When you're a gay teenager who grows up in the South, it's just as hard to avoid country music as it is easy to realise that country music isn't made for you. Sure, country songs are brimming with love stories (some happy, some sad, and some furious), but good luck finding a song or music video in which two men fall in love under the twinkling stars or a woman mourns the loss of her girlfriend. (And if you're looking for country music about questioning your gender, forget it). For a long time, it seemed as if country music and LGBTQ+ people were like oil and vinegar. But even oil and vinegar mix if you shake them hard enough, and in the past few years, several country stars have done their best to shake up the industry.
Country music was forced to acknowledge LGBTQ+ people when one if it's darlings, Chely Wright, came out as a lesbian in 2010. She was the first country music star to come out publicly, but it took decades for her to do so. "I wasn't just in the closet. I was behind the sheet rock in the closet," she told Oprah soon after coming out. Wright hid her sexuality for so long, she said, because she knew that coming out would be the death of her career. Eight years later, she's still beloved among many country music fans (even though she did lose a few). And her coming out has opened the door for other LGBTQ+ artists to speak out, too.
Wright inspired established country star Ty Herndon to come out in 2014, and in turn, Herndon inspired up and coming star Brandon Stansell to begin his career already open about being gay. "I have passion and love for this genre, and I never thought I'd be able to sing and write about my life honestly," Stansell tells Refinery29. "So to actually be able to do that now is pretty incredible." Stansell is one of those rare performers who does make country music videos showing two men lusting after each other (alongside an impressive rainbow dust cloud). But it's not just gay country singers who are starting to include queer couples in their videos and sing lyrics that take a clear pro-LGBTQ+ stance — straight artists are doing it, too.
In 2014 Kacey Musgraves won the Country Music Associations' (CMA) Song Of The Year award for her song "Follow Your Arrow," which she wrote along with two out country songwriters, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. "Do you guys realise what this means for country music?" she said in her acceptance speech, referring in part to pro-gay lyrics like: kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls, if that's something you're into and love who you love, 'cause you just get so many trips 'round the sun. Many people take Musgrave's win as a sign of increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in country music. And other straight country singers have since taken similar stances in their music. Luke Bryan's 2017 song "Most People Are Good" includes a line that says, I believe you love who you love, ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of. Brothers Osborne included a gay couple in their music video for "Stay A Little Longer" (and they even get to kiss like all the other couples). Artists like Musgraves and Cam have written love letters to the LGBTQ+ community to show their support. And many straight country singers recently performed at GLAAD and Ty Herndon’s Concert for Love and Acceptance, a pro-LGBTQ+ country music concert that follows the CMT Music Awards.
All of these artists represent a growing voice in country music, one that's starting to overpower the more conservative voice of years past. It's because of them that ultra-conservative Mike Huckabee was forced to resign from the Country Music Association Foundation only 24 hours after he was appointed. Huckabee's appointment caused outcry from queer and allied people in the country music industry because of his virulent anti-LGBTQ+ views.
Sure, Huckabee's ousting, the handful of country singers who have come out, and the increase in pro-gay lyrics may make it feel like country music has made a 180-degree turn. But let's not forget that Huckabee was appointed in the first place. The CMA looked past his hate speech long enough to give him a position of power on their foundation, however short-lived it was. The country artists who are singing about queer people still occupy a minority, and we've yet to see any country star come out as transgender or gender non-conforming. Life isn't perfect for LGBTQ+ country music singers or fans, but the tides are changing. "There is always going to be a conservative mindset out there, especially in country music," Musgraves previously told Refinery29. "And that's totally fine, to each their own. But there should be room for everyone."