On September 12th, k.d. lang will be presented with the Americana Music Association’s Trailblazer Award at the organization’s 17th Annual Americana Honors and Awards show taking place at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. A few days later on September 16th, she’ll close out the Americana Music Festival by bringing the Ingénue Redux Tour to the Ryman stage.
The tour celebrates the 25th anniversary of her landmark album, Ingenue, which catapulted lang to pop stardom after several years of playing on the fringes of country music during the Eighties. Prior to that 1992 release, lang issued a series of country-leaning albums, including Absolute Torch and Twang (with the Reclines) and 1988’s string-laden Shadowland, helmed by Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley. That era also produced some of lang’s more outlandish and hilarious detours into polka and western swing, such as “Big Boned Gal” and “Hanky Panky.”
Ahead of this pair of appearances at the Ryman, lang chatted with Rolling Stone about her experience as an outsider working in conservative and insular 1980s Nashville, why she was drawn to country music and how that work put her in position to break through to a global audience with Ingénue.
You’re receiving the Americana Music Association’s Trailblazer Award, which certainly seems appropriate looking back at your singular career. What did you think when you found out you were getting this honor?
I got a call from my manager saying that was a possibility, and it’s a slightly mixed emotion for me. But it’s wonderful. My time in Nashville, my time with country music was certainly fulfilling and invigorating and challenging, so it was a big, big part of my musical journey.
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When you first broke through in America in the mid-Eighties, you put your own spin on country music. You’ve gone on to tackle so many different styles since that period. What appealed to you about making music within the framework of country at the start of your career?
I think I liked infusing an alternative mindset into such a traditional form. Taking lyrics and gender playing and using clothes — taking the traditional country clothes and cutting my boots off and sewing farm animals to my clothes. I loved that there was a tradition there — a structure — that I could hybrid and modernize and play with. That gave me a lot of fodder.
Even though I did it tongue-in-cheek a lot of the time, I always tried to balance respect and humor and appreciation and reverence for the music itself.
You also had the credibility of growing up in a rural area of Alberta, Canada. When we think of the western part of “country and western,” you actually lived that life riding horses and living out on the range.
I lived in the Canadian prairie, and that’s probably as isolated and western as you can get. But I think it was more about understanding the people of the plains and a rural lifestyle and how that music — how country music is so emotional and impactful and it’s like a comfortable pair of boots. You know what it is. Using that, I wanted to add the fact that what I experienced living in a town of 650 people, that eccentricities become normal. I think it’s so easy, and I think we see this a lot today — it’s so easy to just expect the categorizations and generalizations to be set in stone, when they’re not. Every single individual is a complex, complex set of influences and emotions. Nothing can be generalized.
When you were first starting to make this music, especially getting on television in America with 1987’s Angel with a Lariat, what was the reaction from Nashville?
It was mixed. I think it probably remains mixed. I certainly had my champions, which included Owen Bradley and Minnie Pearl and people like that — people at the record company — but I had critics as well. That is exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to be completely embraced by the country music establishment.
You mentioned Minnie Pearl appreciated the comedy you injected into your early music, and I know Opry star Dave “Stringbean” Akeman was a big influence on you, too. Today’s Americana world can seem a little serious in comparison.
I totally agree. I totally miss people like June Carter Cash when she was a youngster and Stringbean and Minnie and Hee Haw. I had a singing teacher, a coach, one time say that a great performance is infused with all things, like spirituality, humor, sexuality, intellect and so forth. I think Americana is very sentimental, but the humor’s missing, for sure.
Reading the liner notes that Owen Bradley wrote for Shadowland, you were able to actually serve him as well by lifting his spirits after a heart attack. What did that experience of working with Owen mean to you?
It was a huge, huge summit for me. Patsy Cline, and Owen’s music with Patsy, was the impetus for me starting in country music. Solely. I don’t think I can even express to people how deep my relationship with Patsy Cline goes. So, to focus and find and convince Owen Bradley to work with me and work in the barn with the players that I did, it was almost like a spiritual epiphany being there and getting there and working with Owen. We became very good friends and spent a lot of time on his boat listening to music and discussing singers and music and just everything — life.
You came out publicly in 1992, but I’m wondering if the humorous element to your music helped deflect the question of your sexuality during your time in and around country music?
I thought I was out always. I mean, I’ve been out since I was 13. So, no. I never tried to be anything other than who I am. Certainly, being a Scorpio, I’m not asexual. And the cover of Shadowland, I remember retailers saying, “Well, we can’t put it up front because it intimidates people.” So, yeah, whatever.
Before we get into the Ingénue Redux tour, I don’t want to skip over 1989’s Absolute Torch and Twang. I see more of a direct connection between the sounds of Shadowland and Ingenue, so where did you go in the middle of that with Absolute Torch and Twang?
[My co-writer] Ben Mink and I had some success in our writing and our direction with infusing pop into our country. Shadowland, Torch and Twang and Ingénue were all in a timeline where Torch and Twang was a conjunctive record. “Pullin’ Back the Reins” and “trail of Broken Hearts” were sort of an insight into where Ingenue went.
It’s been more than 25 years now since Ingénue came out, and I understand you had to dig back into the music getting ready for the tour. Now that you’ve been performing this body of work for a year now, has your relationship with this music changed?
Yes, definitely. It has and it hasn’t. It’s a certain state of mind, so it sort of determines and designates what the emotional state is going to be. I thought a lot about it before I went on tour with the record — how to approach doing an anniversary record. It’s a popular thing to do nowadays. You hear people completely reinventing it, and people playing it exactly, exactly the same. I certainly deliberated a lot with my friends about it.
I thought about my experience with Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and making that movie with [director] Gus Van Sant after Tom Robbins had written the book about 25 years prior. I watched the film fail and realized people had had their relationship with the book. That made me realize that I probably would be best playing more of a neutral approach to Ingénue. Not void of emotion by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t need to imprint myself or my experiences or my emotion on it any more than they’re already there. What I really want to do is invoke the relationship the listener has to that record and their history with the record.
There’s something unknowable and obtuse about Ingénue. It’s an album I’ve listened to for years, and yet, I still feel like it’s never going to fully manifest itself in a solid form.
I think there’s a reason for that. I think there’s a reason it resonated with the gay culture. Being gay is a pretty cryptic, elusive existence. I think the vulnerability and honesty, but again, as you say, obtuse vibe of Ingénue, I think that spoke to a lot of people. I think people knew what that felt like and what that meant and also that it was our own prison that we were trying to break out of, but it was also our comfort zone. So, it’s a complex dichotomy.
I understand Ingénue took six months to make, and it was a very deliberate process. It’s almost like a classical piece in that every part was played with precision in order to create the space and emotion.
We were painstakingly precise. It’s not a jam, for sure. It’s not really a derivative record. So, when you’re entering into that, it has to be pretty precise.
Where are you going next, musically?
Nowhere! I’m really not feeling inspired to make new music at this time. Thank God I have the Ingenue project because I wouldn’t be doing anything. I’m really allowing myself to get immersed in life. My mom’s 95, and I’m in a relationship, with a kid. It feels like I spent so much of my life on an airplane or backstage going “Geez, I should spend more time with my mom,” or “I wish I could cook more.” I finally got to the point where I went, “OK, do it, then.”