Living Gay in Nashville: Country Music Insiders Share Stories of Inclusion, Blackmail, Huckabee and Haters

In the wake of a Mike Huckabee controversy, insiders talk about progress in Music City, and how far there is to go.

Grand Ole Opry HouseNashville Tourist Places, Nashville,Tennessee, America - 11 Oct 2010
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In putting together this week’s feature on the new, more inclusive Nashville, Variety spoke to a number of prominent figures in the country music community about their coming out experiences and life as a gay resident of Music City. In reporting “Nashville’s New Guard” on the heels of the March controversy over anti-same-sex-marriage crusader Mike Huckabee’s appointment to a charitable CMA board (reversed in a day under pressure), lingering questions remained over the challenges and opportunities Music Row’s gay community still faces.

For this attendant roundtable, we put some of those questions to a handful of pioneering figures in country: Jason Owen, the manager and Sandbox Entertainment president (Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town) whose letter to the CMA helped shorten Huckabee’s tenure to a single day; Chely Wright, the first mainstream country star with a record of top 10 hits to come out; Shane McAnally, the hit producer and co-writer for acts ranging from Sam Hunt to Musgraves; Blair Garner, a nationally syndicated radio host; and Darrell Brown, a writer and producer for artists including LeAnn Rimes and Keith Urban (all interviewed separately).

Looking back at the Huckabee flap, do you see the glass as half-full or half-empty? Do you view his appointment as helping reinforce stereotypes about good ole boy attitudes, or do you think people were more surprised by how it didn’t turn out in his favor?

Shane McAnally: I hope [the latter] is what people got out of it. But I’m not sure. I felt like more focus was put on the fact that this happened at all, as opposed to the repercussion. I felt like it made everybody go, “I can’t believe Nashville is still so backwards that, even though they have all of these music business folks that are gay, they are still leaving those folks out by accepting someone like Mike Huckabee.” But there was no ill intention on the CMA’s part. Even with a room full of people that let that appointment take place, they were not making an anti-gay or pro-NRA statement; they were focusing on his education agenda and experience. But yeah, it was an ignorant move to not realize that his appointment would feel like a punch in the gut to some of us who are living a lifestyle that he is very publicly against. I wish so much focus hadn’t been put on his appointment, because the CMA did the right thing, right away — even though the right thing would have been never to have appointed him.

Chely Wright: There’s a glass half-full in that the decision-makers rethought their invitation to have him on board. Jason Owen wrote a really bold, brave letter, and not everybody who is gay and on the inside of the industry would have always felt comfortable writing a letter like that, or to say, “I’m going to bridle my artist roster power and make my letter mean something.” But I see the glass half-empty in regard to the social media response from some of the fanbase. A lot were, like, “We’re not going to listen to Faith Hill. We’re gonna boycott all of Jason Owen’s artists’ records.” There’s a lot to look at here; it’s pretty nuanced. But ten years ago, would his artists have felt comfortable saying, “Go ahead, write the letter — we’ve got your back on this”? The fact that it happened in 2018 tells me the needle’s moving a bit.

Jason Owen: We have always steered far from having that kind of face-forward politician in the CMA, regardless if it were Hillary Clinton or Mike Huckabee. The CMA Foundation does such fantastic work, and any time you have someone whose job truly is as a politician, or politicians that have their own television shows, it allows them another platform that takes away from everything else important in what we’ve done as a community. What made me feel better was learning that, prior to my letter being published and spreading like it did, there were hundreds of other emails and letters to the executives at the CMA expressing the same concern. I was blind-CCed on probably 200 of them. The support around that was eye-opening, and it was refreshing and made me feel secure about the community that I raise my family in.

Would it have come off better if, in appointing Huckabee, the CMA Foundation had simultaneously appointed someone like, say, a Hillary Clinton, so it didn’t look like they were favoring just one end of the political spectrum?

Owen: I don’t know if you would have had as visceral a reaction as you had from me and from others. But I do think that would have caused a lot of problems as well, as it should have. Truly, at the heart of it, there’s just no place for that sort of politics — either party.

