What Does It Mean to Be A Country Singer in 2019?
Meet the new guard.
Pony, the debut album by the young country crooner Orville Peck, sounds like it is scientifically engineered to be played on a dusty jukebox somewhere in an old Nashville saloon. Peck’s deep, calm bass-baritone recalls the bygone era of Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison; the haunting guitar riffs drift between rockabilly, blues, and dreamy shoegazing distortions. And, like the musical greats his sound echoes, Peck casts himself as a lone ranger suffering from an achy breaky heart. “Six summers down, another dreamless night / You’re not by my side,” he sings.
But if Peck’s impassioned music brings to mind country classics, his outré look is a slap in the face to tradition. In every public appearance he has made since he first rode onto the scene three years ago, he has donned a variety of leather-and-fringe masks that disguise most of his visage, save for his piercing blue eyes and angular jawline. The masks, which Peck hand-sews himself, are typically worn with a cowboy hat and old-school Western wear, or sometimes more casually, over a vintage T-shirt and jeans. They conceal his identity in an enigmatic, Sia-like fashion, but they also reveal something close to his true character as a stylish honky-tonk provocateur.
“I like to use the mask as an art form,” the singer says. In what can only be described as a reverse closet case, Peck is open about being an out gay man (most of his lyrics romanticize his past male lovers), but he refuses to disclose where he was born, his age, or even if Orville Peck is his actual birth name. He is equally opaque about the meaning behind his disguises. Are they nods to equestrian garb? Old-timey comic books? Gay fetish subcultures? “I don’t like to make those decisions for people,” he says. “It’s much more inclusive and connecting for people to make conclusions on their own.”
Peck is certainly not the only one challenging country’s Tim McGraw–esque aesthetic. In fact, country music, a genre that in the past has been fiercely resistant to changing mores, has become a playground for artists to explore questions of race, gender, and sexuality—one pair of bedazzled chaps at a time. On her critically lauded album Be the Cowboy, which appeared on many Best of 2018 lists, the Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki ponders what the mythological status of the cowboy means to her. “Every time I would find myself doing exactly what the world expects of me as an Asian woman, I would turn around and tell myself, ‘Well, what would a cowboy do?’ ” she recently said. Solange’s latest LP, When I Get Home, features minimalist visuals that depict the oft-overlooked artistic legacy of black bull riding in the South; last spring, she posed for a magazine wearing a top assembled out of four studded white 10-gallon hats. The Texas-born-and-bred rapper Megan Thee Stallion has risen to fame and online influence (she is the originator of the mantra “hot girl summer”) through her fabulously unholy fashion sense that is equal parts rodeo toughness, strip-club vulgarity, and anime fantasy. And after Kacey Musgraves won four Grammy Awards last February, including Album of the Year for Golden Hour, the country megastar showed up at this year’s Met Gala as a tongue-in-cheek Nashville Barbie, in a pink custom Moschino number complete with a blow-dryer purse. While attending the Country Music Association Awards, she jokingly called her Western-inspired Versace dress “Yee-sace.”
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone has called Trixie Mattel, a drag queen and country-folk singer who won the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, “the drag superstar as a country legend in the making.” Mattel, whose real name is Brian Michael Firkus, wears exaggerated eye makeup, sky-high hair, and Muppet-ish country-fair garb that might best be described as Dolly Parton on acid. Last year, Firkus reached the top three on the iTunes charts with the release of his country-folk album One Stone—not bad for a guy playing the Autoharp in heels and a set of fake eyelashes.
And then there are the flashy (and just a lil’ trashy) Western getups worn by Lil Nas X, who is arguably one of the biggest pop stars in the world after his inescapable hit “Old Town Road” made Billboard history by becoming the longest-running No. 1 Hot 100 single of all time. The performer came out as gay on Twitter this past June, at the end of WorldPride month, and his witty tweets and penchant for neon fringe and bare abs—think the Village People for Generation Z—counter the toxic machismo that has long festered in both the country and hip-hop genres he cross-pollinates.
“On the surface level, country has been very predominantly about a straight white scene, when we know that simply isn’t true,” says Sydney Gore, a music writer who has tracked the resurgence of black cowboy culture in music and fashion. “These artists are reacting to what has been happening in America and reclaiming moments in history from which they have traditionally been excluded. We’re entering an era of genre fluidity, and whether or not people want to ride that wave, it’s happening.” That is why Solange can release an esoteric R&B album with visuals that allude to black American cowboy mythology and why Musgraves can effortlessly borrow Daft Punk–esque vocoder filters for her country ballads.
Fashion, too, has thrown its Stetson hat into the ring. Balmain, Burberry, and Junya Watanabe all recently showed cowboy boots, Western motifs, and exaggerated fringe on the runway. For his presentation last February, Telfar Clemens showed high-waisted jeans grafted with vegan-leather panels resembling chaps, while Oyinda sang in a black 10-gallon hat. Last year, Pyer Moss cast the rodeo team the Cowgirls of Color, an all-female, all-black crew from the D.C. area, in an ad campaign titled American, Also.
Catherine Hahn, the stylist responsible for the baroque Western suits seen on Post Malone and the embroidered black suit by Union Western that Lil Nas X wears in the “Old Town Road” video, sees the symbiotic relationship between this new generation of risk-taking pop stars and fashion designers as long overdue. “Western wear is a great look: fitted good cuts, interesting shapes, embroidery, appliqués, sequins—it was only a matter of time until it leaked into fashion,” she says. “The idea of outlaw country might cause some controversy, but it’s good to shake things up.”
Take it from Firkus: “When I started putting wigs on, I thought I would have to say goodbye to country gigs because they would never happen looking the way I do.” Firkus, who plays the Autoharp during his live performances, used to lie to the specialists who custom-make his instruments. “I wouldn’t say I was a drag queen at first because I was afraid they wouldn’t build the instruments for me,” he says. Now, he counts himself as a cover star of Autoharp Quarterly magazine. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined any of this was possible.”