"Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1997" by Sam Fentress
Sometimes a bar patron who feels the urge to talk to me will sidle up with a cocktail sloshing around inside his glass. Other times I’ll feel his fingers clasp onto my upper arm from behind. Either way, I never have to worry, the way women who spend time in places where drinking puts a damper on impulse control usually need to, that I’m being hit on. With glistening eyes and grateful heart, the man who’s gotten my attention will start in, “Do you know that I grew up with this? Do you know what this means to me?”
He may be talking about the flamboyant Southern gospel singers who traveled by battered tour bus to give concerts in his boyhood hamlet. Or the tent revivals where he and his evangelical flock rose from their folding chairs to share hymnals and sing their hearts out. Or the clogging groups that showed up, with limber-legged men in neckerchiefs, western shirts and slacks, and high-kicking women in gingham pinafores, puffy sleeves, and crinolines, to dance at every parade, fair, and festival within a hundred miles.
But he’s clearly also taking creative license with those memories. He and I both know he wasn’t raised on anything remotely resembling this drag gospel show at a downtown Nashville gay bar.
One Sunday night a month, around 8:30 P.M., or whenever the long, narrow, art-bedecked space of Canvas Lounge finally fills with revelers, the strains of “Let There Be Praise,” sung by Sandi Patty, the ’80s- and early ’90s-ruling inspirational star with two first names, come through the P.A. With the final perky, theatrical note still ringing in the air, the bar’s proprietor, playing the part of Pastor Peter in plaid polyester shorts hiked up to his ribcage and anchored there by a wide white belt, grabs a microphone from the deejay booth and introduces the Dickson Chicks: Marlene, Carlene, and Darlene.
At this point, three gay men in drag sashay around the corner and hoist themselves onto the two-foot stage. Darlene strikes a major chord on her keyboard, then all three launch into their sprightly signature number, “Jesus, Vodka, and Vicodin,” accompanied by those of us members of their backing band, sometimes referred to as Dump Bucket, who happen to be in attendance. The Chicks sing this and every song in punchy, Southern gospel-style harmony. No lip synching here.
After they circle back to the chorus, my bandmate Cousin Vaseline takes a fiddle solo, and I, Cousin Pussyfoot, rise from my snare drum, step over several microphone cords and clog-dance my way through the crowd, the buck taps nailed to the bottoms of my lace-up shoes coaxing busy, rhythmic clicking sounds out of the concrete floor.
From there, the show can careen in virtually any direction, depending on how the spirit, and spirits, move. The Chicks have a vast repertoire of gospel hymns—some, like “Amazing Grace,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “Farther Along,” considered standards across the American evangelical landscape, and others, like “Canaanland Is Just In Sight” and “Everybody Will Be Happy Over There,” best known to past and present devotees of Southern gospel. They’ll often sing a song the “straight” way, then follow with their own “queered,” rewritten lyrics. In their hands, the pious sentimentality of “Precious Memories” gives way to the earthy trailer park camp of “Panty Crickets,” sung to the very same tune.
“Well, we don’t think they were written right the first time” is the explanation Marlene gives the night I sit down with the Chicks for an in-character interview, which is the only kind they do. “A lot of times the Lord rewrites them for us. Anytime we don’t agree with the theology of a hymn, we just rewrite it.” As for “Panty Crickets” in particular, “We wanted it to be more relevant to the time that we’re living in. For those who don’t know, ‘panty crickets’ is the country term for crabs.”
When the Chicks want to get truly timely, they’ll gather at Darlene’s a few hours before a show and cook up some topical, political, or seasonal content. Like mockeries of the latest homophobic measures to emerge from the Tennessee State Legislature. Musical tributes to the late Whitney Houston or George Jones. A riff on social media, homoeroticism, and Christ entitled “I Friended Jesus on the Faithbook” (sample lyric: “He poked me”). For their biggest show of the year, the annual Gaytivity Pageant, they once whipped up a Christmas carol celebrating the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And you just haven’t seen affectionate irreverence until you’ve seen the Christmas story knocked off its heteronormative pedestal by Lesbian Joe, Drag Queen Mary, a tiny, plastic baby Jesus nestled in her cleavage, angels in assless chaps, and bathrobed shepherds with inflatable sheep affixed to their jockstraps.
