Country musician Willie Nelson's cover (iTunes single February 14, 2006) is the first gay-themed mainstream country song by a major artist. The song has been recorded and released by Sublette (GPS: Life is a Killer 1982), Canadian alternative country band Lost Dakotas (Cargo: Sun Machine, 1992), and queercore band Pansy Division (Lookout: Pile Up 1995).
Sublette says the song is based on his experiences growing up in Portales, N.M.: "I sat down at the piano and … remembered what it felt like to feel different as a teenager, and the culture at that time, and I started to put those two things together and the song wrote itself". The song was written during the Urban Cowboy fad while living with his wife in Manhattan next to a gay country bar on Christopher Street called Boots and Saddles. He explains, "Gay life in 1981 was very vibrant in those days. It was part of the culture of the city and cowboy imagery is a part of gay iconography." He wrote the song with Nelson's voice in mind: "I was at the beginning of my songwriting career … and used to like writing songs for my favorite voices. I've been a Willie fan since the '60s."
As stated above, Sublette is acquainted with gay culture and the song is gay-friendly despite using what Ann Northrop of Gay USA describes as, "the language of thirty years ago." For example, the lyrics, "Well small town don't like it when somebody falls between sexes" and, "Well I believe in my soul that inside every man there's the feminine / And inside every lady there's a deep manly voice loud and clear" display now marginal views about gender and sexuality (see Havelock Ellis' Sexual Inversion). Other lyrics, however, maintain currency and say "a lot about gender identity and heterosexual elitism"; for example, the lines, "A cowboy may brag about things that he does with his women, / But the ones who brag loudest are the ones that are most likely queer" suggest criticism of the closet and small town bigotry. "The song aims to show Mr. Nelson's support for gays, particularly to conservative country-music fans" and suggests that, in addition to other causes, he supports gay rights.
The reception of Sublette's recording is hard to determine as the song was originally only available through the Dial-A-Poem, through which one could literally dial up a poem and listen on the phone. However, AllMusicGuide gave the album on which the song eventurally appeared 4½ out of 5 stars.
There are plans to release the song on a future album and filming for the video featuring Broken Lizard Comedy Troupe occurred at Dallas' gay cowboy bar, the Round Up Saloon (in the gay-friendly Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas), in February. Nelson's publicist describes the release of the song, which debuted on Howard Stern's satellite radio show: "Since everyone is talking about the acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain and its Academy Award nominations, Valentine's Day seemed like the right time to let [the song] be heard." Nelson appeared on the movie's soundtrack with the traditional "He Was A Friend Of Mine" which made the US charts at No. 54.
Nelson himself described the release in a prepared statement to Dallas Morning News: "The song's been in the closet for 20 years. The timing's right for it to come out. I'm just opening the door." The song's release was encouraged by the coming out of his friend and tour manager of thirty years, David Anderson, two years ago. Says Anderson: "This song obviously has special meaning to me in more ways than one. I want people to know more than anything—gay, straight, whatever—just how cool Willie is and … his way of thinking, his tolerance, everything about him."
Nelson also says that he has received very few negative reactions: "Every now and then somebody might get a little offended. It's got bad language in it, so I just don't do it in my shows. Anybody wants to hear it can hear it on iTunes. But you know people are listenin' to it, likin' it. Every now and then somebody don't like it, but that's okay. Similar to years ago, when the hippie thing come out and I started growin' my hair and puttin' the earring in, I got a little flak here and there."
However, some sources speculate about the potential success and reception of the song. Nelson explains that he didn't think, "it took a lot of balls to put the song out" saying, "first of all, I didn't think anybody would play it. I didn't think it would get on the air, but sure enough it did" though not on country stations: "Oh no, they're not gonna play it".
WXBX, a country station in Johnson City, Tenn., devoted one morning show to a listener discussion of Nelson's release, concluding that, "the audience was disappointed in these artists" and, as Nelson thought, that they "probably wouldn't be interested in much airplay" PlanetOut explains that Nelson's fan base is secure and broad enough (including "hippies, rednecks and outlaws young and old") to take risks with gay themed songs and soundtracks, while the WXBX station manager pointed out that Nelson has not been a mainstream country star for a while. Nelson's broad audience, and part of the appeal of the song, may be that, "Willie speaks his mind about any subject ... That's one of those things that has made him so endearing to so many generations of fans".
The song has been described variously as deadpan, straight-faced, and pointedly poignant. Sublette, as expected, approves of Nelson's performance and its potential impact, saying, "It's supposed to be funny, that's what gets people's attention, but to get people to listen to it a second time [you] have to have something going on, and Willie beautifully brought out the tenderness there … [It's] nice to have a funny song out there—it is challenging people to laugh. Everybody is so angry now." Sublette speculated about the song's reception: "Willie's smart. We talked about recording it in the '90s but we needed some kind of context. It wouldn't make sense to just put this on some normal Willie album … The movie provided the context. I don't know if the public is any more or less ready than they were but I think the media is more ready."
The song was featured in a Boondocks comic strip on February 27 and February 28 () and mentioned until March 2. According to Sublette, "the Monday and Tuesday strip consisted of my lyrics and dramatizing listeners' response to my lyrics. What a compliment!"
The reception of Nelson's pro-gay song may be compared to that of Garth Brooks' pro-peace 1992 single "We Shall Be Free". The song's single pro-gay line, "when we're free to love anyone we choose" caused some radio stations to refuse to play the song, contributing to its peak at No. 12 on Billboard's country singles chart and marking the end of Brooks' string of top ten hits.
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