While LGBTQ+ artists have long been an integral part of country music — from the trailblazing Wilma Burgess, considered by many to be the first "out" singer in the industry (though she never came out publicly to fans) to Lavender Country, the band that released the first queer country album with its self-titled 1973 release — it wasn't until recent years that mainstream acts began to publicly come out to fans.
In February of 2021, TJ Osborne of Brothers Osborne became the only openly gay artist signed to a major country music label when he came out in an interview with Time.
"I'm very comfortable being gay," Osborne told the magazine. "I find myself being guarded for not wanting to talk about something that I personally don't have a problem with. That feels so strange."
Osborne's announcement came over 10 years after '90s country hitmaker Chely Wright came out as gay.
In the years in between, artists such as Brandy Clark, who co-wrote Kacey Musgraves' anthemic "Follow Your Arrow," Brooke Eden, Ty Herndon and more have shared their truth, making country music a more welcoming and inclusive genre. And there's quite a few LGBTQ+ acts in the broad Americana scene, such as Bluegrass Pride co-founder and banjo picker Justin Hiltner and Kill Rock Stars Nashville signee Mya Byrne.
"Others will now feel invited to the country music party for the first time," Kacey Musgraves told Time, in reference to longtime friend, TJ Osborne. "Country music deserves a future even more honest than its past."
Below, get to know 28 LGBTQ+ country singers and read their thoughts on their experience in the industry and the importance of representation in the genre.
Chely Wright, who scored hits with "Single White Female," "It Was" and more, came out as gay in 2010.
Wright shared her story in the memoir Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer.
"Nothing in my life has been more magical than the moment I decided to come out," she told People.
In the past decade, Wright has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. In 2011, she married LGBTQ+ civil rights activist Lauren Blitzer.— Bobbie Jean Sawyer
Country singer-songwriter and elite storyteller Brandy Clark was already out when she found success in the industry as both a solo artist and a songwriter who'd penned hits for Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire, Darius Rucker and more.
"There have always been a lot of gay people in country music, they just haven't been open about their personal lives," Clark told People in 2020. "All kinds of people love country music, and they should be able to see them themselves represented with who's singing it."
In the same interview, Clark shared her advice for queer artists.
"Be yourself, don't be ashamed of who you are, and focus on your music," Clark continued. "If your music is good enough, eventually it gets heard. There's that great quote: 'I'd rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I'm not.' I think that's really, really true."— BS
Ty Herndon had several hits ("What Mattered Most," "Living in a Moment," "I Want My Goodbye Back") before coming out as gay in 2014.
"I realized I had an incredible story that could possibly help someone's son or daughter or grandchild's life not be as difficult as mine has been," Herndon told People in 2014. "Maybe they wouldn't have to go through as much pain and suffering. It's time to tell my truth."
Herndon and CMT host the Concert for Love and Acceptance, an annual concert in Nashville to support the LGBTQ+ community.
In 2019, Herndon changed the pronouns in his hit "What Mattered Most" to reflect a relationship with a man.
"We've got so many new fans out there that were afraid to listen to country because they felt like people that were singing country music and people who were writing country music hated gay people. And that might or might not have been the case in this world of country music, but it's definitely not the case today. There's so many affirming and wonderful writers. There's so many LGBTQ+ writers in town. The business is opening up...it doesn't matter if you're gay or straight. It matters if you made a great album and you make great music," Herndon told Wide Open Country in 2019. "For me to be able to re-record ["What Mattered Most"] and have the gay fans out there, the LGBTQ+ community, hear it for the first time really — making it brand new, but the emotions of the song are still there — that means so much to me."— BS
Brooke Eden first hit the mainstream with her self-released EP in 2014 and continued to make a name for herself in Nashville. Though she was initially discouraged from publicly disclosing her sexual identity, she ignored that advice after her label was bought out. She not only posts sweet photos with her wife Hilary Hoover on social media, but she even started featuring her in music videos. Eden is now authentic about who she is with her fans and feels like it has positively affected her music, as well. She married Hoover in March 2022.
