Around 5 p.m. on a hot Sunday in July, AJ Lewis, a bearded banjo player in a cowboy hat and a plaid shirt with pearl snap buttons, ascended the stage at Littlefield, a Brooklyn performance space, and announced that he intended to play a version of “Rock Candy Mountain,” a song you might’ve heard on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Lewis explained that the song presented a vagrant’s version of paradise and that he admired the song’s abolitionist sensibilities and the ways it “goes against capitalist conventions of worthwhile work.” He also mentioned that the original version of the song included the line “I’m tired of being buggered sore like a jocker’s whore,” a reference to jockers and punks, same-sex couples in hobo communities and work camps.
“The jockers were usually larger guys who provided protection and work money and punks provided companionship, and quite often, sex,” Lewis explained.
Shortly after finishing that tune, his band of other musical friends joined him, including an androgynous violinist in cut-off sleeves, a young non-binary person in a skirt playing spoons and a woman holding what looked like a cooking whisk in one hand and an old-timey washboard in the other. Together they played a rousing rendition of “Froggy Goes A’ Courtin,” a song about a mixed-species marriage supported by the animal community at large.
AJ Lewis and Friends were one of 13 bands to play Another Country, a day long music showcase featuring 13 bands with queer, trans or musicians of color. The day’s line-up included other acts like the queer mash-up band My Gay Banjo, the dulcimer infused country stylings of DK & the Joy Machine, Affrilachian country musician Cactus Rose, the Venezuelan folk-punk musician Yva Las Vegass and band Karen & the Sorrows (who coincidentally have a new album coming out next month).
The event was organized by Karen Pittelman, a member of Karen & the Sorrows who also runs the Gay Ole Opry, a queer country music showcase with a Brooklyn show called the Queer Country Quarterly and a Bay Area show called Queer Country West Coast.
Ostensibly, the July showcase was meant to provide an alternative to the usual Fourth of July celebrations.
“Although I enjoy things like barbecues, fireworks, and a day off,” Pittelman said, “the unquestioning patriotism that July 4th demands — and the histories it erases — has never been something I wanted to celebrate.”
She continues, “And of course there has always been a relationship between what country music stands for and what this country stands for, and, as musicians, I think part of our job is to question both.”
She brought together some of her favorite musicians to think about the political positioning of country and Americana music (particularly its connections to racism and the construction of gender), and to examine what it means to claim the music you love for your own lives and communities.
Many of the musicians provided context for their songs, songs which ranged from folk and confessional performance art to bluegrass and punk rock.
The event also had a pie and cookie bake sale for the Trans Justice Funding Project, a community-led funding initiative that supports grassroots, trans justice groups run by and for trans people.
“Sometimes you love a culture that doesn’t love you back,” the Gay Ole Opry says on its Facebook page. “We do it because we love the music and want to build a community to support queer country musicians. We do it because everybody needs a honky tonk angel to hold them tight. We do it because we believe in country music for all cowpeople.”
Featured image and photos by Syd London
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