How inclusive does Nashville feel as a city, both in and out of the country community there?

Owen: I honestly have always felt that it’s very inclusive. I never had any sort of issues that I have seen or experienced in my personal or professional life that would make me think differently. I think that we as a genre are inclusive of everyone, and whether that’s race, gender, sexual orientation. And I think it’s important for people who don’t know that to be aware of it.

McAnally: I have not experienced any homophobia whatsoever. There are times I’ve said that it’s actually the opposite. I feel like people really want to be [accepting of it]. Look, the religious question is where Nashville gets stuck, because it is a religious town. Maybe I’m stereotyping, but most people, myself included, identify as Christian in Nashville, especially in the country music business. And a lot of things I saw online after the Mike Huckabee thing were people saying, “Well the CMA is anti-Christian. If they’ve asked Mike Huckabee to step down, then it’s because they hate God.” And those are social media trolls, but that’s the part that gets muddy, because people who are conservative Christians can’t imagine that gay people are Christian, too.

Darrell Brown: I was one of the first out songwriters who was successful at the time, after I arrived in the ’90s, having songs with Trace Adkins and Brooks & Dunn and Keith Urban and a lot of other artists. I never was in a room with anybody in Nashville that cared about any of that stuff except for what song was trying to be birthed at that moment. Now, when I left the room, I have no idea, but like my mom said, what somebody else thinks about me is none of my business. Now the Row has sort of become known for gay songwriters. Obviously there are a lot of gay people in management and [labels] too, but it sort of makes sense that [openness] would start with songwriters first, who are at the heart of creativity.

Blair Garner: I used to do my syndicated radio show out of L.A. When I decided to leave California 10 years ago, there were two options. One was Nashville, for obvious reasons, and the other was to go to Austin, since I’m a native Texan. It’s funny how many parallels there are between Austin and Nashville. We have our “Keep Austin Weird” signs out there, and I think that that as far as being progressive, accepting and inclusive within the state of Tennessee, Nashville is its own special Utopia.

What drew you to Nashville?

Garner: I was invited to come out and visit [hit pop songwriter] Desmond Child and his husband, Curtis Child. They have twin boys and, like myself, they did it through surrogacy. Our mutual friend Victoria Shaw, who is a co-writer of Garth’s, introduced us at a park in Malibu while our kids were playing, and he said, “You really don’t know how beautiful Nashville is.” I’m embarrassed to admit how off from reality my perception of Nashville was, after all that time in country radio. But I came and it was eye-opening. The primary reason that I wanted to move here was because it is more aligned with the way that I wanted to raise my kids. … With respect to the progression of acceptance for gay families and LGBTQ folks, it is important for us to allow ourselves to be among some who may initially make us uncomfortable. We have seen so many people change their positions. And if parents have interactions with gay families and then one day their son or daughter comes to them to share their truth, my hope is that they can reference back to their time spent with us and say, “You know what? They’re going to be okay. There is a wonderful life for someone who is gay out there.”

Shane, what has been your experience with being a gay parent in Nashville?

McAnally: I think that those of us that do have families feel especially embraced. It may be because we’re two guys raising kids, and people are sympathetic, like, “Oh, this must be so hard for you.” And it is, but not because I’m a man. It’s just hard!

Blair, you came out to your radio listeners with a wedding picture that included your kids early in 2017. How long were you out among people who knew you in Nashville before that?

Garner: About five or six years. When I began “After Midnight” back in 1993, it was a much different environment then. I really felt that my being gay, if found out, would be the downfall of our company. I fell prey to blackmail at one point. A disgruntled employee said that he was going to out me to USA Today and that his manager had already been in conversations with one of the writers there, and they were going to go with this story about the hypocrisy of a nationally syndicated country radio host who happens to be gay. And I had to meet with the investors in my company and — I can’t even tell you how badly it tasted in my mouth — we had to pay the guy off just to lay off. There was no impropriety on our part. He just wanted money and knew that the perceived weak spot in our organization at that point was the fact that the founder was gay. So you fast-forward from that — and that was in L.A. — to us being married in Nashville, out and about in the community, and proud of that. I could not have seen that for myself back then.

