Kaitlin Butts on the Beauty of Drag and the Power of Confronting Trauma
Kaitlin Butts wasn’t specifically thinking about the political environment in her adopted home of Tennessee when she shot the video for “What Else Can She Do,” but her timing for releasing it could not have been more perfect. Filmed last summer at the Hamburger Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma, the clip features the Tulsa native Butts alongside Texas drag queen Paris Van Cartier doing their best to make ends meet while working in a small-town diner.
“Honestly, I cannot believe that this has lined up. It was not even intentional at all,” Butts says, calling Rolling Stone from Boston where she’s on tour with Morgan Wade. “I remember looking at a Fox News article, it was the first one I had seen about drag queens. I was like, ‘You have to be kidding me. They’re going to come after this.’ And of course, I had just filmed this music video.”
The video’s genesis was even more uncanny. Butts had just played a show in Austin and was stopped by a man who told her he loved her set. She thanked him, then expressed her regrets that she couldn’t hang out for longer. The next day, she was chatting with Jason Boland’s wife Mandy, who mentioned that she didn’t get a chance to say hello to Butts because she’d been speaking with a friend who did drag. It turned out to be the same person she’d met earlier.
“It was so strange, because it felt like, ‘Why am I so drawn to this person, why do I want to keep hanging out with them?’” she says. “It just worked out so perfectly.” Butts has been a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community and drag as an artform, all of which have been under attack in recent weeks in Tennessee and elsewhere across the South.
But “What Else Can She Do” is not specifically a video about drag. Van Cartier, playing the song’s central role, is treated like any other woman would be, but her reveries turn her humdrum existence into something fantastical.
“She’s just a regular gal. It was like an alternate universe kind of thing, but when she closes her eyes she sees how she wishes the diner were, which is a reflection of what drag is,” Butts says. “It’s beautiful and colorful and glamorous.” (The clip also features a cameo by Butts’ husband, Flatland Cavalry frontman Cleto Cordero.)
For all the video’s whimsy, “What Else Can She Do” and the album that shares its name feels significantly different. It’s darker, heavier in tone, born from a rough period of young-adult life experiences.
“My first album [2014’s Same Hell, Different Devil] was very bright-sounding, it was all these songs I’d written as a very youthful girl, I was 16 to 20 writing those songs,” she says. “Going from 22 to 27, a lot of really big, adult things happened that were very harsh realities and real adult problems.”
“What Else Can She Do” looks at leaving an abusive situation for a life of day-to-day survival. “She’s Using” examines, with incredible empathy, struggles with substance abuse. Her cover of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” somehow dials up the ferocity with which Nirvana treated it and concludes with a foreboding cloud of feedback. And “Blood,” which Butts wrote with Angaleena Presley, confronts family abuse and trauma with a raw, unsettling intensity like something out of PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love era.
“Sometimes you just want to scream shit from the rooftops, like, ‘This is happening to me! Is this happening to anyone else? What in the world?’” she says.
Turns out that it had been happening to a lot of others, and the more that Butts talked openly about what was going on, the more people gravitated toward her with their own stories.
“The more I shared my story or talked about, ‘This is bullshit, right?’ the more I’ve had people say, ‘No that’s not OK and you shouldn’t have to be around people who make you feel small or cross boundaries, whether they’re family or not,’” she says.
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Butts’ recorded output also includes dance remixes of singles like “White River” and “Marfa Lights,” collaborations with Flatland Cavalry, and basically whatever else she wants to explore. An avowed fan of pop along with classic country, she always wants her music to feel authentic, but she’s also willing to make interesting detours. The way she sees it, those two things can and should be complementary for a forward-thinking artist.
“There’s a part of me that adores pop music and musical theater, and adores American and country music and the history behind that,” she says. “If I can’t have fun doing my job and going down these little trails of things that feel fun to me — freedom of expression — I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just trying to basically open myself up and tell people who I am.”
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