The strum of an acoustic guitar or wail of a Telecaster might be country and Americana's most prevalent instrumental motifs, but that doesn't mean that more outside-the-box artists can't find a different way to musically interpret the genre. Nashville's Little Bandit, led by Alex Caress on keys and vocals, whip a gospel howl and soulful, heartbroken croon into their breed of modern honky-tonk, at once evoking George Jones and Queen's "Somebody to Love" on their forthcoming debut LP Breakfast Alone. For their first single, "Bed of Bad Luck," Caress sings (and coolly sing-talks, too) about coping mechanisms and self-awareness while pursuing an intriguing suitor at the bar – who just happens to be another man. (Watch the official video above.)
"I'm sure many musicians and queer people can relate to dealing with a good amount of depression and self-medication," Caress tells Rolling Stone Country about the struggle that built the song, which features backing vocals from Caitlin Rose, Larissa Maestro and his sister Jordan. "If you tell yourself, 'This is it, enough is enough, I'm going to change,' then maybe just saying it will make it come true. And that's where I'm coming from: it was a letter to myself to change." Adia Victoria, for whom Caress also plays keys, makes a cameo in the video, shot at East Nashville's Edgefield Bar & Grill, along with local musician Kim Logan and Maestro – and even Caress' own boyfriend, in the role of the mysterious love interest.
A little romance in the dark isn't an uncommon image in a country music video, but in a world where the mere mention of a "Girl Crush" was enough to tense up radio programmers, and simply saying "Follow Your Arrow" is grounds for being eschewed altogether, depicting a rendezvous between two men could be considered downright dangerous. Not so for Caress, who hopes to help the genre loosen its often conservative reins, an image that even touches the far fringes of Music Row where "outlaw" can be synonymous with a proto-masculinity and rebellion via scruffy beard and scruffier denim.
But Caress also wanted to avoid turning his sexuality into some sort of "big reveal" marketing talking point, trivializing something as innate to his genetic imprint as the color of his eyes.
"I don't really see many other queer musicians in country music," he says, "Especially in traditional country music. And I felt like that's a voice that people need to hear. Real people with real experiences, rather than tokens. I wanted to present that as my real self." With a White House that has some fearing for their most basic of human rights, it's not only an important creative standpoint, but a political one as well.
Caress moved to Nashville in 2005 to attend Belmont University, but swiftly dropped out to form the band Korean Is Asian with his sister and musician Brian Ritchey. Little Bandit came next, but their process was often stymied by his and his players' other gigs: Caress with Victoria, bassist Kevin Black with Sturgill Simpson and now Margo Price, and Luke Schneider on pedal steel, also with Price. Breakfast Alone, out February 10th on yk records, is a culmination of years honing in on a sound that merges country and gospel motifs, rooted in strong lyricism, a dash of subversion and the ability to praise honesty – through both personal and musical truths – above all else, draped in melodies that dance away the despair.
"I don't know if mainstream country is ready for it, but I hope they are," he says. "I hope that they will see the queer voice as legitimate and worthy of exposure to the world. Especially now."