Country music has never been the first genre that most people would think of when they consider formats that would be openly proud of Pride, as it were. But the music has always had a significant gay fan base, on top of the many LGBTQ execs filling the offices of Music Row and the… well, far lesser percentages of openly gay artists in the field. The jump from C&W to C&Q no longer seems such a big one, with mainstream acceptance of country’s gay audience, artists and culture coming to bloom in a historic way in the first radio program of note devoted to that intersection: Apple Music Country’s new show “Proud Radio With Hunter Kelly.”
The second two-hour episode airs Sunday night on the two-month-old Apple Music Country station at 7 p.m. ET/4 PT (or 6-8 on Nashville Central Time). Apple, which commissioned the monthly show as part of a platform-wide Proud Radio initiative, is also making Sunday’s installment available on demand to subscribers from Sunday morning on in honor of National Coming Out Day. The new show has an engaging, informed and firmly-embedded-in-Nashville host in Kelly, a 15-year broadcasting veteran whose voice is familiar to country fans through his interviews on syndicated and network broadcasts; fellow country journalists know him as one of the figures in country awards press rooms whose questions are most warmly greeted by the stars.
“Proud Radio” has two guests each episode, one well-established, one an up-and-comer in the “rainbow spotlight” slot. After a September premiere that had Brandy Clark and Brandon Stansell filling those veteran/upstart slots, the October episode features compelling and emotional interviews with Waylon Payne — the son of country music royalty, whose “Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me” was released to critical acclaim last month — and rising Americana favorite Jaime Wyatt, who discusses her more recent coming-out experience. Surrounding these reflective segments are playful playlists that mix LGBTQ artists and straight allies … plus the occasional retro camp classic, as Kelly has a good memory for the distant era when country superstars submitted themselves to disco remixes.
Variety spoke with Kelly about his ground-breaking show in the run-up to Sunday night’s new episode, which can be heard here.
VARIETY: You must feel as much as anyone that a gay country show is unprecedented territory. Maybe someone did one on a tiny public radio station somewhere, but as far as we know, anyway…
KELLY: I’ve known Michael Bryan, who heads up Apple Music Country, for a long time, and when he approached me with doing “Proud Radio” for country, it was an opportunity that I really didn’t even think was possible — really kind of beyond a dream. But I could see (openness) happening in the format overall. Being in the audience at the CMA Awards last November and seeing Lil Nas X win a CMA Award as an out Black gay man, and then seeing Brandi Carlile in the audience, I really felt like something was shifting in that moment. So to now have this show, it does feels historic and unprecedented — but it also feels like a next step that makes sense for the format.
You’ve probably faced the question: Is there really enough of a gay/country intersection to fill two hours every month, indefinitely?
I felt the same thing. But if you listened to the first episode, I went back and wanted to highlight key moments of LGBTQ representation in country music along the way. So it started off with Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” and later we played Reba McEntire’s dance remix of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which was a dance chart hit back in the day. Because I thought, well, I’ll have allies on the show as guests, and play them throughout, too. But what I found out was that there was so much great music being made by LGBTQ country artists out there that I didn’t even know existed.
I had Brandy Clark on the first episode, and of course I knew her; people like Brandy and Orville Peck being out are kind of the people that I would say are the tentpoles. But there’s so much more out there in these little pockets of queer country going on all over the country. There’s a Gay Ole Opry scene out of Brooklyn with Karen & the Sorrows and Paisley Fields, who I’m playing on this next episode. Also, there’s a great website by a guy from California named Dale (Henry Geist) called countryqueer.com that’s kind of been a bible for me. We start this next episode with a guy here in Nashville named John Tucker, a 23-year-old Black guy whose song “Vacation” is getting steam on R&B playlists but sounds to me like something that Dan + Shay or Kelsea Ballerini could jump on very easily. There is a bit of dipping into the Americana world, because I think the Americana world has been much more open to LGBTQ artists than mainstream country. But there are also artists like guys here in Nashville named Chris Housman and Cameron Hawthorn that are actually making music for mainstream country as well. It’s just great to see the diversity of the artists that are also queer artists: Everything from hardcore folk to commercial pop-country is all there, and the quality level of the music that’s been made is exceeding my expectations so much that I’m really excited to give it this platform. So my hope is that there will be artist discovery going on as well as a celebration of the people who have broken down the barriers before.
Can you talk about what it’s like interviewing Brandy Clark and Waylon Payne for an audience that already knows where they’re coming from? A lot of journalists may have felt hamstrung in interviewing them, because maybe they feel nervous not knowing how much the artists want to explore these areas, even if the artists aren’t as timid as they imagine. Do you feel like you were able to do deeper dives?
