For Shelly Fairchild, singing isn’t an option. It’s a necessity.
“I can’t remember a time where it wasn’t my desire to sing,” Fairchild tells Wide Open Country. “I know a lot of people say that, but it’s such a real thing.”
The charismatic powerhouse from Clinton, Miss. lowers her voice. “It’s been such a feast or famine life,” she says. “You can’t help but look at people who make it and go, ‘What did I do wrong?’ From birth, this is what I have to do.”
When she says feast or famine, she means it. Her career arc involves multiple label deals (and multiple times she “quit” the industry, which is probably related to her deals), a Top 40 country radio single, independent records and stints as a backup singer, both in the studio and for national touring acts like Martina McBride.
Throughout the ups and downs, the one constant has been her undeniable voice. And as one of only a handful of openly gay artists in country music, Fairchild’s voice has never been more important.
“Women Still Have Their Place in Country Music”
Fairchild signed to Sony imprint Columbia Records in 2004. At the time, she hadn’t even played her own show in Nashville. “I literally went to their office with a guitar player, sang some songs, and got offers from Capitol, Sony and RCA,” Fairchild says.
It’s the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen to people anymore. But with a background in theater, character and personality come naturally to Fairchild — even now, most people fall in love with Fairchild about two songs into her live set. Not long after signing, Fairchild went into the studio and recorded her debut album, 2005’s Ride, which produced the edgy single “You Don’t Lie Here Anymore.”
But the relative ease with which Fairchild earned her deal belied what would come for Fairchild, who at the time was married to a man. “I was 24 years old when I got signed,” Fairchild says. “And 26 when the record came out. People used to joke that Sony stands for ‘Soon, Only Not Yet.’
But when Fairchild broke up with her husband and started spending more time with a woman whom she had previously worked with, it didn’t take long for her label to offer their own opinions.
“[Then-president John Grady] called me into his office, and he had the head of marketing in there, because she was a woman, so he had a witness,” Fairchild says. “He was like, ‘You know Shelly I don’t care, I’m like the most liberal person in this town. You can be whatever you want to be. But women still have their place in country music.'”
Fairchild pauses for a moment. “That’s what he told me.”
Small Town, Big Mouths
Shelly Fairchild did what most young artists would do at the time: she denied it. She said she and the woman were simply friends.
Up until that point, Fairchild’s management implored her to hide her budding relationship so the label wouldn’t find out. Fairchild had to go out of town just to spend time with somebody who otherwise was probably working right down the street.
“We’d go to Atlanta, or south of Nashville, or fly out to L.A.,” Fairchild says. When Fairchild first appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, her friend was there, but she made a point to never be seen by Fairchild’s label representatives.
“Because Nashville is a small town, there were rumors I’d always push off,” Fairchild says.
“My managers kept saying, ‘You’re fine, don’t worry about it, just don’t show up to places with her,'” Fairchild says. “But then we’d be at a Tennessee Titans football game at a tailgate in the parking lot and somebody would call my manager and say, ‘Your artist isn’t listening to you; she’s out in public.’ I’m like, ‘We’re throwing a football in the parking lot with friends.'”
Meanwhile, Fairchild knew plenty well the hypocrisy just from being out on the road. “[Country star] does some of the most awful things, and he’s in a relationship,” Fairchild says. “I’ve seen people do some of the craziest things, but it’s ok because they’re men and they’re doing it with women.”
“There are so many people in this town that have hidden their relationships as a same-sex couple,” Fairchild continues. “It’s not like I was the first, and I’m definitely not the last. I was just doing the best I could to keep my record deal, to keep playing.”
Despite having a solid vision and a well-received debut album (Ride earned nearly unanimous high marks), the label’s refusal to let Fairchild be herself clouded the success of her debut album.
“The radio promotion people would be out on the road with me, and under the table would be like, ‘Are you sure you don’t like boys?'” Fairchild says. Painted into a corner, Fairchild had to be coy and lighthearted about the remarks. But they certainly affected the success of her album. “It became a game for them, and that was more exciting for them than, you know, pushing my record.”
By the time her label decided not to renew her label deal, the company spent upwards of $2 million promoting the album — not an uncommon sum for a major label, but a real shame considering the quality of the project and only modest traction they gained. And that was perhaps the biggest frustration for Fairchild at the time, even beyond being forced to conceal relationships.
