Sexuality in Country Music
Abstract and Keywords
Abstract: This chapter surveys prior scholarly work on country music’s ostensibly conservative relationship to sexuality. It tracks how sexuality becomes linked to other identity markers in songs by artists such as Gretchen Wilson and k.d. lang, as country functions as not only a distinctly classed but also racialized, gendered, and regionalized genre traditionally associated with white working-class Southerners. It probes whether earlier and recent modes of white masculinity and femininity, might or might not be constituted in relationship to queerness and/or blackness. This overview also suggests new ways to expand the critical terrain by taking up case studies: (1) Tanya Tucker, the now-faded star of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, who gained early notoriety for her sexualized performance style and material; and (2) the recent bro-country sensation (Florida Georgia Line), whose young male artists recycle explicitly (hetero) sexual content through pseudo-hip hop rhythms and rapping.
*Popular and music industry discourses, as well as certain academic circles, continue to perpetuate the axiom that country music remains a culturally and politically conservative genre—especially concerning sexuality. While they are fond of pointing up the music’s longstanding ties to the Republican Party, their argument rests particularly on country’s transhistorical “family values” appeal to its largely working-class listeners, who are, so the theory goes, ostensibly much more homophobic and generally parochial in their sexual mores than fans of other popular music forms. But it doesn’t take much rooting around in country’s celebrated history to uncover decidedly queer-friendly songs such as Cowboy Jack Derrick’s “Truck Drivin’ Man” (1948) and Freddy Weller’s “Betty Ann and Shirley Cole” (1973)—though hardly top forty fare—eventually followed by Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free” (1992), as well as mainstream hits about infidelity, marital sex, and more recently, hooking up: “Back Street Affair” (Webb Pierce, 1952), “I’d Love to Lay You Down” (Conway Twitty, 1980), “Cruise” (Florida Georgia Line, 2012), to name but a few. And before any of these more modern songs appeared, certain comedy acts on barn dance stages during the 1930s and 1940s performed sexually suggestive routines, particularly blackface and rube performers.1
At the least, then, country music’s engagement with sexuality reveals a far more complicated dynamic. Its texts contain multiple sonic, visual, and sociocultural tensions that cause them to appear priggish or culturally out of step, sexually vulgar, or emphatically real to different audiences depending on their particular temporal moment. In 1977, for instance, at the same time that Billboard reported on country radio listeners’ complaints about “dirty lyrics,” other fans as well as journalists objected to that same playlist’s contrived countrypolitan content and sound. Mainstream country, they countered, had in fact been stripped of its everyday grittiness and sensuality in favor of a generic, high-gloss sheen.2 We can also fast forward some thirty-five years to current country music for a fascinating reversal of this trend. The recent “bro-country” phenomenon (i.e., Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan) has provoked cultural commentators’ antipathy for its formulaic and arguably misogynist incorporation of explicit sexual language (p. 376) and imagery, while millennial and adolescent audiences are embracing the music’s “hotness.”3 In both of these examples, historical context undoubtedly mediates the texts’ representation of sexuality as much as listeners’ reception.
Yet as a variety of scholars have emphasized over the past several decades, country has been not only a distinctly classed but also racialized, gendered, and regionalized genre: the music thought to be produced by and for white working-class (and largely male) Southerners. This chapter proceeds from, extends, and in some ways troubles that assumption as it assesses pertinent scholarly trends and offers a few case studies that suggest new ways to expand the critical terrain. Arguing that past and present textual evocations of sexuality deserve the same intersectional analysis as other facets of country music study, I propose a more nuanced return to this music’s identity politics. We need to examine sexuality’s contributions to country’s more visible modes of address as well as its possibilities for conceptualizing a more fluid and resistant set of identity categories. As Geoff Mann notes in his exploration of country music’s putative whiteness, “an acoustic politics can just as readily reinforce existing cultural-political identities, even rewrite them, and recruit people to them.” But cultural critics, like everyday fans, can prove equally susceptible to this audience-based model of “musical interpellation”4—or simply choose to center on a singular analytic target—and thus miss potentially generative nodes of connection.
This chapter, then, surveys prior critical investigations into country music’s relationship to sexuality by tracking how that category becomes linked to other common identity markers such as gender and race. It probes whether earlier and more recent modes of working-class white masculinity and femininity in country song texts, for instance, might or might not be constituted in relationship to queerness and/or blackness. It will subsequently turn to two as of yet largely unexamined principals in this subfield. First is Tanya Tucker, the now-faded star of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. As a precocious preteen, she gained early notoriety for her sexualized performance style and costuming, bluesy alto, and adult material and later became tabloid fodder as much for her personal transgressions as for her suggestive onstage behavior. Second is the aforementioned bro-country sensation, not simply for its young male artists’ relentless recycling of explicit (hetero) sexual content but their frequent stylistic vehicle of choice: pseudo hip hop rhythms and rapping. Both will hopefully inspire further thinking about sexuality’s myriad registers within this music’s history and its potential future.
Sex and the “Simple” Country Fan: Sociological Views of Country Music Values, 1970s–1980s
Spurred on by articles in highbrow publications such as Harper’s and The Nation, the entrenched sexual conservatism thesis first gained traction in broadly sociological studies of country music beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the mid-1980s. (p. 377) This body of work catalogues the music’s plethora of normative sexual and political attitudes by focusing almost exclusively on song lyrics. One exemplar is John Buckley’s “Country Music and American Values,” published in 1979 and cited by numerous subsequent scholars. Searching for an approach that can sensitively gauge the relationship between song content and audience values, it proposes that the country text does not so much “reinforce” values as produce “a symbolic world with which audience members may identify.”5 Sexuality emerges as one of eight representative themes that “reflect” listeners’ beliefs by creating scenarios that “they can easily understand.”6
As such, fans appear to endorse a stark division between “satisfactory” marital relationships, where sex plays an “integral but not dominant” role, and “unsatisfactory” ones, where it signals “other interpersonal difficulties.”7 Interestingly, though, Buckley centers on Charlie Rich’s 1973 breakthrough hit “Behind Closed Doors” to make the former claim, suggesting that the song actually minimizes the happily married couple’s sex life by “relegating” it to the chorus. Yet that memorable refrain clearly accentuates what is ostensibly hidden from view, and by teasingly suggesting that “no one knows” what married people do in their bedrooms, the song ironically underscores the sociologist’s overall point: country audiences indeed “understand” sex’s significance in their lives. Although not explicitly referencing specific acts, the lyrics bring everyday marital sex out of the music industry’s closet. In fact, “Behind Closed Doors” was popular with listeners: it swept the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards that year, earning “Best Song” and “Best Single,” and topped Billboard’s “Hot Country Singles” chart. As a counterpoint illustrating discontented relationships, Buckley turns to standard cheating songs but downplays fans’ longstanding attraction to songs of sexual temptation as well as marital pleasure.
