PRINT Summer 1992


Standing By Your Girl

The National Enquirerbroke the news this spring: “Garth Brooks stands by his two-fisted gay sister: She protected him from bullies, so he’s given her a job in the band.” Once cultural studies joined the age of post-Modernism, tabloid culture entered theoretical discourse as an equal. Good news for people like me. How else could the subject of lesbians and country-and-western music come so reputably to the pages of Artforum, via a column that itself testifies to several decades of secret affection for the wrong end of the radio dial?

Country-and-western music is hot these days. But way back in the ’60s and early ’70s, when I trudged around to fiddlin’ competitions and Bean Blossom Festivals, it was “white man’s blues” to me. “Love it or leave it” music to the long-haired antiwar boys I knew. “Lynching music” to my black friends. “Love ’em and leave ’em” music to long suffering women. The worst of Amerika all wrapped up in a predictable tune. But I loved its subversive underbelly. Hidden beneath the retro lyrics and redneck fans were glimmers of working-class solidarity, highway adventuring, hard living, and tough, backtalkin’ women. While I mourned JFK, I knew that 1963 was also the year in which Patsy Cline was killed in a now-legendary plane crash. Kitty Wells sang “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.” I stalked Rosalie Sorrels concerts, bearing gifts, coercing friends into attendance. I never imagined that, two decades down the road, the poMo phenomenon of 1992 would be the lesbian embrace of country-and-western music. Why? That’s the operative question.

It’s hot everywhere, for one thing. C&W made the covers of both Entertainment Weekly and Time in March alone. Then, faster than you could say “black-eyed peas,” Hillary Clinton’s capping on Tammy Wynette made national news. Even The New Republic jumped onto the dance floor, examining the marital record of the once-reigning country queen to pass ponderous judgment on the veracity of that old “Stand by Your Man” advice. Short memories: Tammy also recorded “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “I Don’t Wanna Play House.”

At the same time, in London, Tammy was receiving an homage of sorts. Out on Tuesday titled one of its Channel Four shows “Stand on Your Man.” The Susan Ardill program gave Brits a view of the lesbian obsession with country-and-western music. Not that dykes are alone in their musical tastes: one statistic testifies that 80 percent of country-and-western records are bought by women, gay and straight. But imagine a U.K. suddenly teeming with dyke C&W fans. One woman even came up with a convincing explanation for the sudden interest: “It’s all about heartbreak and heartache, and that’s what lesbians love.”

Hey, better two-step than twelve-step. Just as heterosexual women have been documented (by feminist academics, naturally) in their addictions to Harlequin romances, soap operas, and telenovelas, so lesbians may be developing a similar addiction—to melodramas that rhyme. Yes, dykes are giving up their woes to do-si-do. Two-step dance classes are popping up at gay and lesbian bars all over this grand nation. In the wake of the new sobriety, bars from Seattle to San Jose are once again able to attract crowds; the Bay Area alone has three gay and lesbian C&W venues. For the dyke who isn’t quite steppin’ distance from a neighborhood outpost, Wolf Video distributes a videotape, Country Attitude, featuring line-dance maestras Maile Klein and Marina Hodgini. Now, the scandalous ultimate-outsider lesbian mag On Our Backs has eschewed black leather for one issue to devote a photospread to the eroticism of flannel shirts and jeans.

To be sure, it’s an overdetermined match. Heartbreak is at once the least, and the most, of it. C&W may have had its share of quivering ladies, but it also has a greater respect for tough broads than most musical traditions. Ever since the days of Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, country women have been talking back and getting away with it. In the ’70s, when lesbianism took androgyny as both principle and style, the country-and-western bar was one of the only welcoming sites outside of the womyn’s community. It was there, to those honky-tonk joints, that women could always go in flannel shirts and jeans and no makeup, raise no eyebrows, even dance with a girlfriend alongside all the straight country gals doing the same.

I’ll never forget the night in Chicago in the N&R Lounge, dancing to the all gal Black Light band—which consisted of a paraplegic singer whose wheelchair had to be hoisted onstage, a pianist who looked like a cosmetician, a 200-pound drummer whose 300 pound girlfriend haunted the pool table, and a baby butch bass player who won all our hearts. All this in a straight-arrow neighborhood bar. So long as you could toss off shots of Wild Turkey with the best of them, you were acceptable: honey, you had balls. Sexual preference wasn’t exactly an operative category back then.

Today, things are a bit, well, different. What do Desert Hearts and Thelma & Louise have in common? Great C&W sound-tracks, hotshot driving, women with guts. And a huge lesbian fan club. Jean Carlomusto has immortalized one aspect of the new lesbian lovelorn fan club in her recent videotape, L Is for the way you look, 1991, in which a half dozen dykes recall the thrill of sighting Dolly Parton at a Reno performance at New York’s P.S. 122. They go on and on, remembering her hair, her clothes, her breastly “endowment”—and their own relentless pursuit of her in the name of dyke history. Put that in the Lesbian Herstory Archives and smoke it. Or, at least, play “Jolene.”

