Will Country Music come out of the closet?
A few years ago, Willie Nelson released an iTunes single called “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other.” As a novelty tune prompted by the popularity of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, it hardly represented a serious attempt to introduce gay subject matter into country music. But, in its own jocular way, it did break through a verboten barrier for the genre and cause some folks in Nashville to look around at each other and think: Just how many music-industry “cowboys” are we talking about here? And just how necessary is the secrecy?
These are questions that are bound to arise again on Nashville’s Music Row as the second season of Sundance Channel’s GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS unfolds. Two cast members are country hit-makers, in front of and/or behind the scenes: songwriter Shane Stevens (who’s behind Lady Antebellum’s No. 1 smash, “American Honey”) and his straight BFF, well-known recording artist Sherrié Austin (who’s also penned hits for Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, and others).
If you talk to Stevens, Austin, and other Nashville insiders, you’ll quickly come to a consensus: Whatever stereotypes might exist about country music not being a gay-friendly genre, “the Row” is chock-full of gay people and one of the most accepting businesses in which they could possibly land in the South…
…unless, of course, said gay person wants to be a country music artist – in which case that rhinestone ceiling is as hard as diamonds.
“On the issue of being gay in Nashville and the music business and the industry, they’re fine,” says Austin. “For the most part, they’re open.” There is plenty of suspicion and paranoia to go around, Austin says, but it has more to do with perceived loyalty to the town and the format than with sexuality. “In my experience with Shane, they’ve been very accepting.”
“As far as the music business is concerned, I haven’t run into any issues yet,” says Stevens. “Everybody’s just a songwriter. I got my first BMI Award the other night [for "American Honey"], and everybody at the awards dinner was so excited and complimentary. I spoke to Randy Owen [of the group Alabama] for a bit, and he was like, ‘I’m just so proud of you.’ I haven’t hit (resistance), though I think maybe 10 years ago it was really different. Now. I’m not trying to be a country artist on the radio. That’s a whole other issue. They’re not going to play a gay artist on the radio.”
Austin agrees: “That’s not going to happen for a long time.”
“Yeah, but you know,” Stevens adds, “we also didn’t think they’d play a black artist other than Charley Pride on the radio, either, and they’ve embraced that” with the recent breakout success of [former Hootie and the Blowfish singer] Darius Rucker. “So I feel like it’s progressing, for sure. They might play our Christmas single, hopefully.”
He’s referring to “Naughty But Nice“, the single off Austin’s hot-off-the-presses new album, Circus Girl. A video for the single was just added into rotation on one of the top cable country channels. Stevens co-wrote the song with Austin and appears in the clip as well. “It definitely has a little gay undertone,” Stevens points out. “She’s in a bikini with boys in speedos…”
“… on GAC! Which is extremely conservative in their programming,” Austin adds.
If there are so many openly gay executives, employees, managers, and songwriters toiling on Music Row, what’s the problem with having them out there as performers? To even ask that is to risk getting laughed at for naïveté, but the question is constantly begged, no matter how obvious the answers might seem.
“There is still a sense that ‘country fans’ can’t handle the notion that Johnny loves Willie,” says Holly Gleason, a longtime artist development consultant who has worked closely with singers like Kenny Chesney, Patty Loveless, and Lee Ann Womack. “So anyone who might lean to their own gender is keeping that very much to themselves. Does it matter? Are the fans that small-minded? Hard to say. Certainly people here err on the side of caution.”
Actual case studies are hard to come by. Of course, k.d. lang had huge country hits back in the day, and in retrospect, anyone would be hard-pressed to look at her album covers and not see it coming – but she’d abandoned country music for sultry lounge-pop by the time she officially came out. Chely Wright had a claim on being the first recognizable hit-maker in the genre to leap out of the closet while still in the genre, but even she had stopped chasing after the mainstream Nashville dream and signed with an Americana label when she made the decision to come triumphantly clean with her memoir, “Like Me”. Kristen Hall’s tenure in Sugarland was over so quickly that, when she left under not-so-amicable circumstances in 2006, not everyone was quite sure if she’d ever had time to be unabashedly out or not.
In any case, there is a sense that the macho inclinations of country would make it much harder for a gay man to find acceptance. Some would point to the aftermath of the Ty Herndon’s 1995 arrest for indecent exposure and meth possession as a chilling example of how even a hint of homosexuality can derail a career.
“Ty Herndon was 15 years ago, and that stumble did blunt his career,” Gleason points out. “Was it homophobia at the radio stations? The fans? Hard to say. Other than the get drunk and fight guys, I think our fans are more accepting, more open and more willing. But, and this is a big qualifier, the music has to be there! Being gay and using that as a marketing peg shouldn’t force people to play your music.”
There don’t seem to be any test cases coming down the pike any time soon, but there have been signs over the years that the public might have an accepting streak. When Garth Brooks (who has a lesbian sister) released “We Shall Be Free,” there were predictions that he’d face a huge backlash at radio for including the line “when we’re free to love anyone we choose.” The good news is, country radio and the public embraced the song even after a very public debate about what that lyric implied. The bad news is, that was way back in 1992 and there haven’t been many opportunities for the country community to have a discussion like that since.
