When Brooke Eden first began dating her now-fiancée Hilary Hoover, the country singer received some sobering advice: Keep the romance a secret. Any nights out or displays of affection had to happen far from prying eyes, at the request of her team.
“We were told we couldn’t be seen in public together,” Eden says of her relationship with Hoover, a radio promotions director for Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. “I spent so many years not being open and free about it.”
That sense of being is inhibited what made her appearance at the Grand Ole Opry back in June so pivotal. While performing on the famous stage, Eden was joined by Yearwood to sing the latter’s 1991 hit “She’s in Love With the Boy” — with one small but significant tweak. Midsong, Yearwood paused to talk about how Eden had recently become engaged to Hoover. “Love is love. You can’t just say it. You’ve gotta mean it,” Yearwood said, before changing the pronoun of the song’s final, joyful chorus to “she’s in love with the girl.”
If audience members at the Opry clutched their pearls over this unequivocal declaration of acceptance — on the sixth anniversary of same-sex marriage becoming legal, no less — it was hard to discern from the excited cheers in a video from that night. The Grand Ole Opry band played on, the country-music institution shared the special moment on its socials, and Eden, after previously being instructed to hide her private life, basked in a public gesture of allyship from one of country music’s most cherished figures.
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Just a day before Eden and Yearwood’s Opry moment, the streaming service Peacock premiered Miley Cyrus’ Stand By You concert, a Pride Month special filmed at the Ryman Auditorium. Nashville native Cyrus is an undeniable pop and rock star, fond of singing covers by the Cranberries and Soundgarden, but her guest list at the Ryman was 100 percent country: Brothers Osborne, Little Big Town, Mickey Guyton, Maren Morris, and the gay masked cowboy Orville Peck. When Brothers Osborne joined Cyrus to sing Pat Benatar’s 1984 hit “We Belong” in the mother church of country music, the duo’s out singer T.J. Osborne danced freely, evoking the same unbridled joy that was in Eden’s eyes a night earlier.
As Pride Month 2021 closed, this was country music. And it was finally ready to come out.
T.J. Osborne actually came out a few months earlier, on a rare February day when country music laid claim to the two biggest cultural stories of the news cycle. Sponging up most of the attention was the fallout from country-radio star Morgan Wallen being recorded on camera using a racial slur days before. In juxtaposition to Wallen’s boorish behavior was Osborne’s vulnerable, public revelation in a Time magazine interview that he was gay.
“There are times when I think I’ve marginalized this part of me so that I feel better about it,” Osborne told Time’s Sam Lansky. “You know that thing, ‘Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything?’ … That sounds like something someone in country music would say. But if you stand for something and it’s not what they stand for, then they hate it.”
Time, and numerous other media outlets, ran with the idea that Osborne was the first (or only) out country artist signed to a major country label. That was a stretch. Country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark is also out and signed to a major label, Warner Records, though her records are now released from the company’s Burbank office instead of its Nashville one.
Still, out artists with major deals like Clark and Osborne, whose Brothers Osborne duo is signed to Capitol Records Nashville, remain a rarity. Why? Because the very idea of a gay country star once seemed like a fantasy — the assumption being that country music’s fan base was overwhelmingly conservative and perhaps even bigoted. Just look at what Osborne said above and weigh that against the already fraught decision to come out of the closet.
While coming out may be less frightening than it was a generation back, queer kids still risk being exiled by their families and peers, along with being bullied. And every day after the revelation involves yet more decisions about when to come out again — checking in at the doctor’s office, house hunting with a realtor, or just out doing routine grocery shopping with one’s partner. Heap those on top of fame and a small business built around your success in entertainment, and it starts to make sense why so few country artists come out and why closeted-in-the-Nineties stars like Ty Herndon and Chely Wright made the choices they did.Herndon and Wright eventually came out after their radio success had peaked and major-label deals dried up. Osborne’s status as a current country-radio artist makes his duo with his brother John an interesting one to watch. Brothers Osborne don’t have as many hits as, say, Luke Combs, but they do have some, like “Stay a Little Longer” and “21 Summer,” and they’re definitely a popular live draw. Three albums into their CMA and ACM award-winning career, there’s plenty of room for them to accomplish more (their 2021 single “Younger Me” was written as an empathetic message to Osborne’s younger self, and it’s one of their best releases yet). That is, if radio and the country audience continue to have them, or conversely, if the country industry decides to embrace its scores of underserved queer fans.
