Queer Country, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Jaime Wyatt, Melissa Carper, Lavender Country and others bring their authentic selves to OUTlaw Pride Fest

The first time I met Creekbed Carter Hogan, the Austin-based musician whose Instagram bio describes them as a “trans idiot with a heart of gold” who goes by he/they pronouns, he was playing a set on a stage outside a Lockhart music shop during the town’s inaugural Pride week in June 2022.

Creekbed’s storytelling grabbed me immediately. He told the story of Willie Nelson’s commercial jingles, penned in the 90s for Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, and then sang “Woman With the Rose Tattoo,” Nelson’s jingle for the nationwide chain that brought us the Crunchwrap Supreme. 

I’d been coming to Lockhart for barbecue day trips my entire life, and had written about the town’s recent evolution into a hip weekend destination with cool restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries, but this was still Lockhart, the seat of mostly conservative Caldwell County–a place I wouldn’t have expected to see a non-binary musician accepted.

Since 2021, the OUTlaw Pride Fest, Austin’s First Queer Country festival, and many other pride events have been popping up in small towns surrounding Austin, bringing LGBTQ country, bluegrass, and folk musicians to new audiences while building a community among queer musicians. In a red state  suddenly in an arms race with other red states on who can be the most unwelcoming to the LGBTQ community, it might be hard to imagine the growth of a queer country music scene. But from Nacogdoches in East Texas to Amarillo, Texas-based country, bluegrass, and folk musicians are bringing their mix of Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson covers and original music, including songs of heartbreak with same-sex pronouns, to audiences across the state. 

Born in West Texas, Julie Nolen is known for the piercing twang in her voice and energetic on-stage performances. She lives in Austin now and plays a regular rotation of gigs at Saxon Pub, Hole in the Wall, and Poodie’s Roadhouse. Her 2016 album Songs of Dignity and Grit, tells stories through songwriting of risktaking (“Trouble Junkie”), heartbreak (“From Afar”), and new love (“Silly Little Grin”). But she’s also a talent buyer who handles booking for several venues, and in 2021, she felt inspired by the increasing visibility and representation of LGBTQ country musicians in the publication Country Queer to start the OUTlaw Pride Fest at the Rustic Tap in Austin. The tagline? “Because what’s more outlaw than being queer in country music?”  

Julie Nolen started OUTlaw Pride Fest, Austin’s First Queer Country festival. Photo: David Brendan Hall

The inaugural OUTlaw Pride Fest brought together an impressive lineup of queer musicians, including Devin Jake, Emily Herring, the Buffalo Gals Band (Melissa Carper and partner Rebecca Patek), Jaime Wyatt, and Lavender Country, the first openly queer country band whose song “Crying These C*cksucking Tears” inspired a documentary directed by Dan Taberski that won Best Documentary Short at SXSW in March 2016. “We had to cut our set short because nobody wanted to let Lavender Country off the stage,” Herring recalls. “But this idea Julie had to start OUTlaw was really cool,” Herring continues “because I’ve been playing country music a long time, like 20 years, and I can probably count on one hand all the queer people who play country music, and that includes famous people I don’t know.”  

The Rustic Tap on Austin’s West 6th Street, where the first OUTlaw Pride Fest was held, is not a gay bar, a deliberate choice by Nolen. “There’s always going to be a country night at a gay bar,” Nolen says, “but there’s never a queer night at a country bar.” The festival brought queer country musicians from around Texas and the nation to new audiences, not just LGBTQ-identifying ones. The event also raised money for the organization OUT Youth. 

OUTlaw also helped some artists reimagine how they want to be categorized. Patek’s experience at that first OUTlaw festival was fully immersive, as she played not only with Carper in the Buffalo Gals, but also played fiddle in Jaime Wyatt’s band and she backed up Devin Jake as well. “The community was sort of already there,” Patek says, “but you really felt it at the festival. Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to be labeled as a woman singer-songwriter or an LGBTQ songwriter, but at that festival I realized it was cool to have that label and to have this community.”

