Shawna Virago Reflects on LGBTQ Country Music: ‘We’re Breaking the Mold and Keepers of the Flame’

Not exactly renowned for its inclusivity or progressive views on the spectrum of sexual identity, country music has nevertheless been a source of inspiration for numerous LGBTQ artists over the years, from Lavender Country and Peter Grudzien in the ’70s to Orville Peck and Brandi Carlile today.

With the May 31 release of Blood In Her Dreams, it’s time to give the pioneering Shawna Virago her wildflowers. In the early ‘90s, well before the fight for trans inclusivity and representation entered mainstream discourse, she was one of the very few openly transgender musical performers in America.

After years of performing solo and in a band, Virago released her debut album, the mostly acoustic Objectified, in 2009. While the flavor of Los Angeles punk pioneers X has always inspired Virago’s (comparatively quieter) music, Blood In Her Dreams finds her adding an electric jolt of cowpunk adrenaline to her lyrically detailed, emotionally resonant Americana. Songs like “Ghosts Cross State Lines,” “Eternity Street” and “Climb to the Bottom” paint empathetic, vivid portraits of hard-luck types who’ve been battered but not beaten by life; like Lucinda Williams, Virago finds a dusty beauty in the rugged troublemakers living a country mile from polite society.

Speaking to Billboard, Virago talks about everything from queer country to changing opportunities for trans musicians to trying to “understand the anger that has been unleashed in this country” on her best album yet.

How long did this album take to put together?

I would go into the studio about once a month and work on songs. I wanted to work with the engineer Grace Coleman, and they’re busy, so it was whenever I could work with them over like two years. One day we were in the studio and we finished “This Girl Felt Hounded.” Once we finished it, we just looked at each other like, “I think we’re done. I think we now have an album.” I didn’t know when we would finish it, but I think the songs are all speaking to each other.

“Ghosts Cross State Lines” is such a lyrically impressive song. What’s your songwriting process like?

It’s always different. That song was primarily driven by the lyrics first. I was thinking about this idea [that] you can move geographically, but there might be things from where you’ve come from that are still in you. They might always be in you, whether they have the power that they once did or not. I was thinking about someone leaving a domestic violence situation, and they’re able to get out, but there was still this psychic residue that they were going to have to deal with.

It’s primarily a serious album. There is humor throughout the record. There is one beginning-of-a-relationship song, so there’s hope in that song, it’s called “Bright Green Ideas.” There is there’s some light in that one, but there’s not a lot of light on the record. I was reading through some notebooks recently from around that time when writing those songs, and it was pretty bleak. I think the stuff that I didn’t write was way more bleak. We’re all living through this kind of recalibration. And here, locally, we went through this in San Francisco. We went through this mass displacement because of the tech industry when it got here. And then when that started to downturn, many of the same people fled the city — but it’s still too expensive for people to come back here.

Blood In Her Dreams started out really trying to understand the kind of anger that has been unleashed in this country. The anger I’m talking about seems very one sided and many of us are the targets of it. I think that loneliness, sadness that jobs have been shipped overseas, all these things are really at bottom of so much of the anger, but it’s being displaced.

You mentioned the changing landscape of San Francisco. As a longtime resident, do you think there’s still an arts scene that’s weathered the tech boom and the ensuing exodus?

There definitely is an art scene, or art scenes, happening. There’s some really great drag scenes. I think in the broader Bay Area, there’s this sort of alt-country scene that’s happening. Somehow, I’m not sure how it happened, but it kind of embraced me. It still surprises me. And there’s some great performance art scenes.

It is different from when I first moved here in the early ’90s. But that was primarily a lot of, I’d say, cisgender gay boys doing things. There was what’s called the Mission Art Scene that was largely cisgender d-kes, people like Michelle Tea. Twenty years ago, there was still this window of a critical mass of trans communities who either had been here for a few years, or were just coming here, and we had this short-lived, very vibrant trans performance art scene that we hadn’t had really before. I saw some friends of mine the other night, who also came out around the same time I did in the early ‘90s, and there was really only like two or three bars for us to go to. It was really hard to break outside of that. So that had finally changed. Yes, there’s still good things happening here. Though people might have [to live with] five roommates. Which is probably what it’s like in New York, in Brooklyn, too.

It sure is. Traditionally, country music has been more conservative and not open-minded to transgender folks. As a trans person who in that world a bit and loves the music, is that ever hard to reconcile?