Did you get any adverse reaction, coming out to your listeners?

Garner: I can’t say that I incurred any negative reactions — at least nothing that I am aware of. We have only gained affiliate radio stations since I came out, and I’ve only gained Facebook followers. People want to know who you really are. And if anything it’s been an experience in trusting that people will accept you because of who you are or what you are.

Do you engage people who have different views about it on social media?

Garner: I think my strongest message can be sent by focusing on my family and raising two well-mannered, intelligent, caring, generous souls into this world. That’s where my message will best be delivered, and it’s not going to be via a Facebook rant.

Chely, you’re not shy about engaging people on social media, be they fans, foes, or frenemies. The activity certainly kicked up again after you posted an open letter to Huckabee that got picked up by a lot of media.

Wright: I made a commitment to myself and to my team when I came out in 2010 that I would never ever delete anyone’s remarks to me on social media, and I’ve been able to hold true to that. I think it’s important not just for [haters] to be free to say what they want to say, but important for fans who might be on my page who were thinking, “Is that even a big deal? Nobody cares anymore.”  … And I think Nashville needed to see some of the [hostile] responses that Jason Owen’s letter generated. I also think it’s great that a lot of country fans got to see: “Whoa, there are people in Nashville that say Huckabee’s ideology and his brand are not welcome here.” Sometimes we lose sight of who we really are in a genre or an industry sector, and I think 2018 has kind of been a year of reckoning on a lot of fronts. Nashville probably needed to experience what they experienced last month.

How do you think things have changed in the eight years since you came out?

Wright: I think we can see progress. When I came out in 2010, people got eerily quiet. Even my artist pals didn’t want to say much. And many of them over the years, even as recently as two months ago, have reached out and said, “God, I wish I would have said something; I feel more comfortable saying things now, and I’ve learned a lot.” Obviously we’re not where we were eight years ago. A couple years ago, Carrie Underwood made remarks affirming marriage equality. That’s big. Other artists have finally moved away from the “I love everybody; I love the sinner, hate the sin” sort of statements. Nobody’s really trying that anymore, which is great. I think progress was happening with [’90s stars] Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman coming out as well as myself. There’ll never have to be another first like that again. But there will still have to be a first currently commercial artist out of the closet, which will be awesome.

But more than 20 years later, do we have no out country stars because they exist but they’re in the closet? Or do gay artists who are inclined toward country just shy away from even entering that system in the first place? Brandy Clark is the only out artist signed to a major, but she is more of a critical favorite than proven hitmaker. And after that, the list drops off. There is no list, basically.

McAnally: I could almost speak for Brandy in that I’m pretty sure she would not say that the lack of commercial acceptance has anything to do with her being gay. Our commercial trend does not lean toward the kind of music she makes. So it’s yet to be seen if sexuality actually bears any weight on that. It applies to other [minorities)]. We haven’t had a black artist successfully break since Charley Pride (in the late ‘60s). You could say Darius Rucker, but Darius was a big star before [as a member of Hootie & the Blowfish]. But when you look at the number of people trying to make it in the country music business, I don’t think there are as many gay artists as there are straight, or as many black artists as there are white. It’s like how Tiger Woods took over golf, which was unusual for a person of color. You didn’t then see a flurry of black people in golf. He was exceptional at it, and his path was different. We’re still looking for that in country.

Wright: Do I think RCA is about to sign an openly gay male artist? Probably not, but I think we’re closer to it than we were a few years ago. Just as importantly, I think [straight] artists are learning how to use their voice about it. I think it was terrifying for straight allies to think, like, how do I say something during Spirit Week? How do I say that that I support my gay and lesbian fans? I think people are finding ways to affirm in ways that we didn’t see eight years ago, and let’s talk in three years. I don’t expect everyone to run down (Music Row’s) 16thAvenue with a rainbow flag. But the old “Well, I love my gay friends; I don’t judge people“ bit is antiquated, dinosaur advocacy. That doesn’t work anymore, in 2018. They’ve got to say it.