Though Cody Belew's next song release of note will bask in '90s nostalgia, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter's future musical plans nod a different era of country hits and fashion.
"The sounds that I'm chasing, I have coined it as disco country because I really love the Eddie Rabbitt years and the Ronnie Milsap years and the Barbara Mandrell stuff when they were really tapping into what disco was doing but putting it through the filter of country music," Belew told Wide Open Country. "We're going to chase after that. I've been doing it in my live show and sort of preparing my audience to expect me to come out in something a little bit livelier than a t-shirt, carrying around a red Solo cup. I'm not knocking that. I just think that corner of the market is full, and I'm not that way anyway. I feel like if you pay $10 to see me, then you're going to get a $150 show. This new record is going to be the embodiment of that."
If you've heard Belew's self-titled 2022 EP or caught one of his monthly residency gigs at the Lipstick Lounge in East Nashville, Barbara, Louise and Irlene Mandrell make perfect sense as style icons for Belew's sonic and fashion aesthetic.
"They were like the first drag queens of country music before there was even such a thing," he added. "The Mandrell Sisters was like an episode of Dynasty set to Hee Haw. That version of the glamour of it is kind of lost, and I think it's way more fun [to present myself] that way."
An Arkansas native, young Belew learned that he's at home on the stage at a local Southern Baptist church.
"It's been a lifelong thing for me," he said. "I don't have a memory that doesn't have being propped up on something high enough where people could see me. I've always been singing. My parents kept me out of the business of it. They really believed in me being a kid. As soon as it was my decision to go after it, I went in full tilt."
Folks around Beebe, a tiny town with a population barely over 7,000, spotted something special in Belew long before he relocated to Nashville or competed in 2012 on The Voice.
"I don't know if it's because I'm from a little bitty place, you know, a speck on the map or what, but in the community I grew up in, it's almost like I was christened as that's what I was going to do," he shared. "It wasn't a question in anybody else's mind. It's the old chicken before the egg thing. I don't know if it was them saying it or me saying it that solidified that in my mind. I think it certainly helped to have an entire community believing that I could do something."
Away from church, Belew fell in love with country storytelling and pop vibes through cassette copies of Dolly Parton and The Judds' greatest hits compilations and a bootleg of The Bodyguard soundtrack. Those and other musical reference points made Nashville a sensible next step as an adult.
"It was really the folklore of it," he explained. "The innocence of a kid watching Hee Haw and tuning into Entertainment Tonight because there was a chance that Reba McEntire was going to be on there. It was like a pilgrimage for me. It was the only place I knew to go. In the opposite direction, I knew that I didn't want to go to New York and go the musical theater route. I knew that I didn't want to go to LA and try to navigate that concrete jungle. And so it was always going to be Nashville for me. Now that I've been here for I guess 11 years now, I can't imagine having been anywhere else. I learned so much about myself and about business by being here, so I wouldn't trade it."
Lessons learned in Music City inform songs in Belew's live set. For example, "Charlene" calls out the hypocrisy of someone concerned about Belew's eternal security simply because he's gay.
"I figured out a while back that the best I could do for my audience was to tell my own story," Belew said. "That's the essence of country music at its core. You hear that over and over again, and I don't know why it took me so long to get to that point. I think it was because I was kind of scared because my reality does include things like a Charlene.
"It wasn't something that I was immediately trying to put out there," he continued. "Then I realized quickly that everybody has a Charlene. That song is one of the ones that people come up to me repeatedly and tell me how much it meant to them. It's a song that was born out of being made to feel isolated and alone, but when I sing it in public, it's one of the ones that brings us all together."
Belew's experience with Charlene and others like her didn't drive him away from his personal faith. On the contrary, the Charlenes of the South --and others' perceptions about sexuality and Christianity, as addressed in songs like "Crimes Reloaded"-- strengthen his relationship with God.
"I am very, very tied to God," he said. "I'm not one of those people that ran from spirituality. I actually ran to it. I'm speaking on it maybe from a unique point of view, and Charlene did her best to take it away from me. I have such a strong and deep and devout connection to God that I joke that most of my songs mention God in them at some point. Most country songs say something about whiskey these days, and all of mine say something about God. I have to catch myself when I'm writing that I don't be too redundant about it. The point of it is, it really guides everything that I do. I felt like it was important to say to those people who had been Charlened in the past that they don't get to be the gatekeepers to your spirituality."
Belew will soon enter the studio to record a disco country album. In the meantime, he'll follow up his recent EP --which features a slowed-down, ballad-style reimagining of Parton's "Here You Come Again" and the secular Holy Ghost revival that is "Great Expectations"-- with a cover of "Neon Moon" that teams him with dance music producer Dave Aude and hat-tips the Kacey Musgraves version of a Brooks & Dunn classic.
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