Almost twenty years after “We Shall Be Free,” it’s still “shall be,” not “are,” at least in the court of record-industry self-perception.
Chely Wright tells a story in her book about how singer-songwriter John Rich, asked her if she were a lesbian, then said “thank God” when she lied and said no. Rich, for his part, has denied certain parts of Wright’s account of their conversation – and come out against gay marriage on a talk radio show. But it’s not difficult to imagine such a reaction coming from any number of country’s good-ole-boy performers, especially the ones who hang out back in their hometowns as opposed to relatively progressive Nashville.
But more and more artists have at least expressed solidarity with their gay fans and friends. Perhaps tellingly, though, in the days since Garth’s breakthrough hit, almost all of the open supporters have been women.
“It feels like much of the artistic community have at least offered their implicit support to the gay community,” says Blake Boldt, managing editor of Nashville’s Out & About newspaper. “Some stars like Dolly, Martina McBride, and [Sugarland’s] Jennifer Nettles have even performed interviews for the gay press. Others are more timid about their opinions. The more established their careers, the more artists appear to speak out on the subject.”
“It also depends on the artist’s persona,” says Boldt. “Performers like Justin Moore, Jason Aldean and their ilk are not likely to delve into those issues regardless of their perspective, simply because their fans might think less of them for being ‘pro-gay.’ Their core followers are, by and large, more religious and more conservative than the average country fan. On the other hand, fans of pop-country Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift are just as likely to live on a cul-de-sac as they are on a dirt road. Their experiences have exposed them to many different types of people and their attitudes reflect that.”
The biggest and most visible divide, Boldt says, is between the artist tier, where the acceptance of a gay performer remains untested, and their immediate support system in the business.
“As far as the industry’s working class — songwriters, artist managers, publicists, etc. — it’s much less of an issue,” Boldt says. “Belmont’s University’s termination of lesbian soccer coach Lisa Howe last year and the subsequent reaction by [record executive] Mike Curb spoke volumes about the extent to which the gay community has contributed to Music Row. The industry is bolstered by a number of gay and lesbian employees who, for the most part, are out in the workplace. Curb’s outspoken stand only publicized what had been widely known and accepted privately for quite some time: gays are an integral part of the Music Row machine.”
“Openly gay executives hold positions of incredible prominence, agrees Gleason. “Now everybody pretty much knows on the business side who orients which way, and it’s awesome.”
It’s safer now for those lower on the totem pole in Nashville’s entertainment business, too.
“I was the first openly gay employee ever to work at the Nashville William Morris office,” says Jared Allman, another second season cast member of GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS. “I brought a boy to the Christmas party. And I got stares, especially from the old school players in the game, like….” He names a few names.
“I used to be at William Morris!” chimes in Sherrié Austin. “He was my rep. I can imagine the look he had!”
“He had that look of, what’s going on here?” says Allman, who is the type who might not have set off everyone’s gaydar before making a blatant step out. But the overall reaction, he says, was curiosity, not resistance. “A lot of people came up at the party and were like, ‘Who’s this?’ They knew, but they just wanted to see if I would say it, I think.”
As for artists being out, Shane Stevens is about to test the waters, though not as a country-with-a-capital-C artist. After helping out on Austin’s album, he just independently released his first single on iTunes, “Back to Earth“ — but for now he’s promoting himself as a pop or Hot AC singer. Even though his previous hits have been with mainstream country artists like Lady Antebellum, Sara Evans, and Kellie Pickler, he’s now starting to work with mainstream pop superstars in New York and L.A.
But he also has a side project about to start up, a trio that he’s formed with his “American Honey” co-writers, Hillary Lindsey and her boyfriend Cary Barlowe, which he describes as “my country outlet.” Anything could happen – including finally testing how country radio will react to an artist outside of the closet.
Lindsey (best known for writing “Jesus Take the Wheel” and other hits) is one of the top songwriters in Nashville, and “she’s been my best friend since the late ‘90s,” says Stevens. “She and Sherrié are a lot alike, and they share well. Hillary was like, ‘Okay, you tell that bitch she can have you for most of the summer, but I get you back by the fall!’ We love being on stage and we’re safe together. We’re not going to chase a record deal for the trio or anything like that – yet.”
But he does have nervously excited thoughts about what it might be like to be country’s out-and-in-front-of-the-camera pioneer.
“I think somebody has to do it,” says Stevens. “It’s like I was saying to Hillary and Cary, ‘Guys, if we do this record together, what if we do try to go to radio? What if we go to radio and they’re like ‘We won’t play it because there’s a gay guy in the band?’ That could really hinder us. Right now we just want to make great music, and wherever it falls, it falls, but (taking it to the country mainstream) is a huge possibility. And they said, ‘We don’t care. We just love you. And if you don’t do it, who’s going to?’”
An all new season of GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS is just around the corner. Tune into Sundance Channel on for the first two episodes of Season 2 on Friday, November 18th at 9 PM et/pt. Can’t wait? Watch the Premiere RIGHT NOW!