Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Hilary Saunders interviews a number of figures in country music past and present, all of whom are trying to build a more accepting and diverse music world.
Make lots of noise
Kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points
–Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”
Early in our conversation about the LGBTQ community within the music industry, singer and former model Steve Grand and I find a shared love of Kacey Musgraves’ hit from a year and a half ago. Grand, a 24-year-old singer-songwriter, calls from his home outside Chicago and speaks with an impassioned tone, but in a quiet timbre. “It’s a great tune,” he begins. “It’s not just a great tune, but it’s a tune that speaks to the movement towards equality.”
Grand’s country-tinged “All-American Boy” became a YouTube sensation just a few months before Musgraves’ hit, which gained traction because it shares the same traits as its predecessor — it’s catchy and socially inclusive. Like Shane McAnally, who co-wrote “Follow Your Arrow”, Grand is a gay man who is openly out in the country music scene.
Although he doesn’t like to pigeonhole himself as a country singer specifically, Grand accepts the genre correlations and leverages them to his and his fans’ benefit. “’All-American Boy’, the song even apart from the video, does have a country-esque vibe to it,” he allows. “There’s definitely influences of country in some of my music. I definitely like country music, but I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say I’m a country singer. Some of my fans really did see me as a country artist, and that was empowering for some people, so I didn’t want to take that away from anyone.”
Grand not only owns his sexuality but also acknowledges that doing so emboldens those who listen to his music. It’s a huge step for the LGBTQ community in an industry and a genre not known for embracing many socially liberal ideals. This is the music genre, of course, that still rebukes the Dixie Chicks for their political commentary in London in 2003 and protest song “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006. In fact, just two months ago, Questlove wrote on his Instagram that the radio blacklisting and cultural spurning still affect the Dixie Chicks to this day.
All stereotypes of conservatism and pickup trucks aside, there just haven’t been very many openly LGBTQ singers in country music. That seems to be changing, though, and it’s all leading up to why 2015 should be a progressive year for acceptance, equality, and expanding the spectrum of sexuality in country music.
Now I know that that’s your girl, I mean no disrespect
The way that shirt hugs your chest, boy, I just won’t forget
I’ll be sittin’ here, drinking my whiskey
I won’t say goodnight unless I think you might miss me
–Steve Grand, “All-American Boy”
The momentum that Grand and “Follow Your Arrow” started in 2013 continued last year, as well. In March, the independent North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors re-released the lone record from Lavender Country, the first gay country band. During the fall, lesbian country singer Chely Wright raised almost $250,000 in her Kickstarter campaign to fund a new record she’s now working on. It was the sixth most successful music campaign in Kickstarter’s history and the company’s most prosperous country music project. And in November, country star Ty Herndon (who declined to comment for this story) announced that he’s gay just a few hours before yet another artist, Billy Gilman, recorded and released his own coming-out video on YouTube.
But coming out and making a living playing country music wasn’t always as easy as Gilman recording his YouTube video or Wright relying on her fans to subsidize a record. When Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country made his record in 1973, he knew he had no chance of breaking into the country music scene. “The door was slammed absolutely shut,” he states from his home outside Seattle.
Haggerty, now in his 70s, speaks genially with a bit of a nasally accent. He likes to personalize conversation and pepper wry commentary with affectionate pet names like “girlfriend.” He recalls, “I knew that I was never going to get into Nashville in any kind of way — through the back door, through the front door, down the chimney, up the roof … after I made Lavender Country.
“I knew it. They knew it. There was no point in even knocking on it,” he continues. ”It allowed me to say what I wanted to say. It opened up the whole thing.”
The band he began, with the help of countless other musicians and individuals in the Greater Seattle area, produced 1,000 copies of their self-titled LP and released it via Gay Community Social Services. The 10 songs on Lavender Country serve simultaneously as indignant protests of discrimination and joyful pride in being honest with themselves. The four-piece group played with traditional country instrumentation — guitars, resonators, keys, and a fiddle — and Haggerty’s voice, nasally even then, rings clearly in songs with titles like “Back in the Closet Again” and “Straight White Patterns”.
Your sexism’s a broken record, record, record
Been screeching for 10,000 years
And the battle’s begun, sir, I tell ya I’m done, sir
With cryin’ these cocksucking tears.
–Lavender Country, “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears”
Without being able to afford to press more copies of Lavender Country, much less make a living singing gay country music, Haggerty and the band carried on for almost five years and then disappeared. As Haggerty remembers, “Lavender Country went to sleep, and I had other songs to sing, other movements to be involved in.
“I would have loved to have had a career in country music. It would have been fabulous. It would have been my heart’s dream,” he says. “Gay liberation came along, and my heart’s dream and desire changed. And I had to choose, ‘What do you want to do here? Do you want to pursue a career in country music, or do you want to ride the gay liberation movement and do the gay liberation movement fully and completely and openly and honestly? What do you want to do?’ And so I made my choice.”
During the peak of his activism career from 1970-80, Haggerty also wrote articles, published gay magazines, wrote fairy tales about sexual oppression, gave speeches, and organized symposiums. He also ran for office with men from the Nation of Islam as an independent on a Black-Gay unity slate that actually received more than 15% of the vote.
