Richell Renee Wright, known professionally as Chely Wright, was a mainstream country star for fifteen years before coming out in 2010 and having her sales cut in half. In 2017 her website featured prominently a RollingStone article that explained her genre trouble:
The former mainstream country star and current New York resident Chely Wright, making a rare Music City appearance to debut material from her just-released IAmtheRainalbum, who had the lion’s share to win or lose [at the 2016 AmericanaFest]—and win she did. The startling production [by Americana producer Joe Henry] and lyrical heft to the material on Wright’s exceptional LP (think Interiors-era Roseanne Cash) is tailor-made for Nashville’s preeminent listening room I Am the Rain was funded in part by a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign. When all was said and done, the LP was the number one most-funded country music Kickstarter project to date. It also ranks as the 11th most successful music campaign in the global benefit corporation’s history.
In Rolling Stone writer Stephen Betts’s passage above, Wright is no longer identified as a country artist; instead, she is now a “New York resident,” as though coming out and moving to New York City entirely shifted her identity and genre. The references all clearly point the album toward Americana rather than country music, including comparison to Roseanne Cash and mention of her appearance at the Americana Fest. Perhaps most startling is the enormous Kickstarter campaign, which demonstrates the continued interest of listeners, as well as the fact that Wright no longer had the support of any executives in the country music industry.
While Wright has continued to make music, she has been forced to shift genre affiliation to Americana, a change that she does not seem happy about. In a 2014 Guardian interview celebrating Paradise of Bachelors’ reissue of Patrick Haggerty’s 1973 out gay country album, Wright said that she doubted that either the world or Nashville was ready for the lyrics in Haggerty’s album or for an artist to come out at age nineteen, which she said would be “idiotic.” She explained, “People in the industry—studios, labels, radio programmers—are generally open and understanding but the fanbase is a different thing. I wouldn’t call the industry homophobic, but they’re afraid of the fear lots of fans have about gay people. So they package us as straight, and we let them.” Why? “Because we all want to be part of the big game.” As a closeted commercial artist signed with MCA Nashville Records, Wright played stadium shows, but as an out independent artist, she more recently booked the 490-seat Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, California, which also hosted Girlyman and Coyote Grace. Yet at least Wright was able to pivot to appealing to an Americana audience. Her fellow out gay mainstream country musician peer Ty Herndon’s style is firmly pop country, and although he was outed by arrest in 1995, he had three number 1 country songs between 1995 and 2000. He didn’t reach the stardom Wright had (with a certified gold record, tours with then-boyfriend and mainstream country star Brad Paisley, and multiple award nominations, including a win for the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Female Vocalist). Coming out in 2014 brought Herndon more attention than he had received in over a decade. Afterward, he became involved in activism, a move Wright has also made.
Wright was already active in charity before she came out, and after coming out she developed an identity as an activist, donning a rainbow flag for the cover of the DVD release of the documentary Wish Me Away (figure 13) and identifying herself as “artist, activist, author” on her website and on Instagram. Coinciding with the release of her autobiography, Like Me, she launched “a non-profit organization, dedicated to providing education, assistance, and resources to LGBT teens and their family and friends.” She announced in March 2021 that after “more than a decade” of “work in a multitude of corporate spaces to advance Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, she had accepted a position at real estate corporation Unispace as their Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer,” crediting “the practice and craft of storytelling [for] open[ing] up yet another portal of opportunity and fulfillment for me.”
Since 2015 Ty Herndon has been organizing an annual Concert for Love and Acceptance through sponsorship with Country Music Television, a benefit for his Foundation for Love and Acceptance. His concert features out musicians as well as allies. While the concert happens in June (Pride month in the United States), the 2020 iteration referenced nonnormative gender and sexuality mostly obliquely through rainbow imagery, without direct reference in stage banter or most songs. Herndon sang several songs meant to signal his identification, such as “So Small,” performed with the Rainbow Squad, a support group for LGBTQ youth in Nashville, and “Some Lies I Told Myself,” which he said he was glad he didn’t believe. Out gay country artist and award winning songwriter Shane McAnally was most frank, sharing the sort of stage banter that’s entirely typical of other queer and trans country musicians at other shows but that was surprisingly rare in this concert. It seemed clear that participants were being careful to focus the concert on a more generalized “love and acceptance.” Yet this concert revealed the complicated politics of advocating for LGBT acceptance among some country listeners. BrettYoung participated, singing his number 1 gold single “Lady”: “I remember when I heard your heartbeat / It was only eight weeks,” a line that references the scientifically inaccurate notion of embryonic heartbeat seemingly as an antichoice dog whistle. The cover art for the single features an embroidered electrocardiogram (presumably the embryo’s). The song continues with heteronormative lines about how the expected child, gendered female, will “learn how to be a lady” by following her mother’s example and how as a father the narrator will help when the daughter “get[s] [her] heart broke by the wrong guy [sic].” But Herndon’s 2020 concert also included the Indigo Girls, whose antiracist, feminist, trans-allied, and indigenous sovereignty politics are well known as part of their public personae.