If country-and-western music was the perfect refuge for the lesbian androgyne back in the granola days of the ’70s, then how fitting that it’s also the perfect stage for the role-playing ’90s. Now that butch and femme are firmly enshrined in lesbian fashion, few playgrounds are as enticing as the world of C&W (which never gave roles up in the first place). Any number of lyrics can be easily retro-fitted to same-sex passion: “Did you tell her she’s been sleeping/In the bed you made for me?” Even the titles are appealing: “Midnight Girl in a One-Horse Town,” or “Girls’ Night Out,” for instance. With women singers and double-crossed tunes, the pronouns don’t even change: the creep (of either gender) is always leaving for another woman. As a result, C&W gals who now have a devoted lesbian following, intended or not, include K. T. Oslin, Nanci Griffith, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, and everyone already mentioned in this piece.

Still, for proof positive of the lesbian love affair with country-and-western music and the probable source of its whole-hearted renaissance, there’s only one place to turn: the k.d. lang phenomenon. I remember a k.d. lang concert in New York in the late ’80s, when femme fans turned out in beehive hairdos, dancing down front, boasting: the higher the hair, the nearer to god. (Or, in their case, the nearer to k.d.) Madonna was reported to say, after meeting k.d., “Elvis is alive, and she’s beautiful.” British fans thought she was modeling herself on the Elvis of the early Sun Records period. And the concert ambience? One woman claimed: “If you’re not a dyke when you go in, you’re going to be one by the time you come out.”

K.d. lang, the “Alberta Rose” as she was called in her performance at Canada’s Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony of 1988, is the figure I’d have to invent if she didn’t exist. She at once explains and embodies the lesbian country-and-western union. Dressed to the teeth in a green Hank Williams era suit that she embroiders a tall tale to explain, hair brush cut, with spectator shoes (or, at other times, a gleeful square dancer in full skirts, rodeo fringe, scuffed boots), she can impersonate a lesbian wet dream from anytime in the last half century. Her lyrics, like her beloved and provocative ode to “Big Boned Gals,” satisfy every longing. The innuendo of country-and-western, where heartbreak gets played straight as well as with a wink, here gets full expression. K.d. lang carries onstage the new camp lesbian sensibility that’s starting to shape up into a veritable trend.

She even has her own video, a compilation collection called k.d. lang: Harvest of Seven Years (Cropped and Chronicled), 1992. There’s an exquisite cut in which she performs with the queens of Nashville past (incredibly including Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee). The young butch, honored by the company she’s keeping, dances around the row of femmes. The new lesbian camp is sincere, not bitchy. Who can’t love the sight of k.d. harmonizing with Kitty, as Loretta points a finger and Brenda taps her foot? The “Honky Tonk Angels” medley is at once a homage and a reclaiming, part celebration, part parody. And yet there hasn’t been such a fulfillment of a lesbian daughter’s fantasy since Chantal Akerman’s Meetings with Anna placed actress Isabelle Hupert in bed with Lea Massari for a mother-daughter chat about falling in love with another woman.

This spring, k.d. lang showed up in all the glossies, which is a bit ironic, because of her recent move away from country music into torch songs (her new Ingenue album) and moviemaking (Percy Adlon’s disastrous Salmonberries). Everyone hopes she’s not gone for good, the consummate square dancer not really departed from the dance. The girls she’s left behind are still two-stepping, or learning how, facing the difficult decision of declaring themselves “leaders” or “followers” (for dance-floor purposes only, of course). With country fever sweeping the country, they’re not likely to stop any time soon.

K.d. lang is the perfect icon for post-Modern times, performing gender with a wink, outbutching the boys but still fond of slipping into something femmier when the occasion warrants. The real stand-out hit of her video is her live performance of “Johnny Get Angry,” in which she collapses onto the stage in full ’50s anguish, begging, “I need a brave man, I need a cave man” to “get mad, give me the biggest lecture I’ve ever had.” Cry as she might, though, there’s no one to beat her, no one to top her.

Try as she might to escape the confines of the musical genre that brought her stardom, there’s going to be a fierce centrifugal force pulling her back, not the least that exerted by the lesbian fan club cheering her and the rest of the girls on. You see, a lot of dykes grew up listening to rockabilly and C&W, Sun City and old guitar amps, or wish they had. Before they ever discovered SoHo or Santa Monica, Madonna or gender-bending, ecstasy or Ecstasy, there were nights of heartbreak and yearning to the sounds of a throbbing guitar, and somebody singing with a catch in her voice. There’s something primal about C&W. Maybe post-Modernism just made the inevitable, finally, fashionable.

B. Ruby Rich is a cultural critic now living in San Francisco.