One recent Sunday night, the Chicks brought a glass bowl, dubbed the “glory bowl,” onstage with them and called people out of the crowd to reach inside the vessel and retrieve a slip of paper bearing a song title, prayer request, or confession of carnal sin. “Bow your fuckin’ heads!” they beseeched their barroom congregation, while laying hands on an athletically built gentleman in a fitted tank top and a guy sporting a Barbara Mandrell t-shirt.
Eyes shut tightly, Carlene erupted in a torrent of gibberish, approximating what any Pentecostal would recognize as the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. “I-BOUGHTA-HONDA. HE-SHOULDA-BOUGHTA-HONDA. SHEEE-BOUGHTA-HONDA.”
After working up a mean thirst with all that prayer, the Chicks asked Pastor Peter to bring forward a tray of shot glasses. It was time to take communion.
“Drink from it, all of you.”
Treating their sensationalized backstory as an integral part of their performance, the Chicks inject bizarre new details during onstage, offstage, and backstage banter. What’s been established so far is that they’re sisters from different fathers, all three born to Velma Wiladene Dickson, founding pastor of the First Independent Greater Church of God in Christ Crucified With Signs Descending and Presbyterian Chapel of Dickson, Tennessee.
“We were all conceived in the baptistery of the church,” shares Darlene. “We do know our fathers were Christians.”
Marlene chimes in, “One thing we do know about our mama: Velma Wiladene was just like Jesus. She loved everybody.”
Beneath the obscenity and absurdity that they play for laughs is an unmistakable insider’s knowledge of down-home evangelical language and ritual. The Dickson Chicks would be an entirely different animal, callous, cynical, even malign, if one didn’t feel, with every charismatic turn of phrase, every campy flourish, every galvanizing modulation in key, that these three are putting their regional and religious inheritances to earnestly enterprising good use. There’s such tenderness and familiarity to the way they sing the old hymns, qualities that betray their abiding, if guarded, love for a tradition that covets the musical gifts of the faithful only so long as they maintain the excruciating contortions of closeted existence.
And here are Marlene, Carlene, and Darlene, in all their flamingly, ecstatically subversive glory, proclaiming the good news of the drag queen gospel in the prohibitive shadow of Southern Baptist headquarters. Theirs is a bold, beautiful, not to mention highly entertaining, act of resistance.
On the night that I made my debut as clogging Cousin Pussyfoot and witnessed a Dickson Chicks show for the very first time, I immediately sensed that I’d entered a sacred space where, with humor, nostalgia, and booze for emotional lubrication, Southern gay men, bred in Nazarene or Church of God or Assemblies of God or Southern Baptist flocks, could celebrate the conflicting facets of their identities in ways they never dreamed possible. And on a lesser level, I can identify.
The basic motion of Appalachian clogging may be a shuffling shift of weight from the heel to the toe known as drag-and-slide, but when I was being driven to my first clogging lesson in the family station wagon, and when I began taking the county fair stage with fellow cloggers to hoot and holler and clickety-clack our way through routines choreographed to “Rocky Top,” “The Purple People Eater,” “Chattahoochee,” and “Uncle Pen,” I certainly never imagined that I’d one day receive an invitation to become a straight ally/backup dancer for a drag gospel group.
It’s one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever had.
Lest all of this seem purely anecdotal, there exists at least one incisive academic analysis of the Queer As Gospel phenomenon. In his book Then Sings My Soul, openly gay gospel pianist-turned-English professor Douglas Harrison dismisses the superficial notion that gay musicians and fans are wooed by gospel’s flamboyance alone, arguing that as an arena in which Southern evangelicals lament their “spiritual marginality and social misfittedness” and envision themselves triumphing over such persecution, Southern gospel can offer equally potent spiritual succor to the religiously ostracized non-heterosexuals among its audience. He goes so far as to call Southern gospel “a musical theology of queer experience,” which would make the Chicks provocatively constructive theologians.
You will never catch any of us speaking in such lofty analytical terms on a Sunday night at Canvas Lounge. We check our intellects at the door, along with our inhibitions. And plunge ourselves into the holy depravity. And laugh until fatigue seizes our facial muscles. And listen to the testimonies of those healed by the power of “Jesus, Vodka, and Vicodin.” Darlene says the Dickson Chicks minister to “the sick and afflicted.” Marlene insists there’s a little more to it than that: “the sick, afflicted, and super-sexy.”