But in the wider country music scene, the gap between Lavender Country and Chely Wright’s public announcement in 2010 was decades long and sparsely populated with openly LGBTQ musicians. Throughout the 1990s, Doug Stevens & The Outband gained recognition for their LGBTQ country songs. Stevens, a professional opera singer, grew up in rural Mississippi, and The Outband served as his post-classical career move. Canadian singer-songwriter k.d. lang came out in 1992, but her diverse musical style has since edged away from country. Gay writer and country-folk musician Mark Weigle released his first record, The Truth Is, in 1998. Openly gay, ex-Mormon, ex-gay therapy survivor Justin Utley also plays a style of folksy acoustica that could be described as country. His first album dropped in 1996, and his musical career has been wide-ranging since.
With horror stories abounding about out LGBTQ artists losing their record deals, getting kicked out of bands, or just not being able to find work because of sexual discrimination, many of today’s young-and-out artists still struggle with sharing their stories and making sound business decisions in the industry while still appeasing fans. And with so few openly LGBTQ singers in the country music scene, they don’t have many people to look to for guidance and support.
Herndon chose the mainstream media path and Wright released a memoir called Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer and a documentary entitled Wish Me Away to announce their personal preferences, respectively. As Wright writes via email, “Of course, I could have just tweeted, ‘Yep, I’m gay,’ but that wouldn’t have done much to change the status quo. In writing my book, I was able to tell the very nuanced stories of what it’s like for anyone who is closeted. Details matter, and my sharing my journey so publicly has mattered to a lot of folks.”
She continues, “I wanted to seize the opportunity to essentially force country music into having a truthful dialogue about people like me … I had a chance to reveal my truth to people who thought that gay people are in no way like them. But because I am SO much like country music fans — patriotic, a person of faith, a lover of country music — I had a chance to really challenge those stereotypes and to ultimately change a few hearts and minds.”
Gilman decided to take another route altogether, telling his fans directly by recording a heartfelt coming-out announcement and posting it to YouTube. The young country star first cracked the charts when he was 11 years old, becoming the youngest singer with a song on the Top 40 country music charts. Now, he’s prepping for a national tour and planning on releasing a few more songs from last year’s “Say You Will” sessions in the coming months.
“My love is with country, but if they don’t accept me for who I am, then I have to move on and find other ways to be successful in my work, which is singing,” he says calling from Nashville. “But the main focus was to have that support from my fans, and I have that. I think the country fans are opening their eyes to the fact that it’s no big deal! I think that is what’s changing faster than the industry.”
Similarly, Grand notes that with his Kickstarter-funded debut album dropping March 24th, he hasn’t spent enough time in the industry to comment on the institutionalized challenges. But because his fans enjoyed his music and supported him enough to fund the third most successful music Kickstarter, he’s able to write and perform for the people who don’t care about his sexual preference.
Because as Haggerty explains, “Everybody can love country music. And a lot of people for a long time who are not conservative have loved country music. So when we think of country music being conservative, what we’re talking about — just to be straight up — is a little, tiny oligarchy on top of the industry that’s dictating what they think their audience wants to hear. They’re transmitting their own values. The oligarchy is capable of molding or shoving down the throats what they deem their audience wants to hear. I’ve always thought that the repression against gays never really did come from the bottom up. It’s always been the top.”
We’ve all got a choice to make
Before our time on earth is up
If we wanna be a part of something
Bigger than us
–Billy Gilman, “The Choice”
In addition to their musical activism, each of these rising out stars has a history of social work, raising awareness and funds for LGBTQ causes. Wright notes relationships with people at GLAAD, Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, Faith in America, Human Rights Campaign, National Council of La Raza, and Family Equality Council. Grand has performed at Pride events around the nation and has partnered with causes such as the Human Rights Campaign and Anti-Violence Project.
In late January, Gilman traveled to Los Angeles for the opening of West Hollywood’s first country-western-themed gay bar, Flaming Saddles Saloon. “I’m being honored by the mayor of Hollywood for my efforts on behalf of the youth of the LGBT, which is pretty amazing,” he exudes. “I could not believe it! I mean Hollywood! Coming from Nashville and country! It’s pretty amazing!”
Gilman continues, “I’ve always been an advocate for so many causes, like St. Jude’s or the Muscular Dystrophy Association … I’ve done a lot of stuff like that over the years, and I thought that now that I came to terms with myself, why not be an advocate?
“The amount of emails that I read that say, ‘Thank you,’ ‘I no longer feel alone,’ ‘You’re giving me a voice,’ ‘You don’t even know me, but I just felt the need to say thank you’ — that, probably, in this moment, is the most rewarding factor of this whole situation: knowing that I’m helping someone. This whole situation is bigger than any of us. All we can really do is come together and not even in this one specific instance of being gay or straight or whatever. The world just needs camaraderie.”
And music has that strange sort of magical element that brings people together. As Grand affirms, “Music is inherently activism because music is about getting people to see things from different perspectives. Music just does that. And sometimes, music is just fun. But even that brings people together. So inherently, music just has that activist role.”
But in a country in which one-third of the population still doesn’t live in a state with marriage equality and 36% still oppose it, there is much work yet to be done.
“When Nashville allows gay people to sing [gay] songs and sing them at the Grand Ole Opry, that’s when the job will be done,” maintains Haggerty. “Until then, don’t kid yourself. We’re still working on it.”
Wright tempers his proclamation, but only slightly. “LGBT musicians, writers, producers, and artists all play a part in helping country music bend toward equality simply by being visible,” she says. “We have a long way to go in America and a long way to go in our genre of country music.”
Hilary Saunders is a writer based in Miami. She writes for Paste, eMusic, the Miami New Times, and more. Follow her @Hilary_Saunders