The road to country music’s first openly gay star

While lang’s quirky style and butch look made lesbian pulses race, they also kept her from ever truly being embraced in the country mainstream. Her coming out interview surprised no one, and coincided with her release of “Ingenue,” the album that marked her move beyond country and earned a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Constant Craving.”

The same year that lang came out, country singer Kathy Mattea performed at the second annual AIDS Walk Atlanta. While the event was not gay-specific, AIDS still carried tremendous stigma as a “gay disease.”

A year later, country mega-star Garth Brooks — who has a lesbian sister, musician Betsy Smittle — released the song “We Shall Be Free.” The ode to all kinds of acceptance featured the line “when we’re free to love anyone we choose,” and ironically ended up highlighting the lack of acceptance of some country fans: It was protested by some country radio stations.

Country star Dolly Parton supports gay marriages
Dolly Parton (publicity photo)

Since those early stands for gay rights, other country stars have spoken out on behalf of LGBT issues; they include Wynona Judd, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Martina McBride, among others.

Yet country’s image as the music of choice for rednecks in all regions, an image still proudly embraced by plenty of country performers and fans, continues to make it seem inhospitable to out LGBT artists.

Martina McBride echoed the concern in a March 2009 interview with Out magazine. Asked whether the world is ready for “a gay mainstream country star,” she replied, “Honestly, that’s a tough one,” then sighed.

“Our core audience, like you said, is very conservative, is very Middle America, very Bible belt. I don’t know. That might be a hard sell. I mean, I would be fine with it. But that’s — I don’t know if we’re ready for that. I would hope so,” she said.

Country heartthrob Kenny Chesney gave a similar answer in an interview with Playboy magazine the same month — after vehemently denying rumors that he is gay, fueled by his quickie divorce from actress Renee Zellwegger.

Asked if there will be a gay country singer in our lifetime, “I don’t know. I doubt it,” Chesney responded, adding, “It ain’t gonna be me, I can promise you that.”

Still, country’s hostility to gays may be overstated. When Country Music Television (CMT) posted a March 2009 blog about gay fans embracing the Rascal Flatts song “Love Who You Love,” it drew the expected negative comments — but plenty of positive reactions, too.

“It’s a shame to see country music being watered down and turned into songs about fruit cakes loving each other if they want, rather than what country started out as a hard working spirit and person who has deep troubles,” complained “True Country Fan.”

Country musician Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson (publicity photo)

Countered “Musical Justice, “Long overdue and much appreciated by those of us who don’t feel that loving country music means being biased or prejudiced towards homosexuals or anyone else.”

And in the wake of Chely Wright coming out, online magazine attributed the general lack of negative outcry to the fact that while “there are a lot of country songs about pickup trucks on dirt roads and kicking terrorists’ asses with the Statue of Liberty’s torch,” the majority of country listeners are city dwellers, including some “left-leaning” fans.

“Chely Wright’s big news just proves that no matter what Nashville might say — or what Sarah Palin might think — country music is for everyone.”

Country stars on the record on gay rights

“I can’t see love being a bad thing. Lust is different. But if you’re in love, you’ve got to follow your heart and trust that God will explain to us why we sometimes fall in love with people of the same sex. Judgment Day is coming, and I ain’t going to be the one standing over people up there.”


Garth Brooks, whose 1993 song “We Shall Be Free” was boycotted by some country radio stations. The song included the line “When we’re free to love anyone we choose” and featured lesbians Martina Navratilova and Lily Tomlin among the celebrity cameos. (George Magazine via GLAAD Hollywood Hotsheet, 1999)

“It’s just not an issue for me. I have a lot of gay fans, and I’m sure there’s a real cool mixture out there.”

Trisha Yearwood on performing at a 1999 cancer benefit held at The Connection, a gay bar in Nashville. She is believed to be the first major country artist to play a gay venue in Nashville. (The Tennessean, June 19, 1999)

“The song’s been in the closet for 20 years. The timing’s right for it to come out. I’m just opening the door.”

Willie Nelson on his decision to record the 1981 song “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” for the gay-themed major film “Brokeback Mountain.” (Dallas Morning News, Feb. 14, 2006)

“Through civil unions, gay couples are welcome to all the legal benefits that married couples get. But please don’t call it marriage, okay? I know it’s just semantics, but words have meaning. And that’s where I draw the line — and that’s where I draw the line. And please don’t call me homophobic, or whatever y’all call it, because I’m not afraid (or photo), least of all of lesbians or gays. Lots of gays are country music fans.”

Trace Adkins in his book “A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions from a Freethinking Roughneck” (November 2007)

“I just have to do what’s right for me, and what I would tell people is what I believe, which is that I feel like tolerance is very important. I have three daughters and that’s what I teach them. I think we should all be tolerant of each other and embrace each other’s strengths and differences and uniqueness and beauty.”

Martina McBride on her decision to interview with the gay press (Out, March 2009)

“I have gay friends who have partners, and I see where they would want to get married. I understand why. So, I can’t judge that.”

Reba McEntire when asked her thoughts on same-sex marriage (Out, September 2009)

“What guy who loves girls wouldn’t be angry about that shit? I didn’t sign up for that. I think people need to live their lives the way they want to, but I’m pretty confident in the fact that I love girls. I’ve got a long line of girls who could testify that I am not gay.”

Kenny Chesney, responding to rumors that he is gay fueled by his divorce from actress Renee Zellwegger, in which Zellwegger cited “fraud” as the reason (Playboy, March 2009)

“Honestly, when that mail started, the first thing [I thought] was: Fear is a terrible thing, I’m a Judd, not a judge. My job is to lighten the spirit and love the heck out of people who feel really unloved… I have many gay employees. Everybody that knows me knows my heart.”

Wynona Judd on conservative backlash to her decision to perform on a gay cruise (The Advocate, 2005)

“We actually have some gay people that work with us, and we have a lot of friends that are gay, too, and I know that this song has inspired them. I know that coming out was tough on their parents and on them and the whole entire family. For a long time, some of them didn’t get to hear ‘I love you’ from their dads or be accepted in that way… It’s helped a lot of our friends.”

Rascal Flatts singer Gary LeVox on gay interpretations of the band’s song “Love Who You Love” (, March 23, 2009)

“I always say, ‘Sure, why can’t they get married? They should suffer like the rest of us do.’”

Dolly Parton on her support for gay marriage (The Advocate, November 2009)