|Seraphim: Interviews Past|
This 1998 article was an assignment for QSF magazine and introduce the Bay Area to Doug Stevens and his gender-specfic, new Country Music sound.
Doug Stevens' Country Crusade
In urban areas like San Francisco , there are some assumptions made about country music that are completely off target. The average urban-dweller would hardly guess that a country music artist sold more recordings than any other artist in this country. Doug Stevens is more that willing to share this fact and a few others. Originally from Tupelo , Mississippi , Stevens is one of the very few openly gay country music singers. He started down the country road after a series of life altering events, not the least of which was testing positive. Since then, Stevens' music has received accolades ranging from Billboard Magazine to CNN Showbiz Today to Mobile Register in Mobile Alabama . It was quite a change from his previous career in opera and classical music.
Q: Is there a large country music scene in San Francisco compared to some places?
DS: Yeah there is, there are four gay and lesbian country bands in the Bay Area. There's even a country-western bar in Hayward called the Turf Club where we will play on January 24.
Q:I was listening to you song HIV Blues and I was struck by the feel of the music, the way it “moseys” along . .
DS: Like Roy Rodgers or Gene Autry kind of thing.
Q: Yes. I felt the longing in the music. I realized that country music has that kind of longing to it, a yearning for something . . . freedom? Do you find these feelings lends itself well to this genre of music?
DS: Yeah, a little bit. I started to writing one song which is about longing and I haven't finished it, all I have is a bit of the chorus which is [sings]:
If I could be with you
In my arms tonight
Then I'd feel your hands upon my skin
I haven't used that longing in my songs too much. There's another song I wrote called Perfect Love which is about having experienced something that I thought was perfect love and as I wrote the song I felt a lot of longing but I'm not sure it came out in the song.
Q: It seems that a lot of anxiety, a lot of pain is released in this type of music more than any other.
DS: Yeah, I'd agree with that. . .
Q: Would you say that you didn't have any country music influences when you were younger, or that those you had you ignored?
DS: I did have a lot of country music influences but they weren't really things I was conscious of because they all happened so long ago, when I lived at home. That's all my parents listened to, almost everything I heard was country music while I was growing up. Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn- a lot, Georgia Jones a lot; my parents loved those two.
Q: What about your influences in Classical Music?
DS: Medieval Music, chant and 12 th Century Notre Dame School and 13 th and 14 th Century stuff, French Medieval Music.
Q: Do you still listen to that kind of music?
DS: Oh, yes, I love it.
Q: Many believe that music can have a healing effect on an individual. Has this course with your career had a healing effect on you both physically and mentally?
DS: Yeah, definitely. It validates different aspects of me of who I am.
Q: Are there similarities in those two very different genres of music that has shaped you?
DS: Oh, yeah! I use medieval stuff in songs that I right. For example, on the first album, ACT UP , that [sings] “ya da da de dum” that's from a medieval chant: [sings] “pa ah da, da ee ya dee ya”. And in Born in Mississippi I used some renaissance ornamentation, which really sounds like country.
Q: Funny, but you could draw a parallel with the sounds of modern country and the sounds of those medieval minstrels of the past. Country is a modern version of those minstrels.
DS: When I was a kid growing up I had a crush on Captain Kirk and it has, actually, extended into adulthood, so I wrote a song called Captain Kirk. It accidentally turned out to be in a medieval mode. I didn't realize it when I wrote it, but when the band got together and tried to put together they where saying “What key is this?” and finally we realized it was not in a key it was in a mode.
Q: Although having that background in classical music has helped you quite a bit, don't you find that you have to be twice as good as other country singers given your open stance on your sexuality?
DS: . The fact that it is gender specific country-music makes people scared. As good as I think the music writing is, and my voice, I've studied voice forever and I know the country idiom, so whereas somebody who studied voice for a long time who doesn't know the country idiom might end up sounding too classical, I think that since I know country so well I can use the good vocal techniques that I've learned to enhance the country way of singing. I also have really good band in New York and a very good band here. If I was not doing gender-specific country music, we'd be on the charts.
Q: There's a stigma: If you like a gay band, then you must be gay. And country music seems to be more fearful of that label.
