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

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.

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.

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