D.T. Pennington

Writer – Photographer – Creative Coach

The West Was Always Queer

Orville Peck at Rabbit Rabbit. Asheville, North Carolina. May 28, 2024.
Orville Peck at Rabbit Rabbit. Asheville, North Carolina. May 28, 2024.

I’ll be straight with you, it was a lively scene. For those of you who may not yet know, Orville Peck is a bit of a hero in the LGBTQ community. He plays country western music, takes the stage in leather pants, an undershirt, and his trademark mask under a cowboy hat. The rest of his band is of similar ilk – although they are unmasked. The crowd that turns up for this show is about as Asheville as you can let it get. The fashions are all over the map and across every line. Several people are wearing full drag, three women are rocking little more than panties and chaps with their fringe vest. There is all manner of the fast-fashion, post-raver, scuffed up but it’ll do components from various costumes assembled out of hundreds of closets over the years.

My lord do these people know how to have a good time.

They dance. They kiss. Someone pushes through to the back of the crowd, her makeup running with tears, saying something about how rude someone else was to her. 

A little over a month ago I watched Red Clay Strays play the same stage to a sold out crowd. About four months prior to that show the Strays sold out the Grey Eagle down the road – effectively jumping from a 500 ticket show to nearly 4000 in attendance. There’s a saying: if they were nothing yesterday and everything today, that usually means someone got paid. Payola. The tweaking of the algorithm or jumping on a television soundtrack. This crowd, too, carried the aesthetic of the West. The only exception being the entirety of the crowd that night was dressed from the Yellowstone Season 3 collection – denim, boots, carhartt jackets, everything looking mighty prim and in its place. The parking lots around town were stacked high with outsized trucks and the air over the entire town smelled of Zyn and Skoal. That night Brandon Coleman, frontman for Red Clay Strays, was sure to establish the fact that they “do not really think ourselves as country music. Maybe more like rock.” An odd comment from a stage of musicians in western wear, but this was around the same time Morgan Wallen was making yet another drunken fool of himself.

No one, it seems, wants to own the idea of country music anymore. For both concerts I sport the same shirt I picked up at an Abe Partridge show last year: “Pop Country is for Posers” it reads.

A real charmer.

That’s what has always been true about the West – it is for the outsider, the queer, the outlawed, the forsaken. We have fenced in the end of the frontier and sold it off for development to the most privileged bidder. The Wild West as we know it is as good as gone and the rustic work we have long since fantasized – work that was always hard and dirty and left for the heels of our society – are skirting the edges of economic viability. The family farm is good and gone and the ranch your great uncle kept up on is quietly making electric out of the wind.

The West has always been queer. When good company is few and far between, you forget all those little things your papa and your priest lectured over with the Good Book in hand. There isn’t much use for “good standing” when you’re all sleeping on the ground, under the stars, and drinking from the same river as your horses. This was the West of country music as we knew it – the cowboy poets and men from El Paso, riders of Freed Men singing tunes over the whorehouse piano. This was the West around the twang of the gutstring guitar that fades into what used to be. Nah, there’s no West anymore, not like what we think it is. Everything has a fence on it and comes with a bit of paper inked on the dotted line.

Yet, we still perform like we could ride off into the sunset at any moment. Whether it’s jackets with beaded fringe and pink hemlines or Jason Bootwear scuffed over with heavy grit sandpaper. Maybe your girl is rolling her ankles in the brand new snakeskin cowboy boots that look awful nice with the Daisy Dukes, or maybe she shows up in her sandals because who the hell wants to keep wearing boots after she’s been on her feet all day?

This is the West. This is country. This is about as queer as it gets.