In both cases, Buckley’s shortsighted analysis stems from a larger methodological issue: his insistence that country lyrics are entirely literal. Compared with other musical genres, country songs evidently have “no allegories and no double-meanings.”8 That perspective may be traced to his era-specific training as a sociologist, but it also seems informed by his overall emphasis on the average country listener’s low level of schooling and preference for “universally shared emotions.”9 Subsequent scholars representing a variety of disciplines have successfully put this argument to rest by uncovering country texts’ own intricate wordplay as well as formal tensions among song content and musical arrangement—all of which the average country fan grasps, seeks out, and appreciates.10 Here, I simply want to highlight one trouble spot in early research on country music’s engagement with sexuality, even in a well-intentioned study that attempts to complicate theory about textual reproduction and reception. A seemingly elitist view of the country canon and audience, combined with a reliance on data over textual interpretation, limits this writer’s ability to recognize his twin subjects.
Ethnomusicologist Edward G. Armstrong most directly rebuts Buckley’s thesis in his 1986 article for The Journal of Sex Research. Although similarly focusing on content of radio-friendly country songs from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s, Armstrong attempts to account for the prevailing contradictory stance that country music has a “back-to-the family” position on sexuality while also being “ ‘polluted and desecrated’ (p. 378) because of its references to illicit sex.”11 He does so by documenting an astonishing variety of sexual tropes and subtopics in the genre, including masturbation, “nymphomania,” impotency, pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, and “zoophilia.”12 Extramarital sex songs receive special scrutiny, but Armstrong’s analytic model overall discerns “four levels of complexity” that encompass novelty tracks, story and commentary texts, and finally “a sophisticated societal reaction” to sexuality.13
Even the lowest category, the comic song, has the capacity to engage in irony, satire, and all manner of double entendres. And as he notes, “Betty Ann and Shirley Cole” interrogates the homophobic tenor of other contemporary country songs about gay or lesbian life by treating its lesbian lovers with dignity while also mocking the narrative’s heterosexual characters. Songs in the “story” category turn out to offer biting commentary on sexual politics, such as Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” (1975) and Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land” (a 1974 rape revenge saga), whereas Charlie Pride’s “The Hunger” (1977) tells a more conventional morality tale of a sexually assertive middle-aged woman whose beauty has been consumed by her cravings.14 Armstrong thus concludes his investigation by chiding commentators who rely on “reductionist” interpretations of this musical genre and its listeners. And textual form, once again absent here, would only expand our sense of the songs’ intricacies.
Feminist and Queer Critical Interventions
This rather basic recognition of country’s multivalent positions on sexuality appears somewhat sporadically in the next phase of sociological and ethnomusicological studies in the 1990s and early 2000s. Dominated by evolving feminist and queer approaches, this work certainly advances the conversation in terms of gender analysis—and that is a significant achievement. Yet much turn-of-the-century research in this arena continues to isolate sexuality from other identity categories and concerns.
Although feminist critique came somewhat late to country music studies relative to scholarship on other modes of popular music, it made up for lost time with a virtual explosion of historiographic, sociological, and emerging cultural studies-based approaches. In the early 1990s, such work tended to track song lyrics’ narratives and imagery associated with women, and sexuality entered the analysis in terms of broader gender relations. Karen Saucier Lundy, for example, begins with the assumption that country is “the most conservative and traditional of American music” but asserts that female artists and songwriters had begun to challenge gender stereotypes, particularly concerning “love relationships.”15 While most songs in this category continue to present men in the dominant role of both romantic and sexual partner, others by Reba McEntire and Highway 101 demonstrate that “women are beginning to take the initiative in the sexual relationship and are even expressing an enjoyment” of it.16
(p. 379) Much of this work, however, still invoked a second-wave liberal feminist mindset that combatted normative gender roles but neglected to analyze how femininity, masculinity, and sexuality models could be profoundly unstable. Their heterosexual focus tended to preclude challenges to the meaning of “sex” itself. The critical volume A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music (2004) marked a turning point by addressing this precise problem. Featuring Johnny Cash’s gender-bending song in its title, the collection devotes considerable attention to gender’s “remarkably flexible way of making meaning”; and some of its contributors investigate sexuality’s role in that dynamic, especially when focused on the marketing of male and female stars such as Elvis Presley and Charline Arthur.17 Later feminist work on gender and sexuality in country music is highly indebted to this more interdisciplinary, syncretic approach.
In contrast, queer scholarship within this time frame tends to treat country music as an inherently hostile territory—and perhaps understandably so, given media constructions of the industry’s and audience’s right-wing bent and some of the musical texts’ fulfillment of such conventions. However, it does little to complicate that portrait despite its of-the-moment critical theory toolkit. Joanna Kadi, a self-described “working-class Arab halfbreed queer” cultural critic, represents one instructive exception to this rule.18 In Thinking Class, Kadi defends country music from charges of being more sexually normative than genres associated with middlebrow or elite classes; in fact, she insists that country “exhibits predominantly left-wing tendencies, … as defined by working-class people.”19 Later, she counters the myth that its listeners are more homophobic than those in other demographics, going so far as to argue that “the word queer captures not only my sexual identity, but my class identity as well.”20 Her work begins to illustrate a distinctly intersectional approach largely absent in this era.
