Priyanka and Lindsay Ell Are Breaking Down Barriers in Country Music

The pair will co-host this year's Canadian Country Music Awards on November 28
Priyanka and Lindsay Ell Are Breaking Down Barriers in Country Music
After being crowned the first-ever winner of Canada's Drag Race last year, Toronto's Priyanka already has her sights set on becoming queen of another country — the musical genre, that is. She and Calgary-born singer-songwriter Lindsay Ell are making history by co-hosting this year's Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMAs).

"It's honestly not that surprising," Priyanka tells Exclaim! of her foray into country music; she wants to do everything she can with her platform. Previously a children's TV host, Priyanka says she has no desire to box herself in: "I want people to see that you can do whatever you want, in whatever genre."

The trajectory of Ell's career stands in agreement: she released her first album on the Guess Who legend Randy Bachman's label, Ranbach Music, in 2006, then went on to study business at the University of Calgary and music at Berklee. She's toured with the likes of Buddy Guy, Keith Urban, the Band Perry and Luke Bryan, and has multiple CCMAs to her name.

Ell's most recent album, 2020's heart theory, is a sensitive exploration of the seven stages of grief. She came forward as a survivor of sexual assault with the release of lead single "make you" — co-written by Brandy Clark — and launched the Make You Movement Fund to support disenfranchised youth, as well as survivors of sexual trauma and domestic abuse.

The singer-songwriter explains that having people reach out to let her know that her story resonated with them has been incredibly rewarding and empowering, and it's something she brings with her to the stage. "It's in that vulnerability that we have the most potential for connection," Ell says.

She and Priyanka are planning to tackle difficult topics at the CCMAs, knowing the historical context of country music and the often-conservative culture surrounding it. With the genre still facing issues of racism and sexism, having Ell and the Indo-Guyanese drag performer host the country's biggest awards ceremony is no small feat.

It's also a marker of evolution. Between the likes of Orville Peck, Lil Nas X, Trixie Mattel and TJ Osborne, queerness is having a moment of newfound visibility in country music despite its longstanding presence, dating back at least as far as the early '70s with Lavender Country.

Mainstream country radio is still dominated by straight, white cisgendered men — women make up about 13 percent of airplay on country radio — but Priyanka and Elle represent the elevation of a burgeoning group of key voices within the genre.

It's only fitting since, for the co-hosts, it was women in country music who marked their respective first exposures. Both have early memories of making the acquaintance of another Canadian country queen: Shania Twain. A young Ell wanted to walk in her footsteps since the release of Come On Over; meanwhile, Priyanka's DJ father blew her mind when he brought out the vinyl for "Man! I Feel Like a Woman."

And they're not short on the prerogative to have a little fun: the fast friends each bounce off the other's seemingly boundless energy, and have embraced being one other's hype women. 

"Where has this girl been all my life?" Ell marvels, and promises she's going to bat to have her co-host perform her debut country single live on Monday's awards, alongside the likes of Dallas Smith, Tenille Arts, the Reklaws, Tim Hicks, MacKenzie Porter, Dustin Lynch, Tenille Townes, Jess Moskaluke and more.

"We need more allies like Lindsay," Priyanka confirms. "As soon as I said I wanted to do a country song, she was on board [to help]," adding that CCMA nominees in any of the same categories as Ell had better watch out — "I'll pull a Kanye!"

Out today, Priyanka's "Country Queen" is a boot-stompin', fiddle-heavy departure from the reigning Canada's Drag Race champion's previous musical release, an EP from earlier this year titled Taste Test — earlier material she calls back to in the trap-inspired breakdown. In spite of her hallmark versatility, Priyanka acknowledges that her audience might find her embrace of the genre surprising. "Forget everything you thought," she sings with a wink.

The CCMAs air Monday, November 28 at 8 p.m. ET, streaming on the Global TV app and Prime Video.