Trixie Mattel’s country odyssey
The drag queen of ‘RuPaul’ fame is country music’s next superstar
The inspiration behind some of modern pop culture’s most flamboyant drag queens can be found in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Most don’t think of Countrypolitan icons like Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Patsy Cline as such, but they dressed up in mile-high wigs and dazzling outfits not just for fashion, but to embody a persona. Their polished glamor masked the heartbreak and working-class angst of their lyrics while creating a bait-and-switch, allowing pageantry and style to disguise a conversation much deeper than rhinestone-studded gowns. Trixie Mattel’s bait-and-switch is a bit trickier. Underneath her cotton-candy puffs of hair, dramatic contoured makeup, and Barbie-on-steroids beauty lies a 28-year-old man with a backstory more country than Conway Twitty.
Mattel is the drag persona of Brian Firkus, whose appearances on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” skyrocketed him to a level of international fame he’s leveraged to co-create a television show and, as of last year, launch a country music career. “There is no other number you can call if you want a drag queen to come and do stand-up and sing you earnest folk music,” Firkus says. “I think I’m the only person that can do that.”
Before amassing hundreds of thousands of drag devotees, Firkus grew up in the backwoods of Wisconsin, singing Johnny Cash with his grandfather and taking the bus two hours to the nearest school. “Growing up, I would sit around the kitchen table watching my grandpa drink blackberry brandy and play his guitar… and then I learned to play with [him] and I learned on George Jones and Roy Orbison,” he explains.
The textbook country-boy story diverges sharply after his teenage years, though. Firkus escaped the boonies and attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he discovered drag performing as the character Trixie in a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Country music didn’t come back into his life until after his initial season on “Drag Race,” when he first blended music into his Mattel routines. “I realized [country music] is kind of simple in the way it’s structured and written, but it has so much wisdom and so much richness in the tradition of it,” he says.
Audiences walked away from his stand-up shows saying their favorite part wasn’t the jokes, but his performance of breakup songs like “I Know You All Over Again,” a heart-rending ballad from his 2017 debut, Two Birds.
Just like Parton, Firkus loves making audiences laugh one minute and cry the next, as Mattel’s hyper-polished aesthetic counterbalances the emotional weight of the lyrics. “Dolly used to dress up in these gaudy costumes, and it was a way for her to parody being a beautiful woman and be ahead of the joke,” he says. “And with Trixie, it’s like a similar crying clown thing where it’s fascinating to watch someone painted up like a toy sing about real things.”
Musically, the folk musings of Two Birds couldn’t be further from the work of fellow Drag Race queens who primarily draw on hip-hop and club music while throwing in a slew of references from the show. The album cover also features Firkus out of drag alongside Mattel, marketing himself as something more than a Drag Race contestant. In a heteronormative culture, drag will always be political, but Firkus doesn’t focus on the politics of queer identity in his music or paint himself as a queer advocate within country music. His current tour follows the release of One Stone, the short companion album to Two Birds, which he says delves deeper into the struggles faced by Brian Firkus. “On this upcoming album, it’s not about being gay, it’s not about being a drag queen. It’s music about relationships and it’s about being disappointed in yourself... it’s a human journey,” he says. “I wish I was a good activist, but I don’t even think there should be a niche for queer artists because the music should just be music you like or don’t like, it doesn’t even have to be gay.”
However, the record is still billed as coming from Trixie Mattel, and her face, between streams of blonde hair, dominates the cover while Firkus looms in the background. In many ways, Mattel’s exaggerated glamor and Firkus’ heartbreaking lyrics follow the traditions of classic country more closely than many a song on the mainstream charts. He’s still more popular on Drag Race forums than rural country stations, but a future that sees both Trixie Mattel and Dolly Parton in the Country Music Hall of Fame might be closer than we think. “If your art is macaroni art and you’re dressed like the Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Firkus says, “you better fucking work, bitch.”
Trixie Mattel. $40-$56. 8 p.m. Mon., April 23. The Buckhead Theatre 3110 Roswell Rd. 404-843-2825. www.thebuckheadtheatre.com.