Instead, most earlier queer inquiries into country music sexuality take one of two tacks: (1) examining a self-identified heterosexual artist whom LGBTQ audiences have converted into community icons (Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Johnny Cash), or (2) championing this genre’s few out stars of the time, principally k.d. lang (and a host of lesser lights on the “gay country” bar circuit). Brett Farmer’s 1994 essay on adulation of Patsy Cline shows the most promise, evincing knowledge of country music history (somewhat rare in this work) and, reminiscent of Kadi, reclaiming some of the music’s lowbrow aspects. It particularly reframes sentimentality—thought to be emblematic of not only country’s simple-mindedness but its heterosexist portraits of romance—within a psychoanalytic sex/gender context. Farmer connects gay and lesbian fixation on Cline to her status as a “powerful female pioneer” who flouted “patriarchically circumscribed passive femininity” while churning out hits like “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “Why Can’t He Be You.”21 Although such subversive behavior can be tied to other female country artists (Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, Tanya Tucker), Farmer centers on the uniqueness of Cline’s explosive yet controlled voice, the instrument of female desire resisting containment by normative culture. What Cline represents to queer audiences, then, is an involute embodiment of subversive sexual passion and, more broadly, “gender destabilization” that captures both the “masochism” and “resilience” of LGBTQ life. His essay suggests that the queer subject finds much to identify with in Cline’s music and (p. 380) performance style, “recognis[ing] in this articulation of emotional pain and struggle a voice s/he may claim as his/her own.”22
To make his case, Farmer mainly evades the class valences of country music (beyond its emphasis on emotionality) that many of his colleagues find distasteful. Martha Mockus’s 1994 essay on k.d. lang pulls no such punches, declaring in her opening sentence that she has “never been a fan of country music” due to its “nasal and twangy sounds” as well as its “back-to-basic homophobic conservatism that wished the 1960s and 1970s had never happened.”23 Similar to Patsy Cline’s impact on gay and lesbian listeners, lang (who named her early band the “reclines” as a tribute to the star) first provoked the musicologist with her voice’s “wonderful mixture of passion and mischief.” However, Mockus casts this gender queer country singer as an icon of playfulness rather than pathos to nullify country’s low-class stigma: by employing drag and butch-femme performance, lang and her fans transform country into pure “camp.” 24
Mockus’s musicological approach potentially enriches the fuller dialogue around this singer’s shifting styles and repertoire, accentuating her songs’ unstable meanings and tensions. lang’s “Big Big Love,” for instance, juxtaposes “conventional musical signs—standard form, regular harmony, and predictable rhythms—with a wonderfully mischievous vocal performance,” which in turn produces “a radical and dykish twist in gender signs.”25 The essay also usefully reminds us of the country establishment’s objections to her early androgynous “cowpunk” appearance and her seeming parodic approach to the music but also highlights lang’s own genuine “respect” for country culture.26 Yet Mockus’s exclusive focus on country as camp fails to reflect the performer’s noteworthy reverence for the music. The postscript’s subtitle—“from country to cuntry”—has a utopian resonance, for sure, but remains premised on this music’s inherent “backwardness.”
One of the few studies of queer country conducted by an established country music scholar during this period treads similar ground as Mockus—the gay and lesbian bar and dance hall scene—but focuses on lesser-known out performers who attract a robust following. Chris Dickinson, editor of the Journal of Country Music at the time of publication (2000), interviewed the founders of the then newly formed Lesbian & Gay Country Music Association (LGCMA) to document their backstories and varied pathways to an unlikely career. Although not promoting itself as “politically militant,” the LGCMA engages in identity politics by serving as “a lifting of the head above the trenches into visibility, a way of embracing country as a music that, despite its backward stereotypes, emotionally cuts across age, race, and sexual preference lines.”27 These singer-songwriters tell of local and industry discrimination but also family acceptance. Patrick Haggerty, of the pioneering band Lavender Country, states, “[m]y father was hokey, ill-kempt, and ill-mannered. … [b]ut he saw who I was, and he took pride in me.”28 Pamela Brandt, cofounder of the country-rock lesbian trio The Deadly Nightshade, decries country’s “real bad rap as … politically retro,” pointing out that she rarely experienced bigotry as an out performer in straight country bars.29
Dickinson launches this inquiry with a frank admission of country’s closeted history, but her interviewees’ portraits begin to sketch out a kind of counternarrative grounded (p. 381) in country’s universal emotional appeal of “loss, heartbreak, and … love” as well as the “simple act of telling the truth.”30 In echoing Buckley’s earlier emphasis on the genre’s simplicity and commonality, these gay and lesbian performers could be read as seeking a certain comforting brand of LGBTQ identity politics that rejects visible and lasting alterity. At the same time, given their often intimate relationship to the core country audience—many hailing from similar class and regional communities—they may be exhibiting Kadi’s brand of “queer”/class identification or perhaps simply insisting on their own humanity.
In the past few years, mainstream country has slowly begun to heed their call. From songs such as Kacey Musgrave’s CMA 2013 Song of the Year “Follow Your Arrow” and Little Big Town’s controversial “Girl Crush” (2014) to the popular ABC series Nashville, whose storyline sympathetically features a closeted Top 40 “hunk” act who comes out at the end of Season 3, and actual B-list country artists who have recently done the same (Chely Wright and Ty Herndon), the industry seems poised to reverse its outsized heteronormative image.31 As one queer Canadian country music critic cautions, though, “It’s not a question of coming out, it’s a question of queer stories told by queer voices in spaces that might not be queer.”32
More recent scholarship concurs but also demonstrates that queer affects in country music can emerge in the unlikeliest of places or moments. Shania Twain’s navel-exposing videos of the mid-to-late 1990s, for example, have been cast as “anxiety not only about the new woman in the country music world but also over an incipient revision of masculinity,” David Allan Coe’s (1978) song “Fuck Aneta Briant” [sic] “defends ‘all them faggots’ against the antihomosexual crusader.”33 Current queer musicology thus lends further ballast to critiques of essentialist visibility politics, insisting on musical production as one possible site of nonnormative sexual subjectivity yet recognizing that “the very binary of normative/non-normative breaks down under scrutiny,” particularly when this category intersects with other “embodied experiences.”34 Discerning and preserving that balance signals a welcome shift.
Nadine Hubbs’s Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (2014) in many ways epitomizes this last approach, analyzing musical taste as a sexualized and racialized class dynamic. Her study models the first extensive effort by a queer musicologist to build on, rather than dismiss or ignore, prior class analyses of country music. Echoing Kadi, it directly contests the construction of country texts and fans as virulently homophobic by tracing the historic alliances between US working-class and queer communities from the early 1920s to the late 1970s due to their similar Othering by middle-class culture. Both, Hubbs claims, were considered “deviant” until middle-to-upper class LGBTQ populations became increasingly incorporated into mainstream life beginning in the 1980s, which in turn prompted a reversed cultural script: “respectable” middle-class citizens supported queer people and culture, while white blue-collar workers were cast as “America’s perpetual bigot class.”35
Hubbs showcases two particular country songs that refute this predictable charge. She perceptively situates Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” (2004) within the “Virile Female” ad campaign launched by R. J. Reynolds over a decade earlier, whose (p. 382) market research claimed that young, white, working-class women enjoyed “ ‘partying’ and cruising’ ” as well as “male identified” entertainment such as car shows and tractor pulls. Although the 1989 campaign fizzled due to a media leak, Hubbs argues that it capitalized on a perennial image of this demographic as “excessively or inappropriately gendered” and reads Wilson’s debut single as a subversive instantiation of its presumptions.36 Drawing on the artist’s life story as a young, backwoods, single mother, the song and video promote iconography that plays up Wilson’s cross-gendered affect: speeding on her ATV yet “sexy, just as sexy/As those models on TV.”37 Both texts unapologetically claim the term “redneck,” linking it to “hard” country male stars such as Hank Williams Jr., but significantly extending its association to all the “sisters out there keeping it country.” Hubbs ultimately deems the song “a deft rebranding of denigrated, essentialized white working-class female subjectivity,” as the singer’s persona “appropriates cultural resources from her class, racial, geographic and vocational peers across the gender line … while reaffirming her heteronormativity.”38
That song’s compromise between working-class gender instability and sexual convention takes a different kind of twist in the previously mentioned David Allan Coe example. “Fuck Aneta Briant” announces its class “illegitimacy” in its title’s misspellings and expletive but also in its lyrics’ frank familiarity with male prison sex. The same conservative ideology that initially conflated sexual and class abjection achieves another purpose here, voicing a daring liberalism even as Coe employs derogatory terms for gay men within the song and personally distances himself from a queer identity. He certainly plays up the coded linkages between his own class positioning and a stigmatized sexual practice; but unlike Wilson, his persona still clings to normative gender divisions capitalizing on his “excess” masculinity. And unlike the chart-topping visibility of “Redneck Woman,” “Fuck Aneta Briant” literally occupied the margins as an underground recording.
Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music refreshingly approaches its texts’ ambiguities as a virtue, accentuating Hubbs’s call to disown the “twentieth- and twenty-first-century scripts pathologizing the working class through the queer.”39 Its research and argumentation highlight the fruitfulness of seeking not only class and race but also gender/sexuality affiliations within country music without dismissing evident grounds of conflict. And in doing so, it exposes this cultural form’s wider range of audience identification rubrics. Hubbs demonstrates that working-class cultures have always found ways to recognize their own members within dominant spheres, cutting through even while participating in media mystification: Wilson addresses her seemingly “invisible” classed audience via literal shout-outs to “the redneck girls like me” and familiar tropes (Wal-Mart lingerie, a “4 wheel drive tailgate”) that reproduce yet equally repurpose common signifiers of disrespectability. This dynamic can be read as a defiant call to country identity membership that reinforces group borders, but it also allows for gender and sexual “play,” if not outright gay and lesbian identification or branding. Wilson’s version of intersectional identity politics can help us distinguish between the kinds of cross-class queer affiliation that Brett Farmer explores in gay and lesbian Patsy Cline fandom and the more campy hillbilly “drag” performances that Martha Mockus embraces. (p. 383) With Hubbs’s framing, it might also further unravel Coe’s conflicted mélange of classed, queered, and homophobic relations. Internal grounds of recognition inevitably shift, coalesce, re-form along and over class, gender, race, and sexuality lines even as they also operate with a core roster of signs and sounds that establish, as well as often “police,” community. As sexuality studies in country music moves forward, it would be useful to emerge from our various identitarian trenches to discern even momentary flashes of recognition that foster progressive alliance or affiliation beyond fixed models of group identification.
Tanya and the “Bro”s: Toward a Hybrid Reading of Country Music Sexuality
The scholarly archive on country’s relationship to sexuality demonstrates that class and gender remain mainstays of the analysis, while interpretation of their interrelated meanings has clearly shifted according to the investments of differing constituencies and generations. All three identity categories (sexuality, class, and gender) periodically intersect and reconsolidate. Race further imbues the dynamic primarily through country music’s presumptive identification with whiteness. But historically, that classed racial identity has been tinged, as it were, with blackness—particularly within the context of sexuality. As many studies of impoverished white subjectivity have documented, “white trash” or “hillbillies” have been associated with a degraded or “fallen” whiteness: an ambiguous racial identity linked with low embodied racial Otherness.40 Feminist work on the racio-sexualization of music supplies the final and crucial piece to this analysis: as Maureen Mahon observes, we all must contend with the foundational myth that “black Americans had a special capacity for authentic musical expression and privileged access to emotion, spirituality, and sexuality.”41 As this subfield of country music studies continues to trouble discreet identity categories, it can benefit from examining how sexuality in country texts may also become constituted in relationship to non-white racialized coding within various class registers.42
I have singled out two test cases for such investigation. The first, Tanya Tucker, may seem more puzzling, especially when compared with today’s bro-country due to its more obvious appropriation of black musical practices. But while emerging as a sexualized spectacle in a far earlier era and facing harsher scrutiny as a young female in the business, this Texas native of Irish and Cherokee ancestry clearly gravitated toward song material, arrangements, and stage moves rooted in African American blues (though mediated by Elvis Presley’s country/rockabilly catalogue). And Tucker has received surprisingly scant scholarly attention of any sort, despite the fact that she ranks as one of country’s top-selling female artists and serves as a precursor to later performers (p. 384) who have helped destabilize sex and gender norms.43 It is fair to say that Tanya Tucker embodies one kind of female country “Outlaw,” yet what does that term mean when viewed through a purposefully intersectional critical lens? Several examples of her early and later attempts to negotiate sexuality within a rapidly changing music sphere over forty odd years should establish that her “body” of work can prove to be one model object of inquiry for the newest version of country music sexuality studies.
Tucker’s role as country’s early and leading bad girl “exhibitionist” is legendary.44 Along with the “Female Elvis,” she has attracted other monikers with provocative connotations, including “the Texas Tornado” (from her preteen performances); “Nashville’s Little Levied Lolita” (courtesy of Playboy magazine when she was twenty years old); and, as she strove to revive her career in the early 1990s, the “Black Velvet Lady” pitching the brand’s Canadian whiskey. Much to her manager father’s chagrin, Hustler ran an ad promoting her steamy album T.N.T. (MCA Records, 1978) by promising “[t]his album will make your ears hard.”45 Her numerous one-night stands and infamous cocaine-addled affair with Glen Campbell in the early 1980s punctuated celebrity gossip headlines over several decades, overshadowing the music she made and in some cases coloring its reviews, particularly amongst the conservative country press. But this somewhat predictable narrative scarcely begins to reckon with Tucker’s alternately playful and angry exposure of the sex/gender politics fueling such image construction once she gained tighter control of her career.
