We were contacted late last week regarding Ty Herndon, Billy Gilman and the anticipated reception of each coming out as they did. You can read the article here.
The writer and I had a lengthy conversation about country music, LGBT people, the industry and the community. You can see by the comments in that article how quickly opinions are based on assumptions and theory and don't really take into account the real lives that are involved everywhere. What I told him:
Neither Ty nor Billy has risked much by coming out now. It's a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing because neither of them are actively selling something, which would take away from any sense of genuine need to come out on this specific day. If Chely Wright did anything wrong, I told the reporter, it was that she coordinated her coming out with a book and album launch, and she dared the country music industry to shun her before it even got the chance to do it.
I saw a generational difference between Ty and Billy's coming out statements. Like Chely, Ty Herndon coordinated his coming out via Entertainment Tonight and People Magazine and — even though his coming out has received more mainstream acknowledgement — it takes away from the genuine feeling that should come along with officially coming out. By comparison, there was Billy Gilman, just a few hours later, inspired by Herndon's media event, picking up his smartphone, hitting RECORD, and within minutes the world knew.
They risked little by coming out last week and it was a good thing and a bad thing. A bad thing for two reasons: one, because both are largely irrelevant as far as the mainstream country industry is concerned, and there isn't much chance either of them can effect change from the inside. Because they're not on the inside anymore. Two: because they're not as relevant today, only the mainstream and LGBT media would be able to run with this story and the accompanying narratives are already pre-written ("country is so backward, look how backward it is").
Is country music homophobic?
As an institution, perhaps. As a collective of people who work in the industry, no. The country industry is a business, and so it directs its product to a target audience, which for a long time has been assumed to be suburban women between 30-45 years old (and only recently has that assumption been changed to Females 18-24). If those women, in either and both age categories, have been trained to believe their male country stars have to be sex symbols as much as the female country stars have to be non-threatening, then there is conceivably no place for a gay male country performer.
Focus on the word "trained" above. With it, consider this statement from New York Times music writer Jon Caramanica in a recent Popcast podcast. The conversation was regarding Taylor Swift and the 1989 album:
Part of what's made Taylor interesting is this idea that she's been pushing back against this very hidebound organization, if you wanna call country music or Nashvile or Music Row an organization. You know, it's like Black Ops. They're just out there being like, "You will like Luke Bryan now" and all the sudden everyone likes Luke Bryan. "You will not like Chris Young" and Chris Young will falter for years and years, sputter for years and years. Her working against that, and triumphing over it is a great narrative. It elevates her beyond being just a writer and singer of great songs. But it elevates her as someone with a purpose, someone who is interested in change. Someone who's interested in pushing back against institutions that have a fixed idea, and forcing their doors open and forcing them to accept new things. All well and good. Now she has no one to fight.
So while there is no Black Ops or Wizard of Oz, the collective of people who work in the industry make the assumption that a gay country star is not viable based on its target audience. And thanks to that collective assumption, no major label in Nashville appears willing to take a chance on an openly gay country performer. (Note that Brandy Clark's recent signing to Warner Bros. Records is based out of Los Angeles.) Having said that, there remains hope.
Look at this year's CMA Awards ceremony. If the members of the Country Music Association, an organization made up of individuals who work full-time in the country music industry, were homophobic then they would not have awarded the Kasey Musgraves single, "Follow Your Arrow," Song of the Year, a distinction that acknowledges songwriters. In this instance, not only was the content of the song one of acceptance ("kiss lots of boys/or kiss lots of girls/if that's what you're into") but it was co-written by Musgraves with two LGBT songwriters, Brandy Clark (who recently signed with Warner Bros. Records out of Los Angeles) and Shane McAnally.
Though the single received little support by way of radio airplay — it peaked at #43 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart — it was thanks to digital single sales and streams on sites like Spotify and YouTube that helped the song reach the Top 10 in the cumulative Hot Country Songs chart. So even if the industry is homophobic, the writing is on the wall: there are enough fans somewhere in America who really like this song despite the absence of it on the radio.
So it is ironic, then, that the biggest push toward LGBT acceptability in country music has come from Kacey Musgraves releasing a song on a major label and the industry trade organization awarding it Song of the Year.
In the slow walk toward country music fully embracing LGBT people, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman's coming out amounts to two more voices in a growing chorus. Sure, we'd love for them to have come out during the peak of their careers, but unlike with our legislators, who we can take to court and force to make good on claims of equality, we have to face the free market as it is, and though it may seem to be moving slowly, it also seems to be working out fine, in it's own way and on it's own time.
Broadway from iHeartRadio has spent the past eleven months asking country performers their opinion on this question: are we ready for an openly gay country music superstar? The answers were interesting, if not earth-shattering. Scroll down to watch the video, or read these edited quotes first.
Chris Carmack (from Nashville): if you take the temperature of country music, it does not seem ready.
Kip Moore: That's not for me to talk about. I don't even think about that kinda stuff, to be honest.
Billy Ray Cyrus: In this world today there's not room for prejudice.
Jay DeMarcus (of Rascal Flatts): I think the city and business may not be that far behind as the show is portraying it to be.
Big Kenny (of Big & Rich): Love everybody! What other people wanna do or gotta do, if they're out there making music and country music, it's alright by me.
Lee Brice: I think it's getting close to time for that. It's just, you know, it's very accepted, very normal, you know what I'm saying so it's kind of a ... it's time, I bet.
Ty Herndon (from January 2014): speaking from personal experience, if you work hard and you live your life in a good way, that shouldn't matter ... it's gonna be the right place, the right time, the right person, and the right music.
Cole Swindell: I'm not one to judge anybody so ... and, you know, wish everybody the best who wants to move to Nashville.
Parmalee: If people like the music, they like the music, I mean, that's the way it is.
Charles Kelley (of Lady Antebellum): I certainly would accept it. i think at the end of the day its all about great songs. I understand it is a touchy subject for a lot of people.
Thomas Rhett: Maybe for the majority of country fans, maybe that's something new for them, and maybe it'll take awhile to accept that. I don't really know.
Trisha Yearwood: I think it would be naive to say we've never had a closeted gay country artist. I don't think that's humanly possible! Like in everything else that's happening in the world, that day is coming.
Eric Paslay: I think it'd be good if people just loved people regardless of what your preferences. The biggest thing is don't judge people and love them for who they are and it's not our job to judge them. I'd hope that someone who's talented enough and had a good heart and had something to say and good music that people wouldn't judge them for something like that
Scotty McCreery: I try not to weigh in on that kinda stuff. I'm just out there, focused on my music and career.
Gloriana: In general I know there's always pressure for an artist to be a certain way and I think it's a great thing when an artist can be themselves, you know what i mean?
Cary Barlowe: If people really believe in the artist and believe in the music, it shouldn't be about their personal stuff, I think.
Kellie Pickler: I don't think it matters. A great song is a great song and a great artist is a great artist.
Sheryl Crow: I think it's a very individual decision who you listen to an for what reason.
Jon Jones: I think it really would take someone just being upfront and honest, i don't think the industry would shun anybody, I don't really see that happening.
Danielle Bradbery: I would hope they would be accepting and respectful. I don't know. People a long time ago kinda didn't care and now, people are judgmental now.
Lucy Hale: I personally think that we're in a day and age when that shouldn't be a question.
Transcribed quotes are one thing, but you really have to watch and listen for yourself:
WATCH: Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman come out the same day