“Something I hear often is that people have stepped away from country music because the lack of LGBTQ representation and diversity in general was getting to a point where it felt like this is a place that is not welcoming,” says Hunter Kelly, who hosts Apple Music Country’s biweekly Proud Radio, focusing on LQBTQ+ country performers and allies. “The message I’ve been hearing is like, ‘OK, now I feel like I’m being invited back into being a country fan.’”
Kelly’s program is often speaking directly to those fans who have felt on the outside of country music’s overly straight mainstream for too long. It also has the effect of updating country’s long narrative to include queer voices from the past and present.
“Doing this show really woke me up to wonder why I’ve been OK with not seeing myself represented on country radio, at the award shows, for so long,” Kelly says. “I never even thought to ask it. Now that I am asking it and advocating for these artists because they’re worthy, it does make me question the status quo and think about, OK, what are we leaving behind for the next generation?”
Along with Osborne’s coming-out news, there were other signs of growing LGBTQ visibility in the country mainstream this past year. Eden, for one, returned to making music after a five-year hiatus and released a trio of effervescent new songs. In the videos accompanying them, like the bright and breezy “Sunroof,” she cast then-girlfriend Hoover as her onscreen love interest. The clips were tame in terms of content — flirtatious, but there was something powerful about seeing two young women holding hands and showing physical affection. The imagery was a culmination for Eden of the progress she and Hoover had made in being open about their personal lives.
“We’ve been together for five years now, so we’ve had a long journey,” Eden says. “Now that we’re here, this is the easy part.”
Around the same time Osborne came out, Georgia native Lily Rose was a new signee with Nashville label Big Loud — ironically, also the label home of the polarizing Wallen — on the viral strength of her song “Villain.” An out lesbian who has a confident ease blending musical styles, Rose never tried to conceal anything about herself. Perhaps sensing that there’s an underserved group of fans out there, Big Loud gave her unequivocal support and released the song “Remind Me of You,” in which Rose uses all “her” pronouns to address an ex-lover.
Rose sees what she’s doing as having the potential to sway anyone who might not feel comfortable.
“I’m not worried in a sense of, ‘Do I think my career’s not going to work?’” Rose says. “What I’m trying to attack is, as long as we keep writing absolute smashes of songs and make them undeniable, people are going to love the song, and hopefully it changes their hearts. If they don’t maybe love me, but they can’t stop singing ‘Villain,’ hopefully it’ll change their minds.”
This burgeoning level of institutional support would have been inconceivable less than 20 years ago. In 2004, Mississippi singer Shelly Fairchild was signed to Sony imprint Columbia and enjoying some success with her debut single, “You Don’t Lie Here Anymore.” She was married to a man but began dating a woman after she and her husband divorced. Fairchild was, in her words, “marginally out” at the time, but her managers and label were afraid fans and radio tastemakers would find out and disapprove. Fairchild and her partner then went to great lengths to keep their romance under wraps.
“We’d drive to Columbia, Tennessee — just way out of town — and go to restaurants,” Fairchild recalls. “To go shopping and [do] fun stuff where we could walk around and hold hands, we’d go to Atlanta.”
Still, it wasn’t enough. Executives around her seemed obsessed with her sexuality and how people might react to it, while Fairchild just wanted to focus on her career.
“I was like, ‘What? I’m not rebellious. I’m just living my life. I just think if I don’t talk about it, that we don’t have to talk about it and I can just work,’” she says. “But it really worked against me that I wasn’t talking about it too.”