As a child performer in the early 1970s, Tucker considered herself a “tomboy.”46 When she was interviewed for Rolling Stone in 1974, she thus expressed bemusement about her sudden “sex symbol” status. Chet Flippo’s now iconic article “Tanya: The Teenage Teaser” opens rhapsodically: “Grown men follow her from town to town. Young boys camp outside her door. Fans call her the female Elvis, and Tanya Tucker loves it.”47 Describing Tucker’s “throaty, searing version” of Presley’s “Burnin’ Love,” Flippo plays up her jail-bait allure, noting that her “face was a study in wide-eyed childish innocence, but her body had another message … [H]er knee drops and pelvic thrusts raised the temperature several degrees around the stage.”48 When he comments on her appeal to both adult and teenage males, she responds ambiguously: “That’s pretty cool. I don’t wanta be a sex symbol-well, I don’t know. It kinda seems that way, don’t it? … Some people are always gonna take anything you say dirty.”49 As she establishes in her memoir, at that point she still identified more with conventional masculinity rather than femininity but also began enjoying “looking a little sexy”—matching her evolving persona to the image campaign spurred by Delores Fuller, a former Elvis-affiliated songwriter who engineered the new risqué costumes and moves.50
From the start, then, during a time when the country at large was contending with women’s increasing embrace of sexual freedom, Tucker clearly attempted to navigate a blur of conflicting messages and anxieties about her own budding desires. While gaining attention for her husky vocals, body-baring outfits, and story songs steeped in southern gothic trappings—“Blood Red and Goin’ Down,” “The Man That Turned My Momma On,” and “No Man’s Land”—she sought validation within the country industry for her authentic southwestern working-class roots and fidelity to the music’s heralded (p. 385) tradition. However, as her sound became more pop- and country rock-oriented to expand her fan base in the late 1970s and 1980s and to reflect her own eclectic tastes, she lost the luster brought by her early producer Billy Sherrill and needed to prove her ongoing membership as an insider. Even T.N.T, flaunting a controversial cover depicting Tucker in tight black leather pants with a microphone cord slithered between her legs, featured not only a blistering rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” but “Texas When I Die”—an Outlaws-sounding track that namechecks Willie Nelson. But unlike those male rebels whose illicit forays into sex and drugs only endeared them to progressive critics and fans, Tucker paid for her transgressions. As late as 1991, when she won the CMA Top Female Vocalist award nearly twenty years after her first, a disgusted deejay called her a “tramp.”51
Her evolving performance styles over the years serve as equally significant signs of accommodation and emancipation. When thirteen-year-old Tanya sang “Delta Dawn” in one moment captured on video, she wore a relatively demure frock and stood quite still. In the early 1980s, she sang the same hit but strutted the stage in a short, off-the shoulder dress, frequently standing with her legs wide apart and flirting with the audience.52 She also vamped it up with various duet partners, whether it be sex symbol Tom Jones on “Help Me Make it Through the Night” or country icon George Jones.
In 1994, a striking CMA Awards performance with Little Richard captures Tucker in her mid-thirties and at the peak of her career comeback, fully reveling in her sensuality. Singing “Somethin’ Else,” a rockabilly tune originally recorded in 1959 and their duet on the just-released compilation album Rhythm, Country & Blues, Tucker tore up the stage in a short black leather dress as Little Richard pounded the piano. “Somethin’ Else” borrows from rhythm and blues—in this case, a particular drum beat from a prior Little Richard song, “Keep A-Knockin’ ”—to recount a teenage boy’s desire for a snazzy, expensive car and an aloof girl “out of his class.” In the hands of these two performers, the car becomes quite the erotic emblem, with Richard moaning, “She’s ridin’ it real good.”53 Their very pairing as well as song choice obviously comments on their similar reputations in the music business: both Tucker and Richard are “somethin’ else,” outside normative parameters. Richard’s queer sexual identity had been the subject of speculation for decades, and his stage presence evoked his early experience as a drag performer.54 Yet this framing arguably suggests something more about Tucker’s coding as a “deviant” (i.e., promiscuous) female in country music, teasing out the racialized as well as classed and gendered dimensions of her movements and voice.
As Dana Wiggins reminds us, “an ‘uncontrolled’ body is both a signifier of racial inferiority and a threat to the racial status quo” within the United States.55 She argues that most female country artists in the 1980s, following an era in which white and black performers experimented with collaborative rhythm and blues, attempted to accentuate their whiteness primarily by demonstrating their bodily discipline on stage. Unlike prior performers like June Carter Cash who moved freely, even aggressively, in front of an audience, singers such as Crystal Gayle reigned in gestures and motion to preserve their status as “dignified white southern women.”56 Feminist scholarship on black female stage performance generally helps to underscore this claim. Nicole Fleetwood, (p. 386) for instance, asserts that “the black female body and the sexual imaginary associated with that body … establishes the boundaries for normative codes of the white female body and femininity.” 57 Jayna Brown amplifies this stance in her study of early twentieth-century, black female, showgirl performance by demonstrating that some white women also adapted black women’s dance moves to “transgress, in moderation, the sexual mores” of a prior era.58 At various moments and in specific sites, then, white female vocalists and dancers have certainly retained their “right” to conventional femininity through their privileged racial identity and concomitant performance style. But analysis must remain particular rather than generic. And as Wiggins’s examples suggest, class plays a compelling role in this formulation: it is “hillbilly” June whose body eludes containment and glamorous country-pop icon Gayle who exudes control.
Wiggins singles out Tucker as one of the few female country artists during the 1980s to challenge this trend with her “racy” live shows. However, she proceeds to press her case overall in a fraught reading of one such performance: the televised 1981 Hot concert featuring an all-black choir. Arguing that the Whitney Family’s “prominent movements” in the middle of the concert, backed by an African American band, actually overshadowed Tucker’s provocative stage presence, Wiggins concludes that the visible contrast allowed Tucker to continue her own dancing yet still foreground her whiteness.59 But additional factors suggest that this might be a hasty interpretation. At this juncture, Tucker was already notorious for her “excessive” body and sexual appetite both on and off of the stage, so she would not appear to gain much by either highlighting or deflecting her association with live African American singers and musicians. Additionally, these particular performers embodied religious, rather than worldly, values; if anything, a superficial reading within a conventional country music context would position Tanya as the “dissolute Saturday night” precursor to the requisite “Sunday morning” church experience, her white body more visibly classed through her potent sexuality. Tucker’s explosive collaboration with Little Richard over a decade after the Hot concert indeed flaunts such racialized connections, reviving the 1970s’ country music foray into interracial cultural exchange. Was she thus resisting the industry’s attempts to pathologize, as well as apparently “celebrate,” their shared Othering, exploiting the ostensible salaciousness of that association, or enacting a fluid intermixture of the two? Such texts offer opportunities for deeper, richer readings that accentuate, rather than evade, the imbrications of sexuality, race, gender, and class within the genre.
