Music

On Country Music Outsiders... and Fakers

Let's compare Eric Church's macho, white-power Outsiders to some newly reissued country outsiders from the '70s, the out-gay-country group Lavender Country.


Eric Church

The Outsiders

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2014-02-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lavender Country

Lavender Country

Label: Paradise Of Bachelors
US Release Date: 2014-03-05
Amazon
iTunes

Look at the group of men on the cover of Eric Church’s fourth album, The Outsiders, and you can’t help but think, “These are the outsiders”? Six similar-looking white guys in blue jeans and black T-shirts, standing in front of a giant door? They look more like the cast of a reality TV show about an auto shop. Or, perhaps, a community theatre troupe staging their own (middle-aged) version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders?

We can turn to the title track, the first single, and expect to gain some understanding of Church’s concept of “outsiders”. It offers a sort of street-gang rap, some hard-rock riffs, and declarations that our singer and his “band of brothers” are “the other ones“, not “the in crowd”. So perhaps we are back in high school?

Actually the verses end up referencing something more like a motorcycle gang, or worse, a posse of Southern white men riding late at night to deliver their own version of ‘justice’. “We’re the ones that they told you to run from”, he sings. That he follows up that line with mock hip-hop-isms (“players gonna play / haters gonna hate”) reinforces this listening, as does a song later in the album where he connects his dark side to Southern rebel ways before aiming his sights (literally) on “thugs”. In the process of coming together as a force, they’re unveiling their true selves: “That’s who we are.” “Outsider” here might mean “stuck in the past”, to put it politely.

Musically, when Church tries hardest to maintain his outsider-ness, he turns to kind of a talk-sing and amps up familiar hard-rock sounds (familiar even within today’s country-music genre, I mean), while at the same time pushing a restrained or even conservative notion of what that means. In “That’s Damn Rock and Roll to Me”, he tries to set himself up in opposition to the clichés and familiar stories of rock music while falling for them, too, and coping as much Stones swagger as he can manage. Rock is doing what you want, giving what you got. It’s “a riot in the street / it’s a rebel revolution”, he says, making you wonder both what riots he’s attended and what he’s thinking of when he uses the word “rebel”.

“Devil, Devil” starts out with a prelude of high-school-level poetry (filtered through “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”) personifying Nashville as an evil temptress woman -- one he tells to go to hell. In reality, how he’s sending Nashville to hell is a good question; it seems like more of a marketing touchpoint with what he thinks his audience wants to hear. He’s perhaps aiming for that “outlaw” mystique Willie got when he moved to Texas.

Unfortunately, coming from Church, “outsider” ends up being another variation on a power position: an amplified voice of masculine, white power. That in the process he may reinforce the identification of rock guitars and country twang with these qualities is unfortunate for both genres.


The most convincing songs on The Outsiders (by which I might mean the best) are the most comfortable; the least outsider-ish. They’re slightly bittersweet songs with big hooks, like what’s all over country radio these days. The nostalgic NASCAR song “Talladega”, for example, or the lightly groovy “Roller Coaster Ride”, about an up-and-down relationship, of course.

The current single, “Give Me Back My Hometown”, is a lovelorn anthem comfortably in the current arena-country mold. That song also has my favorite moment of the album, when the outsider reveals that the restaurant he associates with his ex, the one he can’t visit without thinking of her, is Pizza Hut. Each time I listen I can’t resist picturing comic scenarios in my head, of the man haunted by Pizza Hut delivery drivers, crying every time he sees a television commercial for a cheese-stuffed pizza. When the fabric of your best songs is NASCAR and Pizza Hut, what kind of outsider are you, exactly?

A recent CBS Sunday Morning interview with Church depicted him, purposely or not, as a popular kid, the class president, who learned that dark sunglasses, stubble and drug references brought the biggest cheers from audiences. So he decided to turn up the “outlaw” aspect of his persona. Church -- and to an extent many popular other male country singers of today like Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton -- seems to be always in part chasing the legacy of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, without being fully sure what he would do if he caught up with it.

The best “outsider” moments in today’s country genre are less often found in these proclamations of rebelliousness than in more thoughtful attempts to tap into country’s history of telling the stories of the downtrodden and forgotten: abused women, the rural working poor, children growing up in struggling households. Even within the country charts you see examples of this. Part of what made Brandy Clark and Kasey Musgraves’ albums so fussed-over last year, by critics but also to an extent audiences (at least with Musgraves), is the ability to quietly tell these stories.

These are not “outsider” artists, and wouldn’t claim to be. And their songs, and those of country as a genre, do still keep their character base fairly uniform, not as diverse as the country’s population overall. But their songs point more towards stories outside of the dominant cultural narrative than The Outsiders does.

Photo of Patrick Haggerty by by Melina Mara
found on here on The Sun

Country fans looking for an outsider’s perspective within 2014’s new releases might best meet that desire by turning to Paradise of Bachelors’ new reissue of the 1973 self-titled about from the Seattle, Washington-based group, Lavender Country. Billed as the first openly gay country album, it was the work of one Patrick Haggerty, a farm boy who moved to Seattle, became a gay-pride activist, and combined that activism with the music he grew up with for this album.

In a 2000 article for the Journal of Country Music (titled “Country Undetectable: Gay Artists in Country Music”), Chris Dickinson chronicled the context the album came out of, both in terms of Haggerty’s life and in the gay civil rights movement. He also quotes Haggerty as saying it was a natural decision for him to make socio-political statements about sexual repression and liberation within the confines of country music. “I didn’t know how to do any other kind of music.”


The resulting album has on the one hand a very traditional sound and a rural prettiness about it, with twinkling piano often playing a driving force, along with guitar, fiddle, a female singer strongly supporting Haggerty’s sometimes thin singing voice. The storytelling approach of a song like “Waltzing Will Trilogy” seems very familiar to the country genre, even while the subject matter is starkly different, following the lead character through electroshock treatments to “cure” him of homosexuality (“they call it mental hygiene / but I call it psychic rape”), being sent to prison as a purported child molester, and so on.

Overall, the album sets a scene of a whole category of human beings stuck in a world of secrecy and pain, and, more than that, oppression. “Back in the Closet Again” is a song of resignation, with a slight dose of humor (as all of these songs have), but also a deep sadness that echoes through the opening piano passage. It’s also a perfectly country sentiment, the loneliness of feeling without options. There’s tenderness in all of these songs (listen to “Straight White Patterns”, “Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You”), often centered around the inability to freely, openly express love.

The songs throughout the album also are caustic tales of struggle that hold nothing back in terms of the ultimate goal of liberation (“rise up and rip this goddamn system down”, he sings, in “Waltzing Will Trilogy”). Their targets are many -- religion, government, ignorant straight people, society in general -- and their songs deftly take them all on. It’s an album of courage that also manages its share of optimism, or at least the band takes joy in the righteousness of their endeavor.

Compare that to the guardedness and cynical sleights-of-hand employed throughout The Outsiders. It’s one thing to brag about your outsider-ness, it’s quite another to be an actual outsider, invisible or worse to the broader culture. Lavender Country is an example of pride not in “outsider” status, but in who you are, and in the power of song to express both the story of your life and your dream of what would make the world a better place.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.

Music

Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.

Music

That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.

Books

Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.

Reviews

Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.

Music

Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.

Film

'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.

Music

Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.