When it comes to mainstream country, it’s been mostly women singers who have bucked gender stereotypes. Loretta Lynn’s 1975 hit “The Pill” is probably the most referenced, a song that matter-of-factly discussed birth control and finally acknowledged women’s interest in sex beyond bearing children. Twenty years earlier, though, Kitty Wells created some controversy with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a song written by Jay Miller as an answer to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” Thompson’s song was meant as a tongue-lashing directed at a woman who leaves the song’s narrator (the only one who ever loved her, according to the man) to return to “the places where the wine and liquor flows.” (I mean, who wouldn’t?) “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels,” Thompson sings. “I might have known you’d never make a wife.”
Wells’ response includes the lines, “It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women / It’s not true that only you men feel the same.” The song turned the blame back on cheating men, but the most radical aspect of it was the way it directly referenced Thompson’s song and called out male country singers for using women as scapegoats in their love-gone-wrong songs.
Wells’ and Lynn’s songs were feminist, even if no one in mainstream country music would call them that, and the strong-and-sassy take from female country singers has persisted, even as a lot of gender stereotypes have remained intact. See: Straight, white, cisgender people looking for monogamous love and subscribing to traditional rules of masculine and feminine behavior.
All of which is to say that country music is the perfect space in which to upend gender roles. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I hung out in a basement in the lower Rattlesnake with several musicians who were making costumes for the upcoming Blue Mountain Clinic benefit, Cross Country. Now in its second year, the event features a house band, plus a bunch of singers performing songs in drag. It was started by Izaak Opatz of the Best Westerns and is co-produced by Dawn Anderson, who recently shared the stage with other women in a Halloween tribute band to Patsy Cline called Patsy Grime, which was a perfect blend of dreaminess and grit. Opatz started Cross Country spurred by an urge: “I wanted to sing a Reba McEntire song in drag, on stage, and this was how I solved that problem,” he says. At first, he didn’t consider Missoula a likely host for such an event. He was inspired by his time living in Nashville, when he would frequent the Five Spot, where on Wednesday nights renowned musicians would mount the stage and sing country classics along with a live band.
Opatz was in L.A., on his way to Missoula, but Anderson was down in the basement making a country-western-style garment out of a down vest. Also present: Lukas Phelan, of Fantasy Suite, bedazzling his cowboy boots and writing “bad girl” on them with glitter; singer-songwriter Hermina Harold, who was busy cutting someone’s wig into a mullet; Aaron Jennings, who was sorting through dresses; and Nate Biehl (of Cash for Junkers and Caroline Keys and the LaneSplitters) making a big-ass golden belt buckle.
The mood was upbeat, though everyone seemed to be taking the act of picking out a costume seriously. The idea isn’t to goof around in the garb of another gender, but to embrace it. And the decision of what song to pick is always an individual one. A lot of the guys chose songs sung by women that feed into the stereotype of women as accessories. Others are more in the vein of the strong-and-sassy woman, even though they feel antiquated, like Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” But it’s also a celebration of the genre by musicians who love it.
“Country music is generally associated with a rural and stiff mindset, and I think rural people are often the most open-minded,” Jennings says. “And rural music, even though it has these stereotypes that come out of the industry of country music, the people who play it can flip it on its head and have a big laugh at it.”
For the women singing men’s songs, it’s a whole different beast. If anything, mainstream country has pushed men in the other direction, with songs that seem to be clawing their way back to the worst male stereotypes. Bro-country, where men are men and women are scenery, has become so much a thing that even other country groups have referenced it. In “Girl in a Country Song,” Maddie & Tae sing, “I hear you over there on your tailgate whistlin’ / Sayin,’ ‘Hey girl.’ But you know I ain’t listenin’ / ’cause I got a name / And to you it ain’t ‘pretty little thing,’ ‘honey,’ or ‘baby’ / Yeah it’s drivin’ me red-red-red-red-red-redneck crazy.”
“There are some that are such extremely good examples of how shitty it is in country music,” Biehl says. “I feel like listening to that Brad Paisley song, ‘I’m Still a Guy,’ is the worst. It’s a just this torrent of homophobia and insecurity.”
Harold is singing that song, and everyone in the basement seems to agree that it’s the most egregious choice this year. It manages to hit on several problematic themes, including mocking effeminate men, putting women in their place, hinting at non-consensual sex and perpetuating the idea that men aren’t interested in art because art is for pussies.
Harold admits that it makes her squeamish, but the hope is that it shines a light on how ridiculous it is and deflates the offensiveness by mocking it.
“It’s about the most misogynistic song I’ve ever heard,” she says. “I thought it would be therapeutic in a way to really poke fun at that, but since the first practice I’ve started to feel a little nervous. I think people will know I’m not endorsing it.”
Anderson, who hosts a country show on KBGA (Grassroots, on Sunday mornings), says that in fact some of what she likes about country music is how ridiculous much of it is.
“I like that it lends itself to being performed and staged and so emotionally overdone, and because it holds up all these gender archetypes throughout time, it’s really well-suited for something like this,” she says.
At last year’s Cross Country, Anderson dressed as Conway Twitty and sang “It’s Only Make Believe.” This year she’s decided to take on Merle Haggard’s “Drink Up and Be Somebody.” She initially wanted to do the song because it was so macho, but singing it changed her mind.
“When I first heard him do it I thought, ‘That’s such a male perspective,’” she says. “But it’s really not. So I think it does both those things: It makes really over-the-top gender roles look ridiculous, and then also makes you realize that maybe they’re not as gendered as they seem. Because that song is about hiding emotions—and men and women both do that.”
Cross Country takes place at the Top Hat Sat., Nov. 11, at 9:30 PM. $15/$12 advance.