Further examination of Tucker’s corpus can work to flesh out the myriad implications of such blurred lines. She intriguingly shares many of the same qualities of younger female country artists—some hetero, some lesbian—who have gained a queer following. Like both Cline and lang, for instance, she possesses a uniquely powerful voice that can project anguish as well as pleasure. Brett Farmer’s observations on Cline might equally apply to Tucker: “able to infuse her songs with strong pathos” while “the sheer magisterial control of her vocal style belies any possible sense of nihilism or helplessness.” Additionally, her unusually low register has “sexually ambiguous, almost androgynous” qualities.60 Although Tucker unquestionably showcases her heterosexual identity in both personal and professional realms, its gendering is another matter. She often states (p. 387) that she conducts her life “like a man” does, especially in her romantic/sexual relationships, and her music can both vocally and narratively affirm that gender crossing.61
And though she may not so obviously challenge gender norms in her dress or in her sexual identity as Andrea Newlyn argues of Wynonna Judd, Tucker similarly drives a Harley (albeit pink) and eludes categorization. Like Judd, she is “too rock for country radio, too country for rock, too upfront in her opinions, too unpredictable, too dangerous”62—which may have spurred their joint half-time performance at the 1994 Super Bowl. Perhaps most strikingly, Tucker and Judd share an Elvis obsession that positions both as “decidedly ‘masculine.’ ”63 Their thrusting bodies claim performance space while also affiliating them with lower classed and racialized spheres, straddling “black” and “white” positionalities. However, rather than enacting a self-consciously camp rendition of Presley as “drag king”—Wynonna’s “parody of a parody,” according to Newlyn—Tucker offers a genuine homage that similarly challenges gender, if not racial, constructions.64 I would argue that she ultimately blends within herself both Judds’ stage personas: mother Naomi’s flirtatious engagement with the audience and “hyperfeminine” yet sexy costuming together with her daughter’s snarling bravado. Perhaps Tucker recognized decades earlier than Wynonna that “the venue of the stage—and the combination of … [such differing gender codes] … —somehow allow[ed] … a certain deliverance from the efforts of the country music industry … to recontain her sexuality.”65 Now largely an afterthought in the cultural zeitgeist aside from her cameo appearance over a decade ago in Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” video, she deserves recognition of her complex legacy—and recent approaches within sexuality studies are tailor-made to tease that out.
Already sustaining considerable critical backlash for a variety of musical, thematic, and sociopolitical offenses, bro-country—“music by and for the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude”—may very well exhaust its popularity sooner rather than later.66 Yet its unprecedented graphic language and imagery, strategically overlaid with black musical citation through quasi-rapping or frequent collaboration with hip hop artists, positions it as a descendant as well as innovator of a broader tradition within this music—and one enthusiastically embraced by a large swath of today’s coveted youth demographic (including female fans, protests to the contrary). As the latest trend in mainstream country to figure identity by adopting a notably racialized, gendered, and classed approach to sexuality, bro-country demands critical attention that can not only pry apart these elements but study them in tandem.
Though I share many of their misgivings, existing commentaries tends to indulge in a distorted presentation of country music history, wherein older, more established artists are cast as the “mature” antithesis to all things “bro.” Reviewers like Jody Rosen (New York Times) and Ian Crouch (New Yorker) helpfully acknowledge earlier country songs centering on casual or marital sex, yet their carefully selected examples stand in (p. 388) for a much broader adult “gravitas”: “a masculine ideal” of “stoicism … in the face of hardship” and “devotion … to kitchen-table truths,”67 or the instantiation of “mature and mutual love.”68 The list conveniently neglects earlier novelty tunes about pornography or songs by women that might (or might not) tell a different story about sex in the country. Both critics exude a whiff of elitist moralism about this latest mode of country sexual permissiveness. The contrast between country music’s past and present here is hardly irrelevant, but their dismissive approach acquires its own kind of “highbro” outlook. Sex apparently needs to signal a long-term, committed relationship and operate as a metaphor for a higher calling for these publications to endorse this country subgenre.
That being said, songs by Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and the like approach their sex narratives with a numbingly predictable set of images and taglines. In addition to using blunt phrases such as “getting laid” or “naked in bed” and comic double entendres that leave nothing to the imagination, they string together stock signifiers for a guy hoping to get lucky: a “big black jacked up truck” on a moonlit dirt road (Bryan, “That’s My Kind of Night”); a “hot,” tanned “girl” sporting “painted on jeans” (Chris Young, “Aw Naw”) who’s always riding “shotgun,” never driving (Cole Swindell, “Chillin’ It”); and the requisite bottle of “good stuff” stashed in the back (“Chillin’ It”). 69 A fair, if simple, critique can thus be lodged against the music’s derivativeness and, as voiced by Maddie and Tae’s clever send-up of the bro phenomenon, “Girl in a Country Song,”70 its reduction of female love interests to mere “body parts.”71
Perhaps more startling, though, is bro-country’s reliance on “black” tropes to heighten the brand’s appeal. With such explicit sexual content, why the need to inject additional traces of embodied excess? Rosen makes a brief but crucial observation about this movement’s subtle shift to an identifiable middle-class register in much of its iconography—as he puts it, a “gentrifying impulse” emblemized by Bryan’s set list that adapts the “scene of the party from the honky-tonk to the frat house.”72 Numerous songs reference college or temporary trips back home, not so much capturing immersion in small-town life but reviving prior memories of it. Hip-hop beats and cadences and guest cameos by rap artists may thus “dirty up” the music and storylines, stirring up associations of blackness with not only sexuality but a cool “badness.” As Fleetwood affirms, the black, male, hip hop body “signifies within and outside of black communities a form of coolness through racialized and masculine difference and a diaphanous ‘outlawness.’ ”73 That linkage may compensate for the lack of gendered working-class authenticity claimed by the pack’s professed old-school heroes like Jones and Cash.
In 1998, country band Confederate Railroad, whose logo featured the Confederate flag, released the unapologetic “I Hate Rap.” But nearly twenty years later, hip hop infusions into pop country are seen as a generational and hence “natural progression” reflecting multiple cultural and social influences—“ ‘it’s in their DNA,’ ” crows uberproducer Scott Borchetta.74 And as with recent queer-identified country tracks, bro-country’s embrace of hip hop also suggests to some a distinctly political mode of progress; Rosen, for all his objections, lauds the songs’ “cosmopolitan” affect “dragging pop’s most hidebound genre into the Obama era without batting an eye.”75 However, (p. 389) this highly selective sampling and cred-by-association needs to be considered alongside these texts’ simultaneously classed and gendered inscriptions of sexuality to sort out the greater effects of such cross-racial “blending.”