Fairchild’s label shifted directions from the uptempo “You Don’t Lie Here Anymore” to another single, the ballad “Tiny Town,” and tried to soften her image because they were worried she came across as too masculine, though no more so than contemporary Gretchen Wilson. It tanked on radio, and Fairchild was dropped. Since then, she’s continued to make music independently and cultivated a loyal and supportive fan base with whom she can be open. She also landed gigs as a studio background singer for recordings by stars like Eric Church and Jason Aldean.
Such behind-the-scenes work in country music has traditionally been more available than front-and-center performing for members of the LGBTQ community. Numerous executives in management and label services are out members of the LGBTQ community, ensuring that the country-music industry has been, to a degree, quietly more socially progressive than its assumed fan base.
Toward the end of the 2000s, a group of creative all-stars began its rise. Shane McAnally had his first Number Ones with Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere With You” and Luke Bryan’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” then shifted to producing albums by Kacey Musgraves and Old Dominion. Today, he’s a co-president of Monument Records and one of the most sought-after songwriters in Nashville. McAnally collaborated with straight ally Musgraves on the CMA Award-winning “Follow Your Arrow,” which takes a laissez-faire attitude toward same-sex smooching. Since the release of her 2018 album, Golden Hour, Musgraves — whose onstage and online persona embraces a campy sensibility steeped in drag performance and Designing Women reruns — has been well on her way to becoming an icon to the LGBTQ community.
The third co-writer on Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” was Brandy Clark, whose albums like 2020’s Your Life Is a Record have been critically adored but sputtered on country radio. She’s also had her songs recorded by others, including “Better Dig Two” by the Band Perry and “Mama’s Broken Heart” (another Musgraves and McAnally collaboration) by Miranda Lambert. Along with McAnally, Clark is the first out-of-the closet artist to win a CMA Award — not Lil Nas X, as some publications that don’t typically report on country music really wanted to believe. Clark’s own music across three excellent albums frequently centers on the often complicated, heartbreaking stories of others rather than foregrounding any queer aesthetic. But she’s never shied away from talking about it.
“I’ve always done honestly what felt comfortable to me,” Clark says. “I’ve never been incredibly outspoken, but I’m never incredibly outspoken about anything except music. I’ve just kind of lived my life. I definitely have a private life, but I don’t have a secret life.”
“I just give [Clark] all the credit in the world,” Apple Music Country’s Kelly says. “Even though she’s never had a mainstream radio hit [under her name], she’s made a huge impact with just her presence alone.”
So far, the mainstream shift toward including more LGBTQ voices has been entirely centered on white artists. The country industry’s racist underpinnings hold fast no matter one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Working outside that framework, Canada’s D’Orjay the Singing Shaman brought a queer perspective to a brand of country that has flashes of Trisha Yearwood and Monica alike on her album New Kind of Outlaw. “I love country music/Will country music love me?” she asks in the title track, wondering if there’s a space for her.
Nashville-based Joy Oladokun signed with a major label in 2021 and touches on her difficult experience coming out as a visible person in the church in songs like “Sunday” and “Let It Be Me.” Though she appears to be courting more of a pop audience, the melodies and production on her album In Defense of My Own Happiness don’t sound radically different from pop-leaning country acts like Dan + Shay or Maren Morris — country gatekeepers would do well to be paying attention.
“For six years now, I have had my head down making music, just putting out into planet Earth what I want to hear, what I need to hear at times,” Oladokun says. “And it has been a combination of that work and the universe’s providence that has allowed me to do some really amazing things that I don’t know that I imagined I’d be doing.”
These indie performers are part of a much larger community of queer musicians working in a broad array of sounds and styles. Kelly’s show has become an important platform to feature them, as well as the blog Country Queer and supportive DIY scenes that have popped up in places like New York with acts like Karen and the Sorrows and Paisley Fields. Generally speaking, those artists have consciously veered away from the sound of the mainstream for a retro or punk-influenced aesthetic, but more and more have lately been taking it head on.