"I hope that being out and visible to the public, I can help other queer people who might live in the middle of nowhere and feel like they're the only ones," Eden told Attitude.-- Courtney Fox
Harper Grae grew up in a small town in Alabama and got her start in the entertainment world when she appeared on The Glee Project. As the singer explained to Billboard, series creator Ryan Murphy set an incredible example of what life looks like when you live boldly and unapologetically, so she decided to do the same. She uses her music to tell her truth and share who she is with her fans and has never been happier. Last year, she welcomed a child with her wife Dawn after suffering a devastating miscarriage.— CF
Brandi Carlile has been singing country music all her life. But her breakthrough came with the release of 2017's The Story. The poetic album, produced by T Bone Burnett, earned the young folk-rocker a wider following. And by that point, Carlile was already openly gay; she'd come out as a lesbian when she was 15 and confirmed that identity publicly in a 2002 interview with The Western Front. Since then, Carlile has gained mainstream popularity — thanks to By the Way, I Forgive You, which swept at the 2019 Grammys — and started a family.
Carlile wed Catherine Shepherd in 2012. The couple now shares two daughters, Evangeline and Elijah, who were conceived via IVF and artificial insemination.— Emily Mack
In one of the most crucial pieces of country music journalism in recent memory, Time gave TJ Osborne—one-half of Brothers Osborne with his brother John—a platform to embrace his true self and come out to his fans. News that came as no surprise to his supportive family and true friends made TJ the only openly gay artist currently signed to a major country music label.
In April 2022, Brothers Osborne won its first Grammy (Best Country Duo/ Group Performance) for "Younger Me," an autobiographical song about TJ.— Addie Moore
Lil Nas X
"Old Town Road" being bogusly removed from Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in 2019 didn't slow down the career trajectory of Lil Nas X or dissuade Billy Ray Cyrus from lending his talents to a remix. During the rapper and must-follow social media personality's wild 2019, he came out of the closet with a June 30 tweet, encouraging fans to listen closely to the lyrics of his song "C7osure."
"We still have a long way to go, because it's not like everybody is messing with me now," Lil Nas X told CBS. "Of course somebody who's listening to me in school right now, it's like, 'You're gay, 'cause you're listening to him.' There's still lot to be done."— AM
Georgia-raised singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt shares her experience growing up queer in the South through songs such as the stunning "Loving Her."
"I'm especially proud to keep those Southern roots and talk about these topics because being from the South is a different experience than, like, growing up in California and being queer," Pruitt told New Now Next.— BS
Country and folk artist Allison Russell reckoned with her traumatic childhood and found joy on her stellar album Outside Child.
"It has become more important to me as I get older to honor those friends of our youth and loved ones of our youth and lovers of our youth who helped shape us and in this case, she literally saved my life," Russell told The Bluegrass Situation about the inspiration behind her song "Persephone." "And I wanted her to know that. I also wanted to acknowledge that I am a queer person who is now in a straight passing life and marriage. I fall in the middle of the spectrum of orientation. I've been in love with women and I've been in love with men and I've been in love with trans people and I've been in love with non-binary people. I wound up falling in love and committing to share a life with a man, my husband."— BS
The queer country trailblazers in Lavender Country released what's assumed to be the first gay-themed country album in 1973. It was followed up nearly 50 years later by sophomore full-length Blackberry Rose.
"I didn't aspire to do this," Lavender Country founder Patrick Haggerty told CNN. "But I made Lavender Country as a vehicle for social change, and now I get to use Lavender Country for the exact reason that I made it in the first place — pure and unadulterated."
Haggerty died on Oct. 31, 2022 at age 78.— BS
Singer-songwriter (and member of Lavender Country) Paisley Fields sings about growing up closeted and queer in Iowa on 2022 Limp Wrist, which was issued by DIY punk label Don Giovanni Records. Though it goes to dark places ("Iowa" addresses the 1998 hate crime murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard), the album ends with the uplifting "Tomorrow Finds a Way."
