For the past three years, the MusicBiz conference has hosted an LGBTQ-themed discussion panel in association with GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Association Against Defamation), and there’s little question that this year’s — “The Power of Queer Storytelling in Song” — was the most ambitious and resonant to date. It brought together four successful singer/songwriters, each of whom shared deeply personal stories about the challenges they faced in their respective lives and careers:
*Shane McAnally, a multiple Country Music Association, Academy of Country Music and Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer, who has worked with Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett and dozens of others. His hits include Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” Luke Bryan’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” and multiple songs for Musgraves, including, significantly, the LGBTQ-approving “Follow Your Arrow,” which the Country Music Association named Song of the Year in 2014.
*Justin Tranter, a Golden Globe and Grammy-nominated songwriter, musician and activist who has written or co-written songs for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Kelly Clarkson, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, DNCE, Kesha, Fall Out Boy and many others — his hits include DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean,” Gomez’s “Bad Liar” and Bieber’s “Sorry.”
*Shelly Fairchild, a country singer-songwriter who released her debut album, “Ride,” on Columbia in 2005 and toured with Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw. She is now an independent artist who launched a PledgeMusic campaign for her latest album “Buffalo” and reached her goal in two days.
*ShaGasyia “Shea” Diamond (pronounced “shee-ya”), a transgender singer/songwriter who wrote her single “I Am Her” while serving a 10-year sentence in a male prison for armed robbery. She was discovered by Justin Tranter in 2016 and has an EP due later in the year.
The 90-minute conversation at times moved several of the approximately 100 people in the audience to tears; this writer has attended many dozens of conference panels over the years and has never witnessed one so emotionally intense, or that elicited such a strong reaction from both the audience and participants. It received a standing ovation.
The conversation was moderated by GLAAD’s Jeremy Blacklow, although it flowed so naturally that he admitted early on that he didn’t even need to be there. The excerpts that follow are just a few highlights from a long and remarkable conversation — GLAAD or MusicBiz expect to post an audio recording of the entire panel soon. (Pictured above, L-R, Blacklow, Tranter, Diamond, Fairchild and Music Business Association president James Donio.)
For related reading, also see Variety’s feature “Living Gay in Nashville: Country Music Insiders Share Stories of Inclusion, Blackmail, Huckabee and Haters.”
Blacklow: Justin, have there been similarities or differences in working with straight or LGBTQ artists, and can you speak about that a little?
Tranter: My favorite part of being a songwriter is that I get to go into a room every day and help people tell the truth about their own lives and find the song in our conversation and make it as honest and real as possible. The actual process of writing the song is the same. Like, Halsey and I wrote “Bad Love” and in the first verse she uses male pronouns in a romantic setting, and in second she uses female. She just ran with it, and my process was to help her make her truth as true as it could possibly be. But the process is still the same.
Diamond: I’m not sure whether I found Justin or he found me, but it’s been absolutely amazing working with him. To be transparent, it’s hard trying to come through in the industry as a black woman, especially as a dark woman of color. Getting into the industry often involves sex, and it was great to meet someone who was so passionate about music who wasn’t thinking about any of that and just thinking, “This is a person who could make great music and possibly tell a great story.” There are so few people like Justin Tranter that we’re trying to make more people in the industry be like him — so we don’t have to give up ourselves to pursue a music career. Justin brought more than just hope — he brought family within the [LBGT] community. Justin gave me the avenue to amplify my message through music: Last year, you didn’t know who I was; this year people are shouting my name!
Trans people are who they say they are, so we need to respect that. In music, we’re telling stories that will change the world, so if we stay true to who we are we’re going to change music history.
McAnally: I moved to Nashville in the mid-‘90s and I was closeted even to myself. I just wanted to be in country music, so that certainly didn’t match up with being gay. I’ve tried to push that away, and I had my own issues with homophobia and what it would mean to be out. But even years later, although I was out, I didn’t walk into a room with it if I was writing with someone new — I was afraid it would hurt the song’s chances. My husband was really the one who said, “Right now, you’re the only one who cares about this. If you go into a room and somebody cares about it, it’s not right for you.” I’m not trying to be an artist so it’s different, but hopefully all that’s changing, maybe because of some songs I’ve written. I’m just trying to tell the story in that room, because we don’t have that many [gay country artists and writers] to choose from —
Fairchild: Oh, we do, they just haven’t come out yet!
McAnally: Being in the business of songwriting and the years it’s taken to have this level of success, I do end up working with people who have record deals. I’ve worked with Brandy Clark, who is lesbian, for years and I felt like I had come home when I found her. And I have felt very included in Nashville as a songwriter.
Tranter: Music changes culture and culture pushes politics. What’s so important about what we do is even if “Follow Your Arrow” didn’t change a law, it did lead to more straight, heteronormative artists embracing something they probably wouldn’t have. Queer storytelling, however that might look, is so important to changing kids’ lives.