Trans and queer communities in country music is a relatively recent phenomenon. We have bona fide commercial stars now like Orville Peck and Brandi Carlile. Part of my upbringing was in the South, and we had three radio stations doing country music. Charlie Rich, Charley Pride, Loretta [Lynn], Tammy [Wynette] and also Lynn Anderson and Jeannie C. Riley. So many queer folks love country music. We’re loving a lot of the trappings of traditional country music, in a way that other folks have moved on from and don’t know about or care about. If you look at Porter Wagner, he was doing Ziggy Stardust. [laughs] What was going on with that guy? There’s stuff [in country] that we’re drawn to. We’re breaking the mold and keepers of the flame at the same time.

When you started performing live music in the ‘90s around San Francisco, was there an audience for you beyond that? Did you ever perform in more rural areas, and how was that?

It’s a really great question. I know somebody is going to get their Ph.D. at some point on the ‘90s in San Francisco with trans communities. Because there were a lot of things happening for the first time. Getting health care through the San Francisco health clinics was new. There was a Department of Health study focusing on trans people and how we earn money, possible drug usage, HIV status, and that had never happened before. Police accountability work was happening for the first time. So I did not play — in that period of time — I did not play in any rural communities. I played Los Angeles, some small clubs there. I just played wherever I could play. It was a mixed bag as well. People weren’t quite ready for trans performers in music. There was about six months where I just didn’t perform at all because it’s so frustrating, because then people would want to just talk about my gender. I was often the only trans out trans person in the club, or the bar we played at. Worrying about getting home from the club was a reality.

There weren’t many people doing what you were doing at the time.

There was a performer that came out about a decade before me named Bambi Lake. She had been performing in the ‘80s already, and her drug usage impacted her with stable housing, and I think she had some mental health issues. She didn’t play very much past the very early ‘90s, but she was somebody that broke a lot of ground and is largely forgotten. I would call her a frenemy. She could be challenging. She called in a bomb threat whenever Oasis came to town because she thought they were cute. And she wanted to meet them, so she used a payphone and waited around. She got arrested. I gave her money in jail, so she could buy some shampoo and stuff. As time went on, I think she got very bitter, because the trans world changed so much, and she wasn’t really a part of it. I like to at least throw a little light towards her. I’m not sure she actually ever released any recordings. Justin Vivian bond does cover one of her songs [“Golden Age of Hustlers”].

I’ve seen Justin Vivian Bond do that song! I go see them quite a lot at Joe’s Pub, their show is so spiritually enriching.

I remember in the early ‘00 meeting a trans guy who had what you would call traditional ambitions as a musician. And I had never thought that was possible. For myself, I still don’t think that’s really possible, which is fine. [Most of us were] truly just trying to survive and I didn’t think ambition was an option. So that has changed. The idea of ambition has changed.

What are your post-release plans for Blood In Her Dreams?

I have modest goals. We wanted to create a band sound on the record, so I worked with the engineer Grace Coleman, who is also co-producer, but as far as performance goes, I’m still doing solo acoustic shows. My plan is to get out there on the road, say, 100-mile radius around San Francisco. The last few years I’ve toured a few times with a friend of mine, Secret Emchy Society. And I always felt more and more unsafe to get out of this certain bubble. I would see militia men out there on the road. And I’m really starting to feel it even more with, we call him “the bad man who wants to be president,” who is talking about extending term limits.

Does it seem worse to you now than, say, 10 years ago? Has the bad man’s ascendence made certain people feel more empowered?

Yes. I think that they’ve had this simmering resentment. A huge swath of our country is filled with people with huge amounts of resentment. I also think a lot of Americans are ignorant in many ways. And that’s not a judgment on potential intelligence, but they’re under-educated, don’t travel, and they find all of their answers in the Bible, which they’ve never read. My mother, my family, they live in Arkansas, and she goes to a church where the preacher is a huge transphobe. It’s always been there. I think same sex marriage, Black Lives Matter, anything that you might think is a sign of progress, it just infuriates these folks. I do think that now they feel empowered. And it is scarier.

What’s interesting is, having this great conversation with you, you think I would have been putting out an album like London Calling. [But this album is] much more personal. It’s not polemics, which I’ve done before, but the feeling of fear and paranoia is definitely in the songs.

Powered by Billboard.

Related Articles

Back to top button