Limp Wrist is the latest in a long line of independent releases that prove that country music doesn't inherently belong to bigots.
"It's a diverse and growing scene," Paisley Fields told Metrosource. "And we're doing everything we can to reach out to a country loving audience who has a problem with it being anti-gay. We're creating a safe space to go and enjoy country music without being offended, or even worse, having violence perpetrated against them."— BS
Shelly Fairchild's debut album Ride was a hit in 2005 and at the time, her single "You Don't Lie Here Anymore" reached No. 35 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. But Fairchild suspects that rumors she was gay might have hindered her career. According to Focus LGBT, Fairchild said, "I got dropped from the record label for being gay. I mean, they made up other excuses for dropping me, but I knew the real reason that it was happening." But now Fairchild is out and proud, and continues to make music independently. In 2017, she eloped with music executive Deborah DeLoach and their sweet wedding photoshoot, published in Brides, went viral.— EM
Punk rock drummer turned Columbia Records recording artist and Shania Twain collaborator Orville Peck came out of nowhere in 2019 with the album Pony— Issued by Nirvana's pre-infamy label home, Sub Pop. The masked country crooner became an unlikely sensation, at home in Canada and here in the States. He's since appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and rubbed shoulders with LGBTQ+ allies Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga.
"I started to receive a lot of messages and letters from gay and trans and queer fans," Peck told Variety about why representation matters in country music. "They would send me really beautiful, heartfelt messages saying, 'I live in Arkansas,' or 'My father was a famous rodeo star.' They would say, 'I grew up with country music all around me, but it wasn't until I listened to you that I felt like I could embrace that side of my culture because I felt really outside of it growing up.' That is what makes me feel really good about my visibility. It is a big focus of mine mostly because I now know how important it is to people who maybe didn't have the same experience that I had."— AM
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Joy Oladokun has earned acclaim for her stirring vocals and lyrics showcased on songs such as "breathe again."
"Making music in this time especially feels really important to me," she told GO Magazine in 2020. "And as a Black woman, the title 'In Defense of My Own Happiness (vol. 1)' takes on a different meaning when you're talking about Black and queer culture in 2020. People like me are fighting for absolutely basic rights."— BS
Born to famed country musicians Jody Payne and Sammi Smith, you might expect that Waylon Payne's childhood was full of music, touring and excitement. But as a young child, Payne was placed in the guardianship of his maternal aunt and uncle. During this time, Payne says that he was sexually abused by a family member.
At age 18, Payne revealed not only the abuse but also the fact that he was gay. And his family did not want to hear it; Payne was disowned entirely. "I didn't really come out," he explained to The Boot, "I was telling on somebody, and they didn't like the way that sounded." His 2020 album Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me, reckons with that painful experience.— EM
Shane McAnally is one of the most successful modern country songwriters, having penned hits for Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan and more (he also co-wrote "Follow Your Arrow" with Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves), but McAnally has said he was initially concerned with how to write mainstream country songs in a way he felt was honest.
"If I talked about a relationship, I'd get so caught up in, 'What story did I tell? Who did I say I was dating?' And that completely cast a shadow over my ability to tell the story in a truthful way," McAnally said in an interview with Anthony Ramos from GLAAD (quote via CMT). "Once I came out, and realized that everybody knew and didn't care, it didn't matter what pronoun I used. I was no longer worried if 'he' or 'she' came out of my mouth. I was able to write the line properly...In doing that, my songs became much more universal to straight people too, because the heart is a heart and we all hurt and love the same."
McAnally has been married to Michael Baum since 2012.— BS
Billy Gilman had a country hit at just 11 years old with his song "One Voice." The singer, who (as an adult) would later go on to compete on season 11 of The Voice, was inspired by Ty Herndon coming out in 2014. Just hours after Herndon's announcement, Gilman came out as a gay man on YouTube.