Bryan’s concert appearances have been known to include brief renditions of earlier rap hits like “Baby Got Back” (Six Mix-A-Lot’s ode to black women’s “Big Butts”) and more recent fare such as Tyga’s “Rack City.”76 Hip hop remixes of songs, such as Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” reboot via Ludacris, are more common; but the most notable remains mega-hit “Cruise.” In the video, African American rapper Nelly not only gets a solo but plays himself as an artist who can “kick up” an already great song—and not simply through the main duo’s autotuned vocals. Nelly can claim mainstream country credentials via his rather tame collaboration with Tim McGraw in 2004, yet he also lends a raunchy, strip club vibe to “Cruise” due to his infamous 2003 song/video “Tip Drill.” The remix video version gets particularly interesting when it self-consciously injects gendered racial politics into its own surface narrative. Racial profiling, for instance, gets a nod when the rapper drives a luxury white convertible alongside Florida Georgia Line’s black truck on some back roads, only to be pursued by a police car; however, any potential threat gets defused when a sexy black female “officer” emerges from the vehicle. In the meantime, Hubbard and Kelley encounter several other black women—one of whom pops up on screen in sync with the “tanned legs” lyric—but no cross-racial dalliances ensue. The black and white female juxtaposition may, as suggested earlier, associatively enhance the white women’s sexual availability while continuing to distinguish their femininity as the singers seek to “absorb” the masculine power of Nelly’s virile presence.77
One last example will have to suffice, from a contemporary male country artist who both epitomizes and defies the bro category: Blake Shelton. Largely due to his stint as a coach on the hugely popular television competition show The Voice but also his (now defunct) marriage to country’s reigning top female performer Miranda Lambert, Shelton has achieved superstar status within popular culture as a whole—a hyper form of visibility currently eluding other bro artists. Shelton is too old for frat parties and, compared to his younger compatriots, offers an admittedly safe yet certainly wider range of styles and subjects. But he has emerged as a strident defender of the bro phenomenon and in 2013 contributed to it with his No. 1 single “Boys ‘Round Here.” 78 Sonically and visually, the song and video encompass many de rigueur bro components, including hip hop trappings: autotuning (especially on the term “redneck”), rapping/spoken word, scratching, low-rider cars, and gold dental grills. The song attempts to delineate white southern male culture, which includes ways to entice girls to “shake that sugar” and euphemizes sex as “gettin’ down with” one of the titular “boys.” 79 On the radio and download versions, you only hear one reference to a popular hip hop dance (the “dougie”) as a counter to this scene’s white rural cultural practices. The video, however, takes an entirely different approach, staging a mock competition between Kentucky’s good old white boys and African American young men sporting dreadlocks and gold chains. The initial story line suggests that black men’s mere presence in this rural space can seem sinister, from the opening scene depicting their bouncing car driving by Shelton’s (p. 390) similarly rocking truck, to their “scowling” arrival at the party site thronged by Shelton and friends.
Yet that’s ultimately a ruse. We eventually learn that the white and black characters are in fact friends who recognize their commonalities, united by region but also gender (and possibly class) identities. The video culminates in a harmonious, “post-racial” vision (signaled by both groups teaching the other a new dance) that might suggest the kind of border-crossing affiliation that I’ve been promoting in this chapter. Curiously, though, no black women join this fellowship; and the prominently featured white women who also provide background vocals—Lambert and her Pistol Annies cohorts—are exempted from the revelry. Midway through the narrative, they get relocated to an idyllic yet also highly stylized riverbank setting. The text’s heavy-handed message of cross-racial unity thus becomes potentially compromised by this maneuver. Additionally, this denouement makes white and black women’s differing modes of marginalization abundantly clear. The heightened presence of urban black masculinity in Shelton’s video text thus gestures toward a new vision of country alliance yet ultimately settles for the now familiar function of authenticating the desirability of rural white heterosexual men—the only mode of sexuality truly at stake in bro-country music.
(*) I want to thank my wonderful graduate research assistant, Harry Burson, for helping me jumpstart this research project by compiling an annotated bibliography of existing scholarship and journalism. I also appreciate Samantha Pinto’s incisive feedback on initial drafts. Finally, the English Department at Georgetown University provided crucial summer funding.
(1.) “Truck Drivin’ Man” (King Records, 1948); “Betty Ann and Shirley Cole” (Columbia Records, 1973); “We Shall Be Free” (Liberty Records, 1992); “Back Street Affair” (Decca, 1952); “I’d Love to Lay You Down” (MCA Records, 1980); “Cruise” (Republic Nashville, 2012). For more on blackface and rube performance, see Pamela Fox, Natural Acts: Gender, Race, and Rusticity in Country Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 17–62.
(2.) Claude Hall, “Country Radio Audiences Howling About Dirty Lyrics,” Billboard (April 16, 1977): 3, 79, 86. See Nick Tosches’s rollicking commentary over the years indicting this trend, particularly Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock’N’Roll (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996).
(3.) See Ian Crouch, “Taking Country Music Back From the Bros,” New Yorker, Culture Desk, accessed July 24, 2014, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/clever-response-bro-country-songs; Amy McCarthy, “Bro Country’s Sexism is Ruining Country Music,” June 18, 2014, accessed March 4, 2015, www.dallasobserver.com/music/bro-countrys-sexism-is-ruining-country-music-7070740. “Cruise” can claim the distinction of being the best-selling digital song to date across all music markets.
(4.) Geoff Mann, “Why Does Country Music Sound White? Race and the Voice of Nostalgia,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31, no. 1 (2008): 80.
(5.) John Buckley, “Country Music and American Values,” Popular Music and Society 6, no. 4 (1979): 293.
(10.) See Aaron Fox’sReal Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); and Barbara Ching’sWrong’s What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
(11.) Edward G. Armstrong, “Country Music Sex Songs: An Ethnomusicological Account,” The Journal of Sex Research 22, no. 3 (1986): 370.
(15.) Karen Saucier Lundy, “Women and Country Music,” in America’s Musical Pulse: Popular Music in Twentieth-Century Society, ed. Kenneth J. Bindas (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 212, 214. Also see Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music: 1800-2000 (Nashville, TN: Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 2003); and Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson, eds., The Women of Country Music: A Reader (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003).
(16.) Lundy, “Women and Country Music,” 215.
(17.) Kristine C. McCusker and Diane Pecknold, eds., “Introduction,” A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), xx.
(18.) Joanna Kadi, Thinking Class: Sketches From a Cultural Worker (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1996), 6.
(21.) Brett Farmer, “Perverse Inclin(e)ations: Queers and the Subversive Dynamic of Patsy Cline,” Southern Review 27, no. 2 (June 1994): 212.
(23.) Martha Mockus, “Queer Thoughts on Country Music and k.d. lang,” in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas (New York: Routledge, 1994), 257, 260.
(26.) Mockus, “Queer Thoughts,” 264.
(27.) Chris Dickinson, “Country Undetectable: Gay Artists in Country Music,” Journal of Country Music 21, no. 1 (2000): 30. For more on the current iteration of LGCMA, see Hulshof Schmidt, Social Justice for All, Tag Archives: Lesbian and Gay Country Music Association, accessed June 17, 2015, https://hulshofschmidt.wordpress.com/tag/lesbian-and-gay-country-music-association/.
(31.) Sarah Boesveld, “Gay as an Arrow; This Year, Nashville Started Slowly Planning Country Music’s Coming-Out Party,” National Post (Ontario), December 29, 2014: B.8. It’s also worth noting that “Follow Your Arrow” stalled at number 43 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart (Boesveld) and that “Girl Crush” concerns a heterosexual woman fixating on another woman who has stolen her man.
(32.) Quoted in Boesveld, “Gay as an Arrow.”