Creekbed Carter, the self-described “trans idiot with heart of gold.” Photo: Colton Matocha

There was a second OUTlaw Pride Fest in September 2022, again at the Rustic Tap in Austin, and in February 2023, the festival popped up in San Marcos, Texas, a college town/home of Texas State University along the San Marcos River. The town’s only gay bar, Stonewall, had just closed, and the event took place in not just one, but four spaces: The Porch, Zelicks Icehouse, and The Davenport. Like the home of the original festival, these venues were not places you’d necessarily expect an LGBTQ event. 

“Some people were there for the festival and others were there because it’s a downtown bar where people watch the game,” Nolen said of the OUTlaw Festival. “There were queer folks in the same space as the people who used to beat up the gay kids in high school,” she continued. “It felt like there could be this tension, but I’ve never seen so many frat boys high five so many queer artists and say ‘great job.’ If you can create that kind of environment, you’re bringing in people who wouldn’t otherwise experience it.”

An aspect of queer country music that is relatively new in the long history of the genre is the use of gender-switching lyrics and same sex pronouns. Take Devin Jake’s “Honky Tonk Angel,” for example. “So I’m goin’ out tonight to find myself a man/One to treat me right and love me for who I am/Or I might get drunk, just enough that I can’t stand/And make a bad decision with a boy that’s in the band.” Melissa Carper’s music is similarly refreshing; the song “Boxers on Backwards,” a fun upbeat lament about an unfortunate night of not getting lucky comes to mind: “Well, I’m feelin’ kind of shy/and I’m an odd kind of guy/I ain’t gettin’ lucky tonight.”

Lavender Country’s tune, “Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You,” depicts a particular kind of blues faced by the band’s now deceased lead singer Patrick Haggerty, who said on camera in the Crying These C*cksucking Tears documentary that opportunities to hook up with other men–including closeted men–never eluded him, but true connection through meaningful relationships did. Dubbed “the lost pioneer of gay country music” in a 1999 article that appeared in The Journal of Country Music, Haggerty was inspired by the Stonewall uprising to come out of the closet and begin a path of activism, which included forming the band Lavender Country. Unlike the majority of gay artists in 1973, he openly wrote songs about his frustrations with same sex relationships. His lyrics weren’t always overt, but in lines like “button down paragon” in “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You,” it’s clear he’s referring to another man: “I see you stepping high with your tight blue jeans on//Strutting like a button down paragon//I reckon you’re looking for some necking, yes I do//Climb right up into my manger//But let me warn you ‘bout one small danger, babe//I can’t shake the stranger out of you.”

That song was covered in 2020 by drag queen Trixie Mattel. And that reality of queer heartbreak and queer experience is exactly what Nolen hopes to bring to wider audiences via OUTlaw and work she does year-round as a talent buyer. “Our stories are no different,” Nolen says. “We’ve all dated someone, gotten our hearts broken, and drank a bunch of whiskey about it. But I want to hear different voices.”


Dancing to the band Devin Jake, backed by Melissa Carper on upright bass Photo: Andrea Escobar

Herring spoke to a state of constant vigilance when I asked her how comfortable she feels singing about same-sex relationships and whether she switches pronouns when performing her songs to appease more conservative-seeming audiences: “I still vacillate depending on where I am. If I’m someplace where it’s easier to be ambiguous because of safety, I’m not above playing it straight,” Herring said.  “As a performer, you just take all of it in. From the parking lot, to the moment I’m in the song, I’m assessing where I am on that.” 

But despite the fears and political environment, these artists are carrying on. Herring’s calendar is full of gigs in places like Garret T. Capps’ Lonesome Rose honky tonk in San Antonio, and the historic Driskill Hotel in Austin. Nolen is also set to play Lockhart Pride while collaborating with the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce to curate the OUTlaw Pride Stage at the organization’s fourth annual Pride in Local Music Festival, a block party on 4th Street in downtown Austin, on June 24.

And while the concept of queer country music may seem new, the sound is old and homegrown. Listening to the vocals of Nolen, Herring, and Carper, is like “that feeling you get being in nature,” Patek says. “The voices and music of these singers who aren’t overproduced are most likely having a moment right now because in our electronic lives, listening to that music is like going for a walk in the woods. It reaches the human spirit in that same way.” The same could be said of celebrations of queer joy across Texas in 2023.

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