"Being a gay male country artist is not the best thing," Gilman said. "If people don't like your music, that's one thing. But after selling over 5 million records, having a wonderful life in the music industry, I knew something was wrong when no major label wanted to sit down and have a meeting and listen to the new stuff... It's difficult for me to make this video, not because I'm ashamed to be a gay male artist, or a gay artist, or a gay person, but it's pretty silly to know that I'm ashamed of doing this knowing that because I'm in a genre in an industry that is ashamed of me for being me."— BS
Trixie Mattel is not only a drag queen superstar (she's the winner of season 3 of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars), she's also an autoharp-wielding country-folk artist who counts John Prine, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, June Carter Cash and Dolly Parton among her greatest inspirations.
"I think my music is not so much about being gay; my music is about being a human being. It's not about gay relationships; it's about relationships. It's not about feeling like an outsider because you're gay. Maybe it's just about feeling like an outsider," Mattel told NPR in 2018. "But I love folk music and I love country and bluegrass, and it's fun also introducing my audience — maybe they are gay, and maybe they don't listen that type of music, so it's fun being their gateway drug to something I think is so great. Like, If you go to my music video for "Break Your Heart," all the comments are like, 'I would have never known I would like a song like this.'"
Mattel released Two Birds in 2017, One Stone in 2018 and Barbara in 2020. Most recently, Mattel released the EP Full Coverage, which featured a cover of "Jackson" with Orville Peck.— BS
Singer-songwriter and member of the supergroup Our Native Daughters (with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell), Amythyst Kiah recently released the album Wary and Strange, which addresses the fight for racial justice and her journey to embrace her true self.
"Hiding myself to please everybody wore me down. In order to truly be happy and fulfill my purpose in life, I had to embrace who I honestly am, in every way," Kiah told Billboard.— BS
Mya Byrne's spot in the Americana and alt-country space got a signal boost in 2022 when she was signed to Kill Rock Stars (KRS) Nashville— a new extension of the DIY label that brought us the late indie-folk icon Elliott Smith.
"I believe in [label co-founder] Slim Moon and all the work KRS has historically done to support the cutting edge of music," Byrne shared in a press release. "To have been asked to be the very first artist to release on Kill Rock Stars Nashville both is an honor and demonstrates their commitment to trans women and other marginalized artists being firmly centered in Nashville, in the Americana and country community."
Though Byrne's music defies genre designation, she's made her presence known in mainstream country music. She plays mandolin and lap steel on Reba McEntire's remix of "I'm a Survivor" and wrote and recorded the theme for the Kelly Sutton podcast Amazon Music's Country Heat.— AM
Third generation country singer Sam Williams, son of Hank Williams Jr., came out as gay in the music video for "Tilted Crown" and during an Oct. 2022 appearance on Apple Music's Proud Radio With Hunter Kelly.
In the video, Williams kisses his boyfriend on camera for the first time— a move suggested by co-directors Alexa and Stephen Kinigopoulos.
"At first I kind of thought that, 'I'm tackling something else with this.' And I thought that maybe that's for another project," he said on Kelly's Apple Music Country podcast. "But again, I felt like I was promoting invisibility, like I wasn't being visible and wasn't being myself. And I just thought it was the perfect opportunity to just show who I was."— AM
Atlanta-raised country artist Lily Rose was already a self-taught drummer and guitarist before she found her voice as a singer and began performing sold-out shows around her college town of Athens, Ga. Nearly three years after moving to Nashville, Rose posted a clip of her song "Villain" on TikTok. The song was an immediate smash, earning Rose millions of views and streams, the No. 1 spot on the iTunes all-genre and country charts and a label deal with Big Loud and Republic Records.
This summer, she's bringing true diversity to the stage as a tour mate of both Sam Hunt and Shania Twain.
