Rather obviously, country music is entirely hetero-normative. We do not see openly gay, lesbian, or trans country music artist who writes or sings about their relationships. For the most part, country music is men singing about women they love or women they want to have sex with and women singing about men that cheated on them or broke their hearts. These cultural norms in this genre of music make it next to impossible to break out in this business if you so choose to be open about your sexuality if it is not hetero-normative. Have country music artists come out? Yes. However, these artists are very slim, the first person openly coming out being in 2010. Most recently in November 2014, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman came out within hours of each other stirring up the country community. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/11/21/country-artists-ty-herndon-and-billy-gilman-come-out-as-gay/ Coming out is one thing, but are any of these people that choose to reveal their sexuality headliners or overly successful? No. Why is it that even in the R&B community which use to be historically homophobic, they are beginning to be a lot more supportive of gay, lesbian, and trans but country has remained stagnant?
Chely Wright was the first person in country music to publicly come out as gay. For the majority of her music career she appeared to be straight, even dating Brad Paisley, a very famous heterosexual male country singer, while they were on tour together. She wrote songs like “Hard to be a Husband, Hard to be a Wife” which is overtly hetero-normative, but she also wrote songs with titles like “Let me in” which is not telling of her sexuality at all. Chely in fact was intending to mask her sexuality the entire time. She has said that not only did she know she was a lesbian since she was 9, but she also swore to herself in her teen years that she would never reveal her sexuality to anyone as it was “immoral and would kill her career”. She eventually did come out to family in 2005 and later came out publicly in 2010. She is by far the most successful career wise in terms of people that have come out in country music, but she only came out when her music career was over. I can’t help but think it had to be much easier coming out not having the pressure of having to sell albums, tours, tshirts, etc. She in a lot of ways got to a point where there wasn’t much riding on her sexuality anymore, so while it was brave to come out, it wasn’t nearly as risky for her career as some of the younger artists who are coming out more recently.
When reading Chely’s story I couldn’t help but be reminded of Walt Whitman and his story of “coming out”. Could we find a pattern in Chely’s music like historians did in Whitman’s work?
Lyrics from the song “Not as In Love”
I want the earth to move, I want bells to ring
When he walks in the room, I wanna hear angels sing
It’s not a bad situation I’m in right now you see
I’m just not as in love as I’d like to be
No I’m not as in love as I’d like to be
Are these out of the many, many lyrics she has written not some how indicative of her feelings for women over men? For most listeners of this song when it came out in 2001, the thought was probably, “shes not in love with this man so she should move on to another man”. If one would have known her story, they might have saw these lyrics as her expressing how it is in fact a man that doesn’t satisfy her at all. In future lyrics that were released around the time she came out, she was much more candid about her feelings, even expressing that it could be a woman or man to end up with.
Lyrics from the song “Like Me”
“And who’s gonna end up holdin’ your hand-
A beautiful woman or a tall, handsome man?
There’s no doubt they’ll love you, but it’s yet to be seen:
Will anyone ever know you like me?”
Obviously, Whitman was a little different because his poetry wasn’t as overt in the coming out process, but like I said, she is not nearly as successful and has not been since coming out.
Why doe’s non-normative sexuality seem to be a death sentence in country music? I think it is the fan base. Country music has historically not been diverse. It is an industry run by white men with very little African American men, much less women then men, and almost no other ethnicity found. In order to bridge the gap for LGBTQ to feel comfortable coming out in country music, there needs to be much more diversity in general.