DS: Even in San Francisco and New York , turning on a country station, you hear all this homophobia. The only country station here now, Young Country, they were, almost every morning, making fun of Ellen [DeGeneres] with some kind of sarcastic remark that they were trying to be funny with. So I started calling every time and complaining and telling them I can't listen to their station anymore, and if I'm feeling this way there must be other gay people in San Francisco who feeling this way. So they stopped with the Ellen remarks, but they continue with homophobic stuff. I haven't listen to the radio since the week before Christmas because I'm so disgusted and angry and I don't want to start my day that way. I remember one morning they had interviewed [football coach] Mike Ditka about his qwerkiness and said ‘oh yeah he's so unpredictable, who knows, you might see him wearing a dress one day.' Then the other guys said ‘ I don't know if we would say that was qwerky, we might say he was something… some word that begins with “F”. Oh, Fag, is that what they're trying to say? I've decided I would battle them this way, with bad press. For radio stations here and across the country the homophobic attitude has to change. The are lots of gay people in this country who are writing country songs and singing country music that are working very hard to change the image of country western music from being a homophobic, racist, redneck kind of music.
Q: Would you say that there is a certain hypocrisy with the image country music has and the behavior of some of the people who listen to it? You know what I mean? Experimentation ..
DS: Sexual experimentation? Oh, yeah, totally. My dad for example. My dad was this masculine, strong person, but he had these strong male friendships. Once he was wrestling with a friend of his in the backyard and me and my sister were watching. They started tearing each other's clothes and soon there genitals were showing. My dad saw us, we were there first before they came out there and they were drinking, I think, and he said “go upstairs.” So we went in the house upstairs and they went into the basement. It was very quiet for a long time. So I wonder what they were doing in the basement so quiet after they had been wrestling and ripping each other's clothes. He also told me that a friend of his had been screwed before by guys and this was a very good friend. He named my little brother after him. I think there is a lot of experimentation in country culture because there are not very rigid models of ‘this is how we conduct ourselves in society' so there is a lot of experimentation ‘am I this way or am I that' or ‘ I am this way in this situation and this way in another'.
Q: There are some performers who are gay who believe that to get anywhere in there careers they have to hide their sexuality. They may not feel that their behavior is wrong, but they love their careers as much as anything and are willing to stay in the closet. I take it you are not one of those people.
DS: I don't think it's true. I think a lot of people think ‘that in order to get some place I have to not be who I am; I have to be dishonest'. I don't think that's true and I'm going to show that in country music. What more repressed medium could you choose! [laughs]
Q: Would you “out” someone?
DS: No. It's their decision.
Q: But you support someone more if they do tell . . .
DS: Yes. I think that they're selling themselves and their communities short. I think that it results in some really negative self-image for others who are not out. I was having a pretty good career in early music and if I had stayed I would be doing really well today because I was beginning to make a lot of money. I stopped for several reasons. One was I wanted to work for my community. Lots of people had advised me ‘you have a great voice, you write these wonderful songs, you have a great band, why are you doing gay music. You will never get anywhere. You could be really hot stuff if you would not do gay music.' And I think they're right. But that's not the point. Having money is great, having more visibility is great, all that stuff is wonderful; it's not why I am doing this. I want to use my voice and my ability to write songs- to use my talents- to work for my community. I have considered doing songs that were not gender specific and try to appeal to the mainstream a little bit more, but when I consider that for any length of time it's depressing for me. It takes me away from who I am and what I am doing.
Q: No regrets then . . .
DS: None, whatsoever. The things I am most excited about now are the two other projects I have going. One is the Lesbian and Gay Country Music Association which will be a not-for-profit, and with it we will hold festivals and use whatever funding to bring different bands and singers from across the country to a central location. We'll give awards and get more gays and lesbians who are doing gender specific country music to record because I am the only person recording right now. Jeff Miller is just starting a recording and Syd Spencer past away. There is a gay country-western bar in every major city in the U.S. They all have dance floors, but rarely do these bars have live performances. This organization would encourage these bars to have live performers. I have been taking it easy since I've been here, but my New Year's Resolution is to work hard again.
Anyone who wants to know more about Doug Stevens and the Outband can call their hot-line at 415-928-6123. The band's CDs , Out in the Country and When Love is Right can be found at most music stores.■
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