Where the Queer and the Antelope Play

Willie Nelson goes gay (for a song).

 Willie Nelson has made a career of bucking the conservative conventions of Nashville's Music Row, the nominal capital of mainstream country music. Still, Nelson achieved hard-won stardom with and beyond the country music audience: rednecks, punks, squares, and hepcats comprise Nelson's fan base. But this past Valentine's Day, Nelson pulled what might be his most unexpected move yet. Via iTunes, he released "Cowboys Are Secretly, Frequently (Fond of Each Other)," a plainspoken ballad about closeted homosexuality among cowboys, composed by fellow Texan Ned Sublette.

"Cowboys" is not a glad-to-be-gay anthem but rather a Marty Robbins-style (remember "El Paso"?) narrative about man-man affection that's a levelheaded plea for understanding. "There's many a strange impulse out on the plains of West Texas/There's many a young boy who feels things he can't comprehend," goes the first verse. The second ends with a not-too-subtle point about questionable campfire machismo: "Well, a cowboy may brag about things that he's done with his women/But the ones who brag loudest are the ones that are most likely queer." It's got an infectiously rousing boys-in-the-barroom chorus too:

Cowboys are frequently secretly fond of each other

R'n'R Soldiers: Defending your right to bang groupies
R'n'R Soldiers: Defending your right to bang groupies

Say, what do you think all them saddles and boots was about?

And there's many a cowboy who don't understand the way that he feels for his brother

And inside every cowboy, there's a lady that'd love to slip out.

Sublette (happily married to a woman, btw) has an exceptional career to say the least. Born 1951 in Lubbock, he has a master's degree in composition and performance from UC at San Diego. He relocated to New York City in the 1970s, joined the guitar orchestra of no-wave avant-gardist Glenn Branca (at the same time as Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore), and worked with composers John Cage and La Monte Young. In '82, he convened the Ned Sublette Band, combining traditional country-and-western songs with Tex-Mex and Cuban music. Inspired by the Urban Cowboy trend, he wrote "Cowboys" around that time. More recently, Sublette released the album Cowboy Rumba (Palm Pictures) and a comprehensive book, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press).

To the skeptics or homophobes accusing Nelson of cashing in on Brokeback Mountain or joining the Liberal Plot to Destroy America by cramming the "gay agenda" down our collective esophagus, think again. Not long ago, Nelson's for-decades touring manager and friend David Anderson came out of the cowboy closet. Nelson, long an outsider, understood. "The song's been in the closet for 20 years," he said in a statement on releasing "Cowboys." "The timing's right for it to come out." Or, to quote Bill Maher, "They're here, they're queer, get bored with it." — Mark Keresman Willie Nelson performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 5, at the Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $37.50 to $49.50. Call 561-966-3309. Conceptually Speaking

Not since the escapist early '70s has the concept album been so hip. In American Idiot's vaguely political wake, Ryan Adams released the autobiographical 29, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are hard at work on a musical essay about singer Karen O's cat (no joke), and Velvet Revolver is reportedly planning a concept album that will really "make a statement," according to bassist Duff McKagan.

Using our contacts in the Israeli Mossad and China's MSS (the CIA's intelligence capabilities not being what they once were), Outtakes learned that practically every pop musician of note is set to release a concept album in 2006. Here's a sampling of the brilliant concepts headed your way.

Morrissey's Ringleader of the Torturers is a rock opera about the singer's favorite kind of torture: dangling his lucratively ambiguous sexuality in front of his audience. Coy, jangly tracks include "Touch Me/Don't Touch Me" and "Let's Do It, No We Mustn't."

Franz Ferdinand's follow-up to You Could Have It So Much Better is to be titled Ferdinand Ferdinand. The piece is entirely fictional, concerning a group of art-school mushheads from the U.K. who rise to rock stardom, armed with good looks, suave clothes, and baffling lyrical non sequiturs. Duran Duran is reportedly considering pressing charges for identity theft.

Toby Keith follows up his pro-war hit "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" with a concept album explaining why he himself has not enlisted in the armed services. Among the album's most compelling numbers are the whimsical "Blind as a Bat," the tragic "Chronic Elbow Pain," and a desperate-sounding "How 'Bout This: I'm Gay."

From gothy punks AFI, a darkly romantic saga in which singer Davey Havok performs entirely in the persona of Count Chocula. The track "Source of Five Essential Nutrients" is particularly brooding, as is "Turn Your Milk Brown."

Alanis Morissette is busy completing Venti, a woman's journey of self-discovery inside a Starbucks.

Coldplay is slated to release Ether, an album that dissipates and joins the ozone layer after one play.

Bono is reported to be working on his debut solo album, Hint, Hint, a series of love songs in Norwegian to the members of the Nobel Committee. And, of course, having promised to chronicle every state in the union, Sufjan Stevens follows up Illinois with Iraq.

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