I love country music. Through the years my love of country and western music has inspired me to amass a sizable collection of country CDs and tapes, though my country collection is still not at large as my rhythm & blues or jazz collections.
That the music of mostly Scot-Irish, Evangelical Protestants in Appalachia appeals to a gay Cuban Jew in South Florida speaks volumes for that music’s universality. Along with my partner, Michael Greenspan, I visited the City of Nashville Tennessee, the capital of country music, where I saw the Country Music Hall of Fame, heard the Grand Ole Opry, and stood on the stage of country’s “mother church,” the Ryman Auditorium. I even watch “Nashville,” ABC’s country music soap opera. If that ain’t country, you can kiss my grits.
As a country music fan who is also a gay man, I was delighted on November 20, when not one but two male country singers came out as gay men. After 52 years of life, two marriages and a notorious arrest in a public park, singer Ty Herndon revealed country’s worst kept secret in an interview with TV’s “Entertainment Tonight.” Like many of us, Herndon found it hard to come out, thinking “that I couldn’t be gay and be in country music. I’ve dreamed about being in country music since I was 6 years old. It’s my life, it’s what I do, it’s who I am, and I went to great lengths to cover up that fact to be a country star.” Herndon added that he has been in “an awesome relationship” with a man for several years and hoped his partner would propose “right after this interview.”
Herndon’s announcement inspired fellow country singer Billy Gilman, best known for his days as a child star, to come out the very same day, in a five and half minute video posted on YouTube: “It’s difficult for me to make this video, not because I’m ashamed of being a gay male artist, or a gay artist, or a gay person,” Gilman said. “But it’s pretty silly to know that I’m ashamed of doing this knowing that because I’m in a genre, in an industry that is ashamed of me for being me.”
Now 26, Gilman is trying to make a comeback but found no interest on the part of major record labels in Nashville. “If people don’t like your music, that’s one thing, but after having sold over five million records, having a wonderful life in the music industry, I knew something was wrong when no major label wanted to sit down and have a meeting and listen to the new stuff,” he said. “I threw a showcase in Nashville, and no major label showed.”
The reluctance of Herndon and Gilman to come out until their prime was past is understandable, because country music is not gay friendly. If rock and roll is “the sound of the city” then country music, as its name suggests, is the sound of the country, especially of the rural South. As a music steeped in tradition, country celebrates the values of rural America: songs about God, patriotism or the straight nuclear family are as common as songs about drinking beer, driving trucks, or cheating on your spouse. Country artists, most of who were born and raised in the red states, also tend to be more conservative than artists in other musical genres, and the Nashville musical establishment is very conservative. (Nashville is is also a major producer of religious literature.)
Most openly LGBT country singers, musicians or composers - including Patrick Haggerty and Lavender Country, Doug Stevens and the Outband, Mark Weigle, Teresa Trull and Nancy Vogl - came out within the queer or lesbian-feminist sub-cultures and are virtually unknown to mainstream country fans. Thus, when Steve Grand emerged in 2013 he was wrongly labeled as country’s first openly gay singer. Country music was a bit kinder to lesbians: the Nashville establishment briefly tolerated k.d. lang when she joined forces with producer Owen Bradley to record “Shadowland” in 1988; and Chely Wright preceded Herndon and Gilman by coming out in 2010. But, on the whole, most queer country artists find it wise to stay in their Nashville closets, like the fictional Will Lexington in ABC’s country soaper “Nashville.”
I hope it does not stay that way. Country music owes a lot to its LGBT artists; a debt that cannot be paid while those artists remain closeted. Nor is country necessarily homophobic or transphobic, as some LGBT activists think. Many reggae artists are homophobic, but their homophobia is due to Jamaica’s Evangelical Protestant tradition, not to reggae music’s inherent qualities. By the same token, country music is not prejudiced against sexual or gender minorities, though sadly many of its artists and audiences are. I hope the example set by lang, Wright, Herndon and Gilman will spread, and Nashville will be able to show its true rainbow colors.