“It’s very dear to me, the issue of gay marriage. Or, as I like to call it, ‘marriage’. You know, because I had lunch this afternoon, not gay lunch. I parked my car; I didn’t gay park it.” — Liz Feldman.
Karen Pittelman is from New York. She writes songs and performs in the alt country band ’Karen & the Sorrows’ She happens to be gay (She self identifies as queer). Her songs are soaring tributes to lost love, and her gentle and charming ballads are, well, country. She says there’s no such thing as gay country, but she is the co-organizer of Gay Old Opry (GOO) with Gina Mamone of Riot Grrrl Ink. It’s the second event this year that opens a stage to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) country musicians.
“It’s about creating a safe space… For me, GOO is about having a space to play where I feel comfortable. When I fell in love with my pedal steel player (laughs), I wanted to play a place where I would feel ok to say she was my girlfriend,” she says.
The culture of mainstream country music is entrenched quite firmly to the right in the political spectrum. Solidly Christian and conservative in its attitude, it is not only unwelcoming to those that defy gender norms, it is downright hostile. The mainstream tends to reinforce conservative stereotypes and traditional family values and there’s no doubt some fans of country have very strong views about homosexuality. When Chely Wright came out in 2010, she claims her record sales were halved. She also says received hate mail and death threats:
“I get nasty letters every day, ’I’m through with you Chely Wright, you’re going to hell,” she told AutoStraddle in January.
Karen feels this hostility too and wants to do something about it.
“So many queer people who grew up on country music connect to it and its meanings, yet feel there’s no place for them,” says Karen. ‘They’re not welcome. There’s a lot of homophobia in country—all of the themes and the way that gender is approached in the songs. I realized that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to love the music and the culture in a place they felt welcome. ”
The first Gay Old Opry was in April of this year, and it was a huge success. The Brooklyn venue Southpaw was filled with 300 LGBT country fans. But initially Karen was worried people would be attracted to the event as an opportunity to poke fun at country music.
“When the numbers started to go up, I was worried. Sometimes in Brooklyn things can come off as ironic, and I was scared people would think it was like ‘Hee Haw’ or something. Or somehow it might look like were appropriating it instead of treating it with respect. But when people showed up for the music in all their country finery, I realized they were serious too.”
First and foremost, it’s about the music: “I think when you write about your life those themes are going to weave their way in and out, no matter what.” Karen mentions Mount Moriah (the headliners on Friday night) and their song “Reckoning.” It is a song about a daughter asking (actually it’s more of an ultimatum) her mother to accept her falling in love with another woman.
“I don’t think she set out to write a gay song. You write about what you know.”
“Reckoning” is a powerful, moving song about a painful relationship:
“Mama, calm your nerves/It could be so much worse/If this love’s the devil’s curse/I don’t want your cure.”
Karen used to play with a punk rock band: “My favorite shows were the queer shows. When I started to play country, I was like, so where are the queer shows to play now? And realized that they just didn’t exist. So when I was setting up a show with one of my favorite bands, My Gay Banjo, we started laughing about doing an all gay country show, and it just went from there.”
New York City is a great place to do a show like this because there is a huge LGBT community that is very supportive. But in terms of carving out a space for a gay country music event, it actually helps that there’s isn’t a commercial country music scene in NYC. It’s not like Nashville where everybody is desperately trying to hang on to their little bit of turf. New York’s fledgling country and roots music scene is welcoming, and, in fact, provided help in setting the ball rolling. JD at Brooklyn Country was happy to bring Brooklyn’s first “queer country music festival” under the banner of the Brooklyn County Fair.
People find their space. Sometimes they have to move to places like NYC to be comfortable. Perhaps people haven’t made the spaces in NYC for country music yet. What JD does, and what Karen is doing is making that space. Then community can grow.
Karen is passionate about live music. “There’s this immediacy of connection when you play a song live that doesn’t happen with other forms of art. The truth of music is in that moment when we are all just existing together. That is where a song is born. You can write it and you can practice it, but it hasn’t really come into the world before you get on the stage and play it . What is a show? It’s only about trying to create a space so something can florish. And it’s important that it’s a safe place.”
“Part of the experience of being queer is that in some places you have to have an eye out; you can’t just walk around holding hands. But I don’t want to play to just queer audiences either, and I don’t want queer musicians to be pigeon holed.”
Karen sums it up beautifully: “What you want to do on a Friday night is go on a date! Find someone who is cute! After all, everyone needs a honky tonk angel.”
The Gay Old Opry is this Friday, October 14th in Brooklyn. Under the umbrella of the Brooklyn Country Fair. It shares a bill at Southpaw this weekend with Saturday’s Americana Pie Festival. With Mount Moriah and Viva, Karen & the Sorrows, Juan & the Pines, a Dolly Parton raffle, a bakesale to benefit the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and two stepping (complete with a lesson) courtesy of Big Apple Ranch. Advance tickets available here.
Neville Elder is a writer, photographer and leader of the folk rock band Thee Shambels. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.