James McMurtry took the title of his 2002 song “Red Dress” quite literally while playing a string of shows in Tennessee last week. The songwriter — one of America’s greatest living ones, at that — delivered his encore in Knoxville and Nashville dressed in drag to protest the state’s anti-drag legislation.
“When in Tennessee we will do our little bit for humanity,” McMurtry announced onstage at Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley on Sunday after returning from an encore break wearing a red floral dress, lipstick, pearls, and fishnets. Prior to the quick change, the famously ornery Texan performed his set — broadcast live on Nashville’s Lightning 100 — dressed in his regular fedora and white shirt. But even then, he didn’t mince words about the current state of the country, where civil rights are being impinged upon daily, and there’s a perpetual preoccupation with America being “the best.”
McMurtry was having none of it. In the setup to his masterful “Canola Fields,” he told a story about touring across Canada with his band and being fascinated by a chartreuse crop growing near the highway. “But us being Americans, we didn’t stop to ask,” he said. “Because we already know everything.”
Both his commentary and especially his drag routine are a way for McMurtry to subtly challenge his audience, lest they get too comfortable with a guy whose “medley of his hit,” as he deadpanned Sunday night when introducing cult favorite “Choctaw Bingo,” talks about cooking meth, shooting guns, and ogling second cousins in “cut-off britches.” “I’m a fiction writer,” he told Rolling Stone in 2021. “I just do it in verse, rather than prose, like my dad did.” (McMurtry’s father, the Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry, died in 2021.)
McMurtry also performed “Red Dress,” off 2002’s St. Mary of the Woods, in drag at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville. As in Nashville, he was accompanied by songwriter and his opening act, Betty Soo, who played with gender roles herself during the encore, wearing a suit and pencil-drawn mustache while backing up McMurtry on accordion.
McMurtry’s colorful encore is just the latest example of artists performing in drag to protest Tennessee’s anti-drag law, which a federal judge is temporarily blocking for violating the First Amendment. Texas country-punk band Vandoliers and indie-rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo both played shows in drag earlier this year, while the newly formed Grateful-Dead-in-drag tribute band Bertha made its debut in Nashville in April.
A day after the Nashville show, McMurtry shared a reaction on Facebook to his Sunday-night drag show from fellow songwriter Fred Koller: “[He] dubbed me ‘The Old Rugged Crossdresser.’”