"I'm so stoked for Shania and Sam and grateful that they're giving me the opportunity to get the show going for their fans," Rose told Hits Daily Double. "My goal has been to show people—especially young people—that your dreams can come true by being authentically your true self. I think a lot of hate is fear-based. Hopefully, I can help someone see there's nothing to be afraid of."
Per their website, TikTok sensation, comedian and singer-songwriter Flamy Grant "is a gospel and roots musician from the Bible Belt who will move you, soothe you, help you heal some trauma and always leave you laughing."
As for the stage name, it's a sincere tribute to an ally.
"In my house growing up we were only allowed to listen to Christian and gospel music, so as a closeted queer kid Amy Grant was my version of an inspirational diva," Flamy Grant told Shoutout Social.— AM
As The Kentucky Gentlemen, twins Brandon and Derek Campbell have the potential join the rich lineage of sibling acts that've reimagined the vocal stylings of roots music— a timeline that spans from the Stanley Brothers to the McCrary Sisters.
Though they've nailed revved-up twang ("Lose My Boots") and country- R&B crossover ("Whatever You're Up For") approaches, the Campbell siblings stand out the most when they're smooth-voiced cowboy Casanovas. For examples of the latter, check out the sunshiny "Vibin'" or the equally swoon-worthy "Love Language."
Like other artists on Black Opry bills, The Kentucky Gentlemen bring much-needed diversity —as both Black and gay artists— to country and Americana spaces.
"We understand the importance of where we're going and what that means to people like us," Derek shared for the band's bio. "We want to be the same folks that we wish we had always gotten to see on the main stage."— BM
Black influence on country music predates DeFord Bailey's place in Grand Ole Opry lore, considering the African origins of the banjo and the roles of Black artists in proto-country string bands. An intellectual as much as an artist, banjo player and folk singer-songwriter Jake Blount has joined collaborator Rhiannon Giddens in framing these and other historic facts in a modern context. In 2022, Blount's creative genius was on full display throughout concept album A New Faith.
In his review of 2020's Spider Tales, fellow musician Justin Hiltner praised Blount's album as "an indelible benchmark by which we can better learn to queer old-time and string band music while telling its true, unabridged history, and centering Black, Indigenous and non-white stories." — AM
A glowing review of signature Jessye DeSilva song "Proud and Lonely" could focus solely on their jaw-dropping singing talent. After all, they're a classically-trained vocalist and a voice teacher at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music.
Instead, let's consider DeSilva the poet, as heard on "Proud and Lonely," a selection from forthcoming album Renovations (out July 14). There's pieces in the lyrics of DeSilva's experience as a non-binary, trans person raised in a conservative Christian home, yet the story told is open-ended enough —and the pop melodies are enticing enough— to rope in listeners from disparate backgrounds.
"The past couple of years have been surreal in the scope of uncertainty and loss we've experienced collectively," DeSilva shared in a press release. "Sometimes it hits so hard that you feel as though you've even lost yourself. You can feel the grief reflected in even your natural surroundings, and the more you search for familiarity and comfort, the more it can seem as though you're met with reminders of what you've lost. 'Proud & Lonely' sits firmly in that struggle and offers comfort and rest in the idea that 'it's ok to not be ok.' You don't have to push through and save face."— AM
In Sept. 2021, minor leaguer Bryan Ruby became the first active professional baseball player to come out as gay. He's since set his sights on singer-songwriter acclaim in Nashville. Past athletic acclaim and current creative pursuits inform country-rock stomper "Baseball Country," which is ready-made to blare all summer long at beaches and ballparks.
"The past two decades of my life have been on the ballfield," Ruby shared in a press release. "This is the soundtrack to that life— a gritty, rockin', celebration of our style and spirit at the ballpark. Ever since I started playing guitar for my teammates, they have been asking me to write them a walk-up song they can blast over the stadium loudspeakers during the game. This is it."
Listen here.— AM
This story was previously published on June 2, 2022.
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