminism does, too. Much like blood doesn’t make family, growing up in the middle of nowhere doesn’t stick me with blind loyal fandom for the genre of country music.
I don’t love country music, but I don’t hate it. Sometimes I tolerate it, sometimes I like it, and sometimes I play it on loop for hours when I miss the good parts of my little hometown. When it’s a quarter after one and I’m all alone, you’d best bet I’m playing Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now.”