Last December I was standing in the balcony of the Hollywood Palladium at the TrevorLIVE fundraiser watching Ty Herndon — the country music star who's had 17 singles on Billboard’s Hot Country chart — belt out the most jubilant rendition of his 2010 song “Journey On” that I’d ever heard.
The song is an anthem for people dealing with adversity. “Sometimes in the moment of your weakness / When you’re on the edge of giving in / You hold your heart before it falls to pieces / Journey On,” he sings, triumphant and inspiring.
We were there to help raise money for the Trevor Project’s suicide prevention and crisis intervention for LGBT youth, but that song, that moment, was about something more for Herndon. I wasn’t the only person with goosebumps in the auditorium. At the end of the song, the audience was on its feet. A teenager near me looked like she’d been sobbing, and many folks were swaying and smiling. And Herndon? He seemed most affected by the moment. He looked victorious, teary-eyed, even a bit reluctant to leave the stage.
That was Herndon’s first time at a public event with his partner, Matt Collum, and it was his first major event, an LGBT one at that, since coming out as gay the month before. Now, he and Chely Wright are the two most commercially successful Nashville country music stars to come out (not counting k.d. lang, who came out after leaving country music behind), and he’s the first major male star to do so. He told Entertainment Tonight in November that the first two decades of his career he thought he couldn’t be gay and be in country music, but that now “Nashville is ready.”
It’s not just Nashville that’s ready; it’s Middle America. Both fans and country stars, such as Leann Rimes, have come out in support of Herndon. Meanwhile, Kacey Musgraves, whose song “Follow Your Arrow” champions, among other things, same-sex relationships, won Song of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. The song was cowritten with two of her frequent collaborators, Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, both of whom are gay.
McAnally is a 40-year-old Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and producer who coproduced and cowrote nine of the 12 songs on Musgrave’s debut. He won Songwriter of the Year from Academy of Country Music last year, and at press time was up for another Grammy for Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids.” The 37-year-old Clark is also up for a Grammy Award for Best Country Album and Best New Artist. In addition to her debut album last year, she has written songs for numerous artists, including Billboard chart-toppers for Miranda Lambert and The Band Perry.
Musgraves, who is straight but an LGBT ally (and has a gay manager) said from the stage while accepting the CMA Award, “Do you guys realize what this means for country music?”
She sees the shift. “Follow Your Arrow” was banned at many radio stations, but it hit the Billboard country charts at number 10 in part because the list includes digital and streaming sales in addition to airplay. I’m surprised the song got airplay at all (it also mentions pot). Reportedly, many radio station managers have said they wished they could play it. They may be underestimating their audience.
Musgraves told People, “If there are kids in small towns — or big towns — who don’t feel like they belong, and this song gives them courage to walk taller, that’s better than any award I can ever hope to win.”
I’m from cow country, weaned on big pickup trucks and keggers in the valley. Coming out for me and my queer classmates meant turning to music that resonated with us. And that was new wave and British synthpop. Not country. We listened to Erasure, Depeche Mode, and Jimmy Somerville.
But every so often I sought out the country music end of the radio dial. Quietly, always alone in the car, I’d catch George Strait’s “You Look So Good in Love,” Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’,” or Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” a song I listened to over a thousand times during a three-month depression of mine in the late ’90s.
Along the way I noticed something: Lesbian folk singer-songwriters are often country hybrid artists. They just don’t describe it as such, in part because country music and its fans have seemed hostile toward queer people. All that Jesus, patriotism, and family came packaged with an unwelcome underlying message. It’s hard to listen to Melissa Etheridge’s debut album and not recognize country music. You can hear country in Ani DiFranco, and the Indigo Girls at times. There was even an all-gay band called Lavender Country in the 1970s, and of course k.d. lang started out in the real torch and twang world. We have always been a little bit country, even if rock ’n’ roll seemed friendlier.
That’s changing. Today we have Steve Grand, McAnally, Herndon, and Clark, but there are new crossover artists I see hope in as well. Sami Grisafe, a recently retired all-star quarterback for the Chicago Force women’s tackle football team, is also an award-winning singer-songwriter. In February she released two new singles, “Tiny Victories” and “Brand New Fairytale,” as well as a music video. Her sound is largely folk-rock-country fusion, but at times there are strange nods to blues or rap that really work.
“If you were to break down every genre, you would find pieces of another genre in it,” she tells me. “Some people, especially major labels, scoff at crossover artists. Why shouldn’t they? Everyone knows placing people in a box is important … right? I don’t believe so. I write songs that feel honest to me. Sometimes I feel more like a rock song than a country song and vice versa. Young people have really embraced this fluid way of thinking, and I think it’s fantastic. Our world is diverse, and we have the ability to be more connected globally than ever before. I just write and perform what is true to me. I cannot justify changing a story to fit into a box if it is dishonest.”
Grisafe likes to break rules. She was given the Chicago Music Award for Best Rock Entertainer for performing her version of the national anthem. The Chicago Cubs’ lesbian co-owner, Laura Ricketts, then recommended her to Illinois governor Pat Quinn, who asked Grisafe to sing the anthem at the signing of the state’s marriage equality bill.
The song came alive for her, and the audience felt the love. “Land of the free, home of the brave” can elicit deeply felt chills when sung in front of people who have spent a lifetime fighting for equal rights. The thing is, the lesbian musician never thought about waiting to come out until she gained fame.
“I think coming out post-fame is hopefully a way of the past,” Grisafe says. “I think we are in the midst of change. My experience has taught me that if songs are moving, it doesn’t matter who’s singing or writing them.”
That’s why I could relate to songs by Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, or George Strait, even if I was worried that their personal convictions wouldn’t be LGBT-friendly. (Later on, of course, we found out that Brooks, whose sister is reportedly gay, and Parton, are both strong LGBT allies.) Today there are feminist stars like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert, and Jennifer Nettles, who are straight but speak to me so well, they might as well be queer.
Country music has changed so much that Herndon isn’t being shouted out of Nashville. Instead, he’s becoming popular again. His music is truer, perhaps because he’s so happy to have lifted the veil. But it’s not just about artists being out; it’s also about the music itself changing. Not all country songs seem aimed at the Duggar family these days. Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” pays tribute to rapper T-Pain and Conway Twitty, while Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” garnered the rock star his first number 1 country hit by sampling Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
These changes give me hope. Many queer people aren’t opposed to the Bible, the military, families, or the American flag — in fact, all our challenges in the past decade have been about our access the American institutions behind those. I think LGBT people just want to be welcomed in the music that often speaks to them in sound and narrative because they come from the heartland.
Grisafe optimistically assures me that the music industry is changing, that when it comes to fans, or rather, people: “We all want to relate to each other. It is a human condition, and I think it’s beautiful.”
I sure hope she’s right, because I’d love to tell Pandora about my little country music secret and see what’s in store for me.