“I always did my job,” she says. “I’d go above and beyond for every show, never missed anything, never canceled anything.”
Fairchild even took part in a racy photoshoot for the March 2005 issue FHM magazine headlined “Country Music’s Sexy Stars.” Her label had little problem with Fairchild wearing lingerie and swimsuits in a magazine, but squirmed at the thought of Fairchild walking around town in her true skin.
Fairchild has a cheery disposition about the shoot, though. “I was like, whatever, I’m in a leather swimsuit made by the same person who made Sheryl Crow’s crop top,” laughs Fairchild. “It brought a lot of seedy weirdos out from country, though. And I got my ass handed to me from my family and friends.”
After losing her first deal, Fairchild “quit” music for the first time. But it was also around the time Kelly Clarkson’s brand of power pop exploded onto the scene, which was a big inspiration for Fairchild. “I wrote through my emotions,” she says. “Songs like ‘Forgive Me,’ where it’s like, ‘Sorry I wasn’t your perfect picket fence. Did I hurt your feelings just by being in a relationship?'”
She co-wrote a song called “Love Everybody,” which served as an anchor for a 2011 project called Ruby’s Money. That record came after signing a deal with producer James Stroud.
With hints of that Kelly Clarkson flair, the album featured huge horn sections and anthemic cuts about embracing yourself. “I was out for a few years after the Sony thing, and I wasn’t being super flamboyant or waving flags or going to all the meetings, but I was out and happy,” Fairchild laughs.
The album earned her a new following of some of the biggest movers and shakers in town. And yet Fairchild frustratingly found lots of praise, but few people willing to go out and work the project.
“I know what I can offer, but it’s always the same conversation,” Fairchild says. “They say, ‘I don’t know why you’re not a big star,” and I’m just like, ‘Well will you help, because I know you can.'”
Leave it to Martina
After nine years together, Shelly Fairchild parted ways with the woman whom she had to originally hide from her label. On top of that, her new independent label barely lasted long enough to put the record out. It was understandably a difficult time, and one that once again found Fairchild on the verge of quitting.
“I always had my hair license, so I just renewed it,” Fairchild says. “I figured Tammy Wynette did hair til the day she died.”
So Fairchild worked in a salon at the desk. “Most of the time I’d literally just stay inside and be depressed,” she says.
But eventually, she started getting calls to work in the studio and do background vocals on big records. And one day, Martina McBride came knocking. “Martina was asking for me to go out on the road with her, and I was like, ‘How does she even know me?'” laughs Fairchild. It turns McBride was a big fan who started following closely during the Ruby’s Money years.
So Fairchild went on the road for a few years with Martina, where every night she saw the passion of fans who live and breathe McBride’s iconic songs. “I realized if I just write songs that connect, how can I go wrong?” she says. “Even if they don’t blow up.”
Buffalo and Beyond
When Fairchild returned, she launched a PledgeMusic campaign and funded a new independent record. Her Pledge video even features a cameo from her close friend and old roommate, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild.
Fairchild met her goal in two days. Then, over the next two years, she set out to make Buffalo, which she released in December 2016. She once again endured road bumps, including misspending some of the money, picking the “wrong songs” (in her words) and another life-shaking breakup.
But with the help of friends, she picked herself up and finished out the record. It is, by all accounts, Fairchild in her finest form. Equal parts soul, rock, country and delta blues, Buffalo is Fairchild defiantly shouldering the weight placed on her from decades of being herself in an industry that so desperately wants to change you.
Fairchild says the name Buffalo came from reading about the creature, which is sacred in many Native American cultures and signifies gratitude and abundance. And not unlike Fairchild, they posses an incredible ability to bear the burden of heavy weight. Oh, and the buffalo’s horns always point to the sky.
In November 2017, Fairchild released “Faster Than A Bullet,” which was picked up for a new show on the CW called Valor.
Now happily married, Fairchild finds herself in a music industry that is as exciting as it is stubborn. Her story may have started more than 10 years ago, but artists and professionals still wage daily battles for acceptance.
The tides might be turning — if the outspoken furor regarding Mike Huckabee and the CMA Foundation is any indication. But as country music inches closer to inclusion, it’s never been a better time to celebrate and support artists like Shelly Fairchild.