For the longest time, country music and its community has been viewed as overtly conservative in its views towards sexuality and gender – and in many ways it still is. When you look at the major stars of today – the Luke Bryans, the Florida-Georgia Lines, the Blake Sheltons – the dominant image of country stars continues to be the straight, white, women-loving man. And that’s a status that seems to have been further cemented by the popularity of the “bro country” sub-genre that currently dominates the airwaves – known for its worship of barbecues and beach parties, and even more so for its celebration of women in bikinis and Daisy Dukes.
However, with the changing nature and opinions of society towards the LGBT community, so too appears to be a change in conversation in the country music culture, as alternate views, opinions and identities continue to gain greater traction and recognition.
This has become particularly more evident overnight with the announcement that not one but two male stars in the US have come out as gay.
Ty Herndon, who has had 17 Billboard hits over the last 20 years, announced in an interview with Entertainment Tonight that he was “an out, proud, and happy gay man.”
“I’ve been dreaming about being in country music since I was six years old and it’s my life, it’s what I do, it’s who I am and I went to great lengths to cover up that fact to be a country star,” Herndon said.
Inspired by Herndon’s announcement, former child star, Billy Gilman also came out as gay, revealing his sexuality in an emotional Youtube message to his fans.
“It’s difficult for me to make this video, not because I’m ashamed of being 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 an genre and in an industry that is ashamed of me for being me,” Gilman said.
However Gilman, who had a massive hit in the year 2000 as an 11-year-old with the song ‘One Voice,’ also added that people he was friends with in the industry already knew about his sexuality and had been extremely supportive.
“I want to say that all of the artists I literally grew up in front of – Keith Urban and Vince and Leann Rimes and all of these wonderful friends of mine have been wonderful friends of mine have been nothing but supportive.”
Of course they are far from the first country artists to identify themselves as gay – ‘Single White Female’ singer Chely Wright came out in 2010, while Australia’s own Beccy Cole revealed she was gay in a special about her life on the ABC’s Australian Story in 2012.
Singer-songwriter, Steve Grand, also caused a stir last year when his ‘All-American Boy’ video went viral with over 3 million views, achieving him widespread acclaim for being the first openly gay male country artist to write a song about a male love interest.
There’s also been a fictional exploration of homosexuality in the major country music scene in the hit TV series Nashville, with one of the lead characters, Will Lexington, being an in-the-closet gay country star.
And maybe biggest of all has been megastar, Garth Brooks’ return to the mainstream scene. Brooks, a long-time, vocal supporter for the LGBT community, released his first new album in a decade, Man Against Machine, with the first song released from the record, ‘People Loving People,’ calling for universal acceptance of love in the face of evil:
“All the colors and the cultures circle ’round us on a spindle
It’s a complicated riddle, the solution is so simple…
It’s people loving people”
The song follows in the same vain as his 1993 hit ‘We Shall Be Free,’ that featured the lyrics “Cause we shall be free / When we’re free to love anyone we choose,” and thus became a LGBT anthem, leading to Brooks being awarded a GLAAD Media Award. His re-entry into the business could become a major contributing factor in a shift away from bro country and its typically sexist ideals.
Even Kenny Chesney, whose celebration of beach culture many have associated with the rise of the bro scene, opened up in an interview earlier this week that he wants the role of women in country music to change from the way they are portrayed in videos and by “bro country” artists.
Do all these elements signal vast and sweeping change? No. Herndon and Gilman are admittedly fringe figures of the scene, and their coming out will unlikely have a major impact on the culture as a whole. But it does seem to indicate that some serious changes could be on the horizon for the industry and its dealings with sexuality and gender – particularly with the support of the likes of Brooks and Chesney.
What is safe to say, however, is that just like what the sporting world has seen with the likes of Michael Sam and Jason Collins recently coming out, a major country music figure will eventually identify themself as gay. Until then though, it’s great to see Herndon and Gilman have finally found the courage to share their story and hopefully help to usher in change and broader acceptance in the country music community in the future.
Originally published on countrymusicchannel.com.au