Fairchild: It’s so interesting that because Shane writes with artists who’ve had hits, he can write from his own perspective. There are so many gay artists who have hits who are so scared to say anything. I’ve been here for 20 years: I came to this town and I married a man and got a record deal with Sony and they spent a lot of money and touted me as the next edgy girl. Then they started to hear that I might be a lesbian but I wasn’t talking about it, and I was being told “Just go out of town, don’t be seen in public places with your girlfriend or gay friends.” I showed up to Titans football game and we were throwing a football around and my manager called and said “Please go home, we don’t want you to be seen with her.”
I was in the middle of a lot of great things and I wrote a lot of songs and I was using “he” and the video was me and a guy — I just didn’t want to lose my record deal. I was playing by the rules, I was on my third single and they were still hearing this water-cooler talk. So I was brought in and told “Women still have their place in this business and I just can’t have you showing up to places with your maybe-girlfriend or gay friends.” And it’s still happening! I wrote with an artist the other day who’s a lesbian with a record deal and they’re “developing a plan” to talk about it. We’ll get there eventually, but it’s still slow and it’s heartbreaking, because great artists are not being heard.
Shane McAnally, left, with Tranter
McAnally: I love what you just said. I don’t know Shelly but I know of her and she’s one of the world’s greatest singers. I have to be honest with the way that hits me, and I do feel a responsibility and I don’t think I’ve taken that baton wholeheartedly. Maybe it’s because I have had success and feared anything changing about that. But I’m in a different place and it’s something that I look to improve on, and if I’ve been given that platform I want use it. And I’m just really glad you said what you said and that in this moment I’m able to hear it.
Tranter: With success comes money and a lot of privilege. There are moments when my activism goes so far that I get nervous, “Am I going too far, is every label going to stop talking to me?” When the #MeToo movement finally hit the music business with [former Republic Records president] Charlie Walk, I was the first person to support his first accuser and it was the scariest week of my life — the calls I got, the threats I got, were insane, because we don’t believe women in this f—ed-up world. Luckily when [more] women came out [and accused Walk], now I’m like the hero of the music business! But I feel you when you have that success, you’re afraid to keep pushing. But if I’m gonna talk the talk I have to walk the walk.
Diamond: It’s so important: Stop putting titles on people! No one cares! When music is being made, just listen!
Tranter: Creating diversity and creating different points of view is not only what’s right for society — it’s what’s right for business.
We’re just getting started with Shea but you can see that kids are so hungry for diversity, even if they’re not trans people of color they just want to relate to the truth. Hollywood is kind of getting it, with “Black Panther” and “Hidden Figures,” there’s actually money in diversity. But I don’t think the music business has really gotten that through their heads yet. It’s not just good for society — it will actually make you money.
Blacklow: Twenty percent of millennials consider themselves LGBTQ.
Fairchild: They are the ones who will be running the business in the future. It’s not gonna look like what it looks like now. I understand what it means to see yourself reflected because I do too. I have respect from the community in this town but in my mind I’ve been a failure forever because I was dropping that I was gay and I stayed in this town. But I’m not really bitter about it because when I play I see myself reflected in [the audience] and they see themselves reflected in me.
McAnally: I have children — 5-year-old twins, a boy and a girl — and I’m watching things they learn. They have have two dads, which is very unusual here, and they’re starting to comprehend that. One day I did something that really showed how… deep-rooted my fears are, and I did something where I could hear the voices of my past saying something to my son. We were playing around and he went to hit his sister and — I’m ashamed that I said this — I said, “You hit like a girl.” And my daughter heard me say that to him — and I meant nothing by that, and it was a very playful, teasing moment — but I saw her face: “What does that mean?”
That day I went in to write a song and told that story and how hard that hit me, and we wrote a song that day called “Female.” It was a song about women, there was a specific line about #MeToo and we wrote it thinking a woman would sing it — but Keith Urban did. But I am still evolving and learning how to help allies [of the LGBTQ community]. I’m really proud sitting here. You are really inspirational, Shea.
Fairchild: I was shooting a video last year and my manager at the time literally told me that some of the crew — I’m talking random [technicians] — wouldn’t work on my video because they knew I was an out lesbian.
Tranter: In sessions for a specific artist, I have a rule that I will not write a song for women unless there’s a female cowriter in the room, because it’s bad for society. If we as a society are trying to create more opportunities for women, a bunch of dudes should not be writing songs for a woman, especially if it’s a sexual song for a young woman — that’s really f—ing creepy. There’s a real reason why Selena Gomez connected so deeply with the songs tha Julia Michaels and I wrote for her, because Julia is also a young woman. So there was a connection, there is a real common ground there, and my role was just to help make the best version of Julia for Selena’s song. And I also won’t write a song for artists of color unless there is a writer or producer of color in the room, because it’s right for society and it will also make the music better.
McAnally: [Kacey Musgraves’ song] “Follow Your Arrow” it wasn’t written with the goal of changing everyone’s ideas [about sexuality] because Kacey does not see any reason for there to be — she was really like, “Wait, this is still a thing?” In her world, she doesn’t really realize … the line “Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls if that’s what you’re into,” wasn’t a big deal, and because she was so passive it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. But that song was blocked at radio and didn’t go top 40, and yet it’s gone on to be an anthem for her and the CMA went on to vote it Song of the Year. But a lot of that was her: She didn’t have any fear around it. “This is my song. This is what I believe.”