I’ve known Brandy for a long time and been interviewing her since her (debut) album “12 Stories” came out. I felt with this (third) record, “Your Life Is a Record,” that she was more honest than she’d ever been in her writing before, as far as drawing from her personal life; it felt like a shift with how she was being open about “Okay, I was in a 14-year relationship that ended, and this is a breakup record.” I did another interview with her on this album (for a different outlet), and it was different because it wasn’t geared toward a queer audience. I mean, everybody is welcome to listen to Proud Radio, but the thing that makes us different is that we’re going in already with that on the table. So we were able to get to the meat of the issue or talk more in-depth about: “What was the thing in country music that made you think, ‘Okay, I’ve got a way forward here, being out?’” It was great for both of us because we were able to start at a place of not having to think about, “Oh, we’ve got to include, like, how does this relate to straight people?” We texted afterward and she was very excited about this show. You know, we’re also looking at the people coming up after us. I think Brandy Clark being out from the beginning is a big deal, and so now that she’s able to talk more openly and honestly about her life, that’s a great thing.
With Waylon, there was a listening event at his producer’s studio last year for his new album. And it was a revelation for me to hear Waylon singing male pronouns in his love songs. There was an album that came out recently by Ben Platt, the Broadway star, called “Sing to Me Instead,” and he was singing about his experience openly as a gay man. The Ben Platt record really made a big impression on me, because I didn’t have to do any kind of mental gymnastics of, like, “Well, he’s singing it to a woman, but then I would sing it to a man.” I had that same kind of feeling with Waylon’s record, in that I just realized, in listening to all these songs by heterosexual artists, I’ve always had to do these twists of “Well, this is how it will apply to me.” Not having to do that was a luxury I didn’t know I was missing out on. So I wanted to write about Waylon’s record just because, being in the country/Americana space, it was really groundbreaking in openly being about a relationship between two men — never dreaming that, months later, I would have this show on Apple Music to talk with him about this record.
Waylon’s coming-out experience is far in his past, but something that was traumatic at the time, because he was disowned for a time by members of his famous family. That contrasts with Jaime Wyatt, who has not always been out throughout her young career — maybe not even to herself, since she talks about having been married to a man. These are some heavy conversations.
With this show, I’m excited not to shy away from those stories of what it’s like to struggle with your sexuality, and what it’s like to find the courage to say, “Hey, I’m going to come into this space in the country music area that isn’t like the most welcoming spot in all of pop culture.” But we do also want to just be able to have fun and enjoy music. It’s all of those things coming together for me.
On the first episode you also talked about hearing Reba’s dance remix of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” when you were a teenager and loving that. Was that a beginning of any sort for you and your love of the country divas?
Well, my love of the Judds goes back to really childhood. Singing “Mama, He’s Crazy” was one of the first songs that I ever knew. With Reba, the first song that I really got into with Reba was when my cousins had a cassette of the album “Rumor Has It,” which was “Fancy” on it. And “Fancy,” now that I look at it now, it’s just such a camp classic, it’s so over the top. Then I saw Reba in 1993 for the first time, and she was changing clothes 17 times and it was like Broadway, the ultimate diva kind of thing. So it was definitely before the dance mix. But Reba, I would say, was my introduction to that kind of drag-queen-level aesthetic, without really knowing that’s what I was watching. I was also fascinated with Madonna, but I wasn’t able to go see Madonna — because Madonna never played Birmingham, Alabama, but also she was kind of forbidden. It wasn’t until college that I realized, “Oh wait, my obsession with Reba and Wynonna is a little queer.” Just because I think I used it as a cover, like, “Oh these are country artists, it’s totally fine!” But they’re stepping in for Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. [Laughs.]
And then of course Dolly. She ought to be president. I think Dolly’s just kind of like Elvis and Coca Cola. They’re just everywhere when you grow up in the South — omnipresent. We ended the show with “Baby I’m Burnin’,” which is her disco track from ’77 on “Heartbreaker.” And this time for a camp stamp, we’re playing the “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” remix that Barbara Mandrell just put out. Even Bill Anderson’s disco record — do you remember that, “Ladies’ Choice”?
Whisperin’ Bill went disco, too? No, completely missed that.
Oh, that’s a good one — it’s so disco, it’s campy as hell, and it’s really, really fun. Definitely that kind of late ’70s, early ‘80s, disco-ish or Crystal Gayle/Anne Murray place is also a sweet spot for me, when it comes to the “okay, that’s fit for a drag show” kind of thing. But Bill Anderson is an example of the kind of stuff that I think as I’m putting together playlists, that I love to share with people. I’ve like been studying country music for so long that I kind of see myself shifting into a bit of a historical point of view. And even just being in this format for the last 15 years and seeing Miranda Lambert and Eric Church develop from baby artists into being where they are now, that (recent) history is exciting for me to think about working with and exploring.
Did any response surprise you after the first episode?
I forget the exact number, but I think the show is heard in 150, 160 countries. Looking internationally with this show, it’s been great to hear from people in England and Scotland about their talent pool of artists that I’m drawing from. It’s global and not just American.
The country audience is significant in Europe, but they don’t always get to hear the artists speak as well as sing. You may be able to impact some accents over there.
Depending on who I’m talking to, that Alabama accent comes out. I was listening back to the interview with Waylon, and we really twang it up.