“If she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you” is one of those classic country-and-western song punch lines. It’s a statement that’s simple and true, just like the whole genre claims to be; it’s also funny, like the country music song titles that inspire jokes about country music song titles. Its just one layer of brilliance in track number six on The Highwomen. Like the rest of this world-changing new album by Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires, “If She Ever Leaves Me” subverts the whole genre at the same time as it stakes a rightful claim to the territory.
The waltz begins soft and unthreatening, with a gentle acoustic guitar that sounds of a piece with any song on country radio. “I see you watch her from across the room,” Carlile sings, placing us in the standard barroom setting, where, as usual, a man is checking out a woman. But over the next three lines, Carlile’s voice grows edgier, protective, declarative. She knows he’s fantasizing about “dancing her home.” She gets in the required country-song reference to whiskey – it takes more than liquor “to make that flower bloom.” Yes, that’s a reference to the female anatomy. And then Carlile warns him: “By the third drink, you’ll find out she’s mine.”
As Carlile asserts herself in this setting, she’s inviting us into a genre so many of us have loved despite not feeling as if we belonged.
“I’ve loved her in secret, I’ve loved her out loud,” Carlile sings at the beginning of each chorus, a line that not only describes a universal situation for anyone who’s had to keep their feelings quiet but is also serves as an efficient recap of recent gay rights history, from the closet to the wedding chapel. Her relationship, like everyone’s, isn’t perfect – “the sky hasn’t always been blue” – and Carlile knows it might not last forever. But there’s one thing she’s certain enough to sound cocky about. When it comes to the guy in the corner standing in for every man: “If she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.”
I’ve spent a lifetime not even knowing how badly I needed this song.
I was 13 back in 1975 when I first heard Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” In the days when Top 40 AM radio stations played all genres, a girl could easily be mesmerized when, in three simple verses and one lonesome guitar, a singer kisses his lover goodbye knowing he’ll never see her again but promising they’ll meet again in “a land that knows no parting.” I didn’t know anything about true love at that point, but Willie’s ragged voice, and his pledge of eternal faith despite the hollow heartache of his guitar, suggested that the inevitable agony of love and loss was somehow transcendent. I trusted him.
The next summer Willie was back, this time with Waylon Jennings, on a record whose name clarified the way forward. Wanted! The Outlaws was the first country album to sell a million copies; in the liner notes to a re-issue twenty years later, the legendary music writer Chet Flippo observed how the record “pushed the envelope of the social and cultural worlds that country inhabits and informs.” That included the world of a 14-year-old girl in suburban Nebraska. That year, “A Good Hearted Woman” spent three months on the Hot 100 chart. The woman Waylon and Willie sing about doesn’t understand them but loves them anyway, welcomes them home after they’ve been out partying all night and never complains. It didn’t take any experience to understand that no sane girl would want to be Waylon and Willie’s good-hearted woman. No, I wanted someone to feel about me the way that woman felt about them.
The first song on the record provided the lines upon which I proceeded to construct my teenage identity. “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” (for the record: Waylon Jennings sang it, but a woman named Sharon Vaughn wrote it) was a step-by-step guide. First, spend your childhood dreaming of being a cowboy, which I’d already done. Second, learn the rules of the “modern-day drifter,” which meant not holding on to anything for too long – the perfect antidote for teen angst. Third, when it comes to the ladies, take what you need and move on, leaving them with nothing but “the words of a sad country song” (see “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain”). Cowboys were special, after all, “with their own brand of misery.” The chorus declared that cowboys were always “sadly in search of, but one step in back of, themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.” That was everybody, really, but at 14 I didn’t yet understand the concept of universality. So the song was about me, and only me.
As if I needed any more rules to live by, Waylon and Willie nailed them to America’s barroom door in 1978, warning mothers everywhere not to let their children grow up to be exactly what I intended to be: people who are difficult to love and even harder to get to commit. People who would never give their loved ones expensive gifts but instead something more valuable: songs. People who are misunderstood and prone to either die early or disappear in other ways. People who love dingy barrooms as much as they love wide-open spaces. People who love puppies as much as they love prostitutes. People who drive pickup trucks. People who know they’re right and are too proud to waste any time trying to prove it. People who are always alone, “even with someone they love.”
And in those days, us gays always felt like we were alone even when we were with someone we loved.
One night in the middle of the “Urban Cowboy” craze, the woman who was my first true love and I went to a country dance bar in our hometown. It didn’t even occur to us that we could dance together; we just figured we’d go drink a few beers in the company of people who liked our kind of music. This turned out to be one of the worst nights of my life. It wasn’t long before some slow song came on and a couple of guys walked up to our table and asked us to dance. Midwestern politeness, and the way women were raised back then – not to mention the fact that we were still in the closet – mandated that we accept the invitation.
I’d mentally translated genders in country music for so long that, at first, I thought I could imagine myself in body of the man who was now dancing with my girlfriend and perhaps I could feel, vicariously, as if I was the one dancing with her. But I quickly realized there was a limit to my mental powers. As I watched my girlfriend from across the room, a stranger dancing her home in his mind, I don’t know where the pain was worse: in my gut or in my heart. But I’d never felt a jealous fury like that before and might not have since. We left the bar as soon as the song was over and I never made that kind of mistake again.
In the decades that followed, Outlaw Country became a thing of the past and popular country grew ever more hellbent on reinforcing “God Bless the USA,” Dixie Chicks-hating “traditional values” at the same time as queer kids in the USA understood that “traditional values” was code for people who weren’t like us. But we listened to the music and bought records and went to concerts anyway, where we could sometimes spot each other in the crowds.
Now, thanks to The Highwomen, maybe just a few more of us will feel better about loving that music out loud.
“If She Ever Leaves Me” was written by straight people. Introducing it from a stage at the Newport Folk Festival in July, Jason Isbell, who is married to Shires, told the crowd that when he first had the idea for the song, it was about “heterosexual country love,” a line that got a lot of laughs. But then, he explained, “It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Brandi Carlile would sing this song and it could be a gay country song.” A few people in the crowd began to whoop. “So then we wrote it from that perspective — me and Amanda and our friend Chris Tompkins of Nashville, Tennessee. And then what I hadn’t thought about was, we’re going to have to take this song to Brandi Carlile. And I’m not gay, like not all the way” – the crowd loved this cheeky bit, and Carlile, standing with a mic nearby, chimed in: “Not on Sundays” – “so I thought, this is kind of like taking my Civil Rights movie to Spike Lee.” Applause grew with each twist in Isbell’s story, along with appreciation for how fraught it can sometimes feel to be an ally and powering through. “But she loved our gay country song,” Isbell concluded, “and we love it too.”
Hemby, Morris and Shires are allies, too: a squad of straight-girl besties proclaiming their support via gorgeous harmonies, affirming their love for their friend and for this new addition to the genre.
Carlile has told audiences that this is “the world’s first gay country song.” That is technically not true (and the subject for a whole other essay) but what she means is that this is the first gay country song to matter. The first gay country song on an album that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and at No. 10 on the all-genre Billboard 200, an album all the critics want to write about, an album that meets the toughest social issues of our time with the unapologetic confidence it takes to answer Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson’s original Highwaymen.
Carlile – and Isbell, Shires and Thompkins – have changed the future for country-music-loving gay girls everywhere. And they’ve healed the memory of an awful night long ago for this one in particular.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.