Earlier this year, Arkansas native Fancy Hagood released his album Southern Curiosity, a bright mix of pop melodies and country storytelling that was the culmination of a long journey through the major-label system and out the other side. From his early days in Nashville, Hagood had adopted his flamboyant “Fancy” moniker to deflect any intrusive conversations about his sexuality.
“Nashville, especially on Music Row, wasn’t the most accepting of places [back then],” he says. “I was getting meetings, people were coming to my shows, but I just found my sexuality becoming an obstacle. I was trying to find a way to make that conversation obsolete. So I started going by Fancy, and my first show as Fancy sold out.”
After a couple of high-streaming (but largely anonymous) singles and a tour with Ariana Grande, Hagood was back on his own and making music again in Nashville. He dubbed his sound “queer southern pop,” which is both accurate and also a subtle way of saying he doesn’t necessarily care to fit in spaces that don’t appreciate him.
Fellow southerner Harper Grae had achieved minor fame on The Glee Project, shifting her focus to country music and changing her performing name to reflect her spiritual state of mind (“Grae” is an acronym that means “God Redeems All Equally”). Initially something of an outsider, she feels like the industry has drifted in her direction over the past couple of years. Her recent work has given a remarkably honest look at her journey as a married woman and mother, along with the often-private grief of miscarriage.
“I never had this coming-out story,” she says. “I just always was. And now country music is actually showing up in the same places that I was already in. It’s cool to see that representation shifting right before my eyes.”
Just as the weather was warming up this year, Chris Housman enjoyed a viral hit with his song “Blueneck,” based on an idea he’d had while he was tripping on mushrooms.
“I remember having the thought that there’s not songs for liberal rednecks,” Housman says. “[I wrote] ‘liberal rednecks,’ and seeing that on paper, I wrote ‘Blueneck’ after that. I hadn’t heard that [term] before.”
Soon after, Housman and co-writers Neil Maynard and Tommy Kratzert set to work on the idea of being a “Blueneck” and came up with an irresistible pop-country anthem about the inclusive, progressive future that country fans — and everyone else — could have. “I think y’all means ‘all’,” he sings in the hummable chorus, with a now-common hip-hop beat pushing things along. “George Strait or George Gay, there’s no difference” goes another line that has since ended up on a T-shirt.
“Blueneck” quickly picked up interest — Housman’s first tease of the song got 80,000 views, and he had only 70 followers at the time. After it was independently released, consumption of the song sent it to the top of the iTunes chart. At present there are 290 videos featuring “Blueneck” on TikTok, and Housman has two TikTok videos of his own with nearly 4 million collective views.
Housman, who’d left his rural Kansas home at 18 to come to Nashville to pursue both music and an education, hadn’t imagined there would be a time when the country-music industry would be welcoming to gay artists.
“It was like, ‘I can continue to be comfortable and out and gay, or I can do country music, but I definitely can’t do both,’” he says. Now, midway through 2021, that dichotomy appears to be falling apart as artists stop worrying how they’ll be perceived for being gay.
“If I was going to have to be myself and be in the public spotlight, I was not comfortable with that for a long time, because I knew my family would not approve,” Housman says. “They would be like, ‘Why can’t this be about your music and not you?’ It took years and age and giving less fucks to get rid of that part.”
In the end, however, it may not be artists like Housman, Eden, or even Osborne who get to determine how much things change in Nashville. As is often the case, those who hold the purse strings dictate how the industry will respond. Maybe it’s improving, or maybe it’s just good old-fashioned pragmatic capitalism: When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an anti-trans bathroom bill into law in June, Mike Curb, the president of Curb Records and former lieutenant governor of California, filed a lawsuit against it. “It is hard to believe that our LGBT community in Tennessee is being assaulted with so much harmful legislation, much of it being signed by Governor Lee, at a time when our country needs to come together more than ever before,” Curb wrote. A federal judge ended up blocking the bill.
As with everything in Nashville, institutional change sometimes comes slowly — as of this writing, Brothers Osborne are the only artist from the group above with a song on the country radio charts. “I’m Not for Everyone,” their statement of self-belief, sits just inside the Top 50.
From Rolling Stone US