(33.) James Mandrell, “Shania Twain Shakes Up Country Music,” The Journal of Popular Culture 47, no. 5 (2014): 1016; Nadine Hubbs, Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 20.
(34.) Judith Peraino, “The Same, But Different: Sexuality and Musicology, Then and Now,” in Colloquy: Music and Sexuality, ed. Judith Peraino and Suzanne G. Cusick, Journal of the American Musicological Society 66, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 827.
(37.) “Redneck Woman” (Reservoir Media Music, 2004).
(40.) See, for example, Anthony Harkins, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); and John Hartigan Jr., Odd Tribes: Towards A Cultural Analysis of White People (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).
(41.) Maureen Mahon, “Music, Sexuality, and Power: A Practice Theory Approach,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 66, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 846.
(42.) Several recent excellent studies redress the chronic absence of scholarship on black session musicians and artists over country’s long history. My point here is that sexuality remains underresearched in relationship to both black country performers and musical tropes associated with “blackness.” See Diane Pecknold, ed., Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); and Charles Hughes, Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
(43.) A few crucial exceptions not referenced in this chapter include Bufwack and Oermann, Finding Her Voice, 385–389, 440–442; David Sanjek, “Can A Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis?” in Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, ed. Sheila Whiteley (New York: Routledge, 1997), 137–167.
(44.) The term is Tucker’s. See her memoir, with Patsi Bale Cox, Nickel Dreams: My Life (New York: Hyperion, 1997), 254.
(45.) Daniel Cooper, “Tanya Tucker Almost Grown,” in The Country Reader: Twenty-Five Years of the Journal of Country Music, ed. Paul Kingsbury (Nashville, TN: Country Music Foundation & Vanderbilt University Press, 1996), 223, 211, 223. For Tucker’s own comment on the ad, see Nickel Dreams, 155.
(46.) Tucker, Nickel Dreams, 47.
(47.) Chet Flippo, “Tanya: the Teenage Teaser,” Rolling Stone 170, September 26, 1974, accessed March 4, 2015, www.rollingstone.com/music/features/tanya-tucker-the-teenage-teaser-19740926.
(48.) Flippo, “Tanya.”
(49.) Quoted in Flippo, “Tanya.”
(50.) Tucker, Nickel Dreams, 131, 92.
(52.) Your Music Jukebox—The ’70s, “Tanya Tucker—Delta Dawn,” YouTube video, 2:53, uploaded March 30, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO09q5LRmGo; One Media Music, “Tanya Tucker—Delta Dawn,” YouTube video, 4:24, published January 15, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9k2qlkWzfc.
(54.) See Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography (London: Omnibus Press, 2003), for documentation of this performer’s gender-queer identity.
(55.) Dana C. Wiggins, “From Countrypolitan to Neotraditional: Gender, Race, Class, and Region in Female Country Music, 1980-1989” (dissertation, Georgia State University, 2009), 71.
(57.) Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 111.
(58.) Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 169–170(emphasis added).
(59.) Wiggins, “From Countrypolitan,” 74–75.
(60.) Farmer, “Perverse Inclin(e)ations,” 219.
(61.) Nickel Dreams is rife with such comments about her various liaisons: writing of her fling with actor Don Johnson, Tucker quips, “[i]t didn’t last too long … Things pretty much needed to go his way, and I was always thinking that things ought to be going my way. I can be a little cocky myself, especially around a guy who thinks he’s a gift” (Nickel Dreams, 165).
(62.) Quoted in Andrea K. Newlyn, “The Power to Change: Gender Essentialism, Identity Politics, and the Judds,” Popular Music and Society 27, no. 3 (2004): 282. Newlyn cites a Boston Globe article on Wynonna written by Steve Morse.
(63.) Newlyn, “Power to Change,” 284–285.
(64.) I have been unable to find early footage of a young Tanya deliberately mimicking Elvis on stage, but I rely here on journalists’ accounts as well as her own reflections: she recalls his “charisma” and confesses that she similarly wanted to “mesmeriz[e]” an audience; Tucker, Nickel Dreams, 140.
(65.) Newlyn, “Power to Change,” 287. Newlyn is speaking of Wynonna as part of the Judds’ performative duo.
(66.) Jody Rosen, “Jody Rosen on the Rise of Bro-Country,” Vulture, August 11, 2013, accessed March 4, 2015, with this article, the current critic-at-large for T: The New York Times Magazine Blog coined the term “bro-country.”
(67.) Rosen, “Jody Rosen.”
(68.) Crouch, “Taking Country,” 4.
(69.) Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze” (Republic Nashville, 2014); Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down” (Broken Bow, 2014); “That’s My Kind of Night” (Capitol Nashville, 2013); “Aw Naw” (RCA Nashville, 2013); “Chillin’ It” (Warner Bros. Nashville, 2013). See Grady Smith’s “Every Truck, Beer, and ‘Girl’ Reference on the Current Country Chart,” which provides a handy list of such references, Entertainment Weekly, posted on October 18, 2013, accessed April 2, 2015, www.ew.com/article/2013/10/18/bro-country-beer-trucks-lyrics.
(70.) Maddie & Tae, “Girl in a Country Song” (Republic, 2014). Interestingly, this single was produced by Scott Borchetta, who also represents the majority of bro artists. For more on the song’s impact, see Crouch, “Taking Country.”
(71.) McCarthy, “Bro Country’s Sexism,” 2. She also points to “a very murky definition of sexual consent in many of these tracks.”
(72.) Rosen, “Jody Rosen.”
(73.) Fleetwood, Troubling Vision, 152.
(74.) Emily Yahr, “Mixing in Some Hip-Hop to the 2-Step,” Washington Post, August 6, 2013, C2.
(77.) I am drawing on Jayna Brown’s use of the term “absorb”: “[t]he principle of absorption is … at the heart of … disembodied contact between white Americans and African Americans in the urban dance spaces. … White dancers did not seek to ‘become’ a colored body” but to “absorb its power, and, through eroticized ritual, affirm its servitude” (Brown, Babylon Girls, 174). Also see Florida Georgia Line’s “Get Your Shine On,” which borrows a colloquialism from southern rap to encourage young white women to party. (Rosen originally noted the connection.) The video reprises many of the popular elements of “Cruise”—hot bikinied girls, this time spring breaking in Cancun—but links the setting to non-whiteness through its bizarre incorporation of Mexican lucha libre dwarf wrestlers.
(78.) In a 2013 television special devoted to his career, Shelton confronted the recent critique by arguing, “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do.” Quoted in Grady Smith, “How Country Music Went Crazy: A Comprehensive Timeline of the Genre’s Identity Crisis,” Entertainment Weekly, posted on October 1, 2013, accessed April 2, 2015, www.ew.com/article/2013/10/01/country-music-identity-crisis.
(79.) “Boys ‘Round Here” (Warner Bros. Nashville, 2013).