Chely Wright has appeared in Herndon’s annual concert multiple times. While she lives in New York, she has yet to attend or perform at the Queer Country Quarterly events in Brooklyn, run by Karen Pittelman, who is less famous and operates in a different circle (although Pittelman has expressed interest in hosting Wright at Queer Country Quarterly). Wright’s activism and social media presence demonstrate her focus on equality and assimilation rather than the radical politics Pittelman’s collaborators and audience participate in (discussed further below).
Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-shay) was born in New Orleans and adopted into a Catholic family in Thibodeaux, Louisiana. Gauthier describes how adoption and her awareness of being a lesbian led to having a difficult childhood, developing drug and alcohol addiction as a teen, and spending time in rehabilitation, halfway houses, and jail. She enrolled briefly in college but dropped out, moving to Boston and eventually enrolling in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Gauthier opened a successful Cajun restaurant, Dixie Kitchen, which she cooked in and ran for eleven years. When she was arrested for drunk driving in 1990, she became sober and also began, at age thirty-five, to write songs.
Her first album was named after her restaurant, and her second album, 1998’s Drag Queens and Limousines, was financed by selling her share of her restaurant. This album led to major attention, including an invitation to play at the Newport Folk Festival and a Gay and Lesbian Music Award for Best Country Artist of the Year. From the very first song, she tells a queer life story—as a teenager who did not fit in with the “jocks and their girls” at a private high school, she stole her adoptive mother’s car and ran away to live with friends (and in the chorus of the song, she describes these friends as “drag queens in limousines, nuns in blue jeans, dreamers with big dreams,” “poets and AWOL marines, actors and bar flys [sic], writers with dark eyes, drunks that philosophize”). Songs on the album explore the lives of other outsiders, including a drug addict who finds love and faith and an erotic dancer the narrator is attracted to. Her now-well-known fictionalized song “I Drink” first appeared on this album, using her moving speech-song vocalization to trace the narrator’s childhood memory of family discord due to her father’s drinking to her later alcoholism.
Gauthier moved to Nashville in 2001 and signed with Harlan Howard Songs. Howard died in 2002, and Gauthier ended up helping Howard’s widow, Jan, also a famous country artist, complete some of his final work. In 2005 Gauthier told The Advocate that her audience is comprised “mostly of straight guys who have had an inordinate amount of trouble with women. Just like me! They can relate.” She was the first public out lesbian to play the Grand Ole Opry and appears there regularly. Her 2014 song “When a Woman Goes Cold” is perhaps her most obviously lesbian song, although her songs often feature a female lover. Her songs have been recorded by artists from different genre backgrounds, including Jimmy Buffett, Bettye Lavette, Mike Farris, Tim McGraw, and Blake Shelton (the latter of whom, interestingly, does not encourage the queer contestants on his reality TV show, TheVoice, to try to be country artists). Gauthier’s songs have been featured in the country music industry–themed HBO drama Nashville, although her music, including her most recent album, Rifles and Rosary Beads, cowritten with US war veterans, is more often nominated for awards in folk (where it won the 2018 Album of the Year at the International Folk Music Awards) and Americana music (where it was nominated for 2018 Album of the Year by the Americana Music Association) than country (the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards, in awarding her a prize in 1998, recognized her as “country”). With fellow songwriters Eliza Gilkyson and Gretchen Peters, Gauthier tours as Three Women and the Truth, a play on Harlan Howard’s saying. While Val Denn agency describes them as folk singers and songwriters, bookings describe the variety of genres they might be called, including as a “supergroup of country/ Americana” and “alternative folk.” During the Covid-19 pandemic, Gauthier was active playing in virtual queer-themed country and folk shows hosted by Country Queer and Queer Folk Fest and especially her own weekly live-streamed shows from the home she shares in Nashville with girlfriend and fellow country musician Jaimee Harris, featuring a prominent rainbow flag in the background.
Brandi Carlile has been out as a lesbian since her career began. While her band takes her name, she shares the stage with two (straight and cisgender) twin brothers, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who have been in the band from the beginning and share songwriting credit. Carlile is often described as a rock, folk, or Americana artist and has said, “I’ve gone through all sorts of vocal phases, from pop to blues to R&B, but no matter what I do, I just can’t get the country and western out of my voice.” She signed with Columbia Records in 2004. Like many queer country/folk musicians, Carlile was mentored early on by the Indigo Girls, who invited her to tour with them. The song “The Story” led to a breakthrough in fame and sales for Carlile after it was used in GM commercials during the 2008 Summer Olympics. It became a gold record in 2017. In 2019 she was the most nominated woman at the Grammy Awards and won three of the six awards possible, all for music in the Americana genre. Carlile featured two senior women musicians, Mavis Staples and Tanya Tucker, during many shows of her 2019 tour. In her September 2019 performance in Philadelphia, Carlile asked audience members to support female country musicians by buying their music. She also featured sixty-year-old outlaw country star Tanya Tucker as a surprise guest, supporting that artist’s first new album of original material in seventeen years, which Carlile produced and cowrote. In 2020 the Americana Music Association nominated Carlile as artist of the year.
Carlile’s music has not centered on activist themes the way that a band like Lavender Country or My Gay Banjo has. Perhaps this is one of many reasons her band was able to attract a much larger audience before releasing a political song like “The Joke” in 2017, which empathetically depicted boys fearing bullying over gender, sexuality, and ability; girls facing sexism; and immigrants facing danger at the southern border of the United States. Indeed, I’ve noticed some instances of listeners objecting to anti-Trump messages in her music, shows, or social media feed. At the outdoor show in Philadelphia I attended in 2019, two audience members sitting next to me shook their head when Mavis Staples suggested she’d run for president to oust Donald Trump, yet they appeared to enjoy both Staples’s set and Carlile’s.
These artists’ success and yet ambiguity in genre suggest that while out lesbians and gay men can reach relative stardom in the early twenty-first century, their ability to register their country-like music as country is still limited.
“Queer and Fucked”
Lesbians’ participation in folk music during this same time period was limited, and they often depended on women-focused music scenes for loyal audiences. The discourse of and about the twentieth-century folk revival did not figure prominent musicians Joan Baez’s and Ronnie Gilbert’s bisexuality into the conception of folk. Ongoing oppression of women and lesbian musicians made creating a separate women’s music scene a necessity, as Amy Ray argues in response to a NewYorkTimes article by David Hajdu on queer people in folk music:
Women always have to ruin everything. Now we are strangling the life and diversity out of folk music. You would think lesbian folk musicians are sailing up the radio charts and selling millions of records; instead we’re fighting the same battles we’ve fought for years. In fact, the world of singer/songwriters is still dominated by men. Sure there is a queer folk scene out there and luckily, it’s thriving, but only in the most marginal way. It’s never really a good time in the mainstream music industry to be a queer girl with a guitar. I can look at the trajectory of my own career and see that the more political the Indigo Girls have become, the less radio play and press we have received.
The women’s music scene developed out of necessity—women have never been treated fairly by the music industry or generally by society, so if they wanted to make music on their own terms, they had to create a women’s music industry to support the many musicians who simply were not regarded as the musically skilled, poetically insightful humans they were. Ray educates readers about the role marketing demographics have in making a certain facet of identity a major part of a band’s publicity and that, if successful, this information is then used to sell something else to this demographic. But as Ray points out,
as far as the mainstream media is concerned, our image is our handicap. Gay musicians aren’t marketed to the mainstream as, “Hurray! Here’s a new lesbian band, aren’t they cool?” Instead, we are the subject of painstaking scrutiny and strategizing to figure out how to overcome our image. Being gay is not considered an asset at most record labels, indie or major. When the record label finally takes advantage of the gay press, its [sic] because the mainstream press won’t touch the band. Gay press coverage is the last resort for most publicist [sic]. In the Indigo Girls’ case, it took Epic Records years to catch up. Epic simply preferred not to respect or cater to the gay press, but when the mainstream media stopped paying attention to us, Epic starting returning gay media’s phone calls.
So while Epic might have seen the band playing a woman-themed event as a limitation, Ray notes in another entry from the band’s blog that their experience performing in all four years of the Lilith Fair tour (1997–99, 2010) exposed their music to a broader audience. These events were also extremely important, given that their experience was that all-woman bands were not as likely to receive the invitations and support they need to thrive. Yet one problem within the women’s music circuit was that the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, the major festival from 1976 until its final gathering in 2015, excluded women of trans experience. In 1991 Nancy Jean Burkholder circulated a survey of participants about their willingness to allow trans women. But organizer Lisa Vogel reaffirmed her “intention” that the festival was for womyn-born-womyn.” Beginning in 1995 this policy was protested by Camp Trans, a direct-action campsite just outside the boundaries of Michfest. The Indigo Girls, who had raised the issue publicly with the festival organizer at least as early as 2005, eventually told the festival that they would not play again until the festival allowed trans women entry. Hajdu was correct that a growing number of lesbians were finding some success within folk music, but their achievement was often limited to the opportunities they were creating for themselves and one another through collaboration…
Excerpted from Chapter 2 of Queer Country by Shana Goldin-Perschbacher [footnotes omitted]. Copyright 2022 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Shana Goldin-Perschbacher is an assistant professor of music studies in the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University.