HITS Daily Double


T.J. Osborne never felt compelled to make a statement about his sexual orientation. In the macho Bro Country world, it wasn’t something to flaunt. With a couple of CMA and ACM Duo of the Year Awards and a Top 5 hit, “Stay a Little Longer,” Brothers Osborne was cool mainstream country for musicians, hipsters and industry people who like their guitars rocking-edge forward.

On 2/3 all that changed; in a TIME profile, the deep-voiced vocalist stepped forward—“I didn’t come out,” he told HITS at the time, “because I wasn’t hiding”—and became the first openly gay country star. In today’s Nashville, where LGBTQ+ managers, label and publishing executives, producers and even the head of the ACM are living openly, what’s the big deal?

“I didn’t realize how much it needs to be talked about,” Osborne admits. “I’m still processing it, but I’ve had so many people reach out, LGBTQ+ and straight. It made me think this may be the most important thing I’ve done.

“If I’m a way for people to learn and understand something they may not think about or understand? To put a name they know with a label, someone they know and have partied with? If I’d known how much it would mean to people, I’d have done it a long time ago.”

When Terri Clark—on the rise as a brash, no-mess country traditionalist deemed “the female Dwight Yoakam”—walked offstage in 1995 in Memphis, where she’d realized a bucket list moment singing “You Can Sleep While I Drive” with Melissa Etheridge, she was seized by a wave of terror. Never mind that it was Etheridge’s show, and it wasn’t like country fans in the pre-Internet world would be instantly aware. But in Nashville, “family values” was often Music City code for “homophobia.”

She scrambled for a pay phone. Not 100% certain what her sexuality was, she’d been cautioned by her label to keep the confusion to herself. Had she crossed a line? she wondered as the phone rang at the home of Mercury Nashville’s VP of Publicity. Handwringing aside, Clark had learned a lesson: Don’t tempt fate.

“The fear that was planted,” she says now, “was absolutely deliberate. And it did take hold.”

A CMA Female Vocalist nominee and platinum-selling artist, Clark had plenty to fear. In 1996, Ty Herndon, coming off a #1 debut single, was arrested in a park for soliciting a man for sex. Though Epic had the talented vocalist positioned as country’s next superstar, a rival label faxed his arrest report to every reporting station. And though his label spun the focus to the drugs he was caught with, the damage was done; Herndon wasn’t canceled directly, but he was never a factor again. Sometimes what goes unsaid says everything.

Clark, who was on her first radio tour during the Herndon fallout, remembers “the jokes and whispers. I was aware of the lengths his team had gone to hide his sexuality.”

Shane McAnally, the über-producer/songwriter, remembers as well. As a new artist at the same time, traveling with “a beard—a woman who pretended to be my girlfriend,” the terror was real. During his own radio tour, he recalls, “There was this woman who was trying to fuck me, and I just couldn’t. She made some comment about Ty, and it was really threatening. It scared the hell out of me.”

Failing to gain a foothold, at odds with the truth of who he was—and who he needed to be—he was miserable.

He was also daunted by the don’t ask/don’t tell push-me/pull-you reality of an industry filled with gay executives who played straight. Chevy Nash, his female co-manager in the late ’90s, refused to buy in.

“She’d say, ‘I was talking to my wife... ’” McAnally remembers, “and I’d cringe. Why are you shoving it in people's faces?’ I think now it was to desensitize, but it felt like she was accosting people. Inside, I felt like it wasn’t going to matter. Understand, I’d go get drunk with my straight friends down on Lower Broadway, then I’d get in a cab and go to The Connection. I led two lives.”

Clint Higham, now head of Morris Higham Management, which represents Kenny Chesney, Old Dominion, Brantley Gilbert and more, was co-managing McAnally. Laughing now, he admits, “I’d see Shane with girls, and I didn’t think about it. He didn’t come out until ’99, and I think he was scared to tell me. The discussion of a gay male artist in country music wasn’t something you’d even put on the table. Shane’s talent, his art, his singing, his songwriting was ahead of its time. So when he came out, he went to L.A.”

In 2002, UMG Nashville boss Luke Lewis made an unlikely hire. Jason Owen had been working at Columbia TriStar Television on Dawson’s Creek and Ricki Lake after a successful run with Aaron Spelling’s various franchises. The good-looking young exec arrived out and unwilling to compromise anything about his life.

Shortly after moving to Nashville, he took a female CMT exec to The Chute after dinner to dance and hang out. Upon arrival, he recalls, “There was another industry exec, all leathered up; he got so angry. ‘Why did you bring her here?!’ Just so worked up.”

The kid from Arkansas who was drawn to show business after seeing The JuddsLove Can Build a Bridge Tour was mystified; for all the glam and drama that defined country stars, why were gay people hiding?

“Seeing the fashion, the spectacular attitude, the production of that, it got me inspired and on my way,” says Owen, now chairman of his own Sandbox Entertainment. “That’s everything gays like, so why are they not in the open? There was never any question I was [gay], nor any reason to comment. I never had a hint of resistance, maybe because I worked primarily with women. And I got away with more because I was gay. I could say to Shania, ‘Take that terrible wig off.’ Use the gay for that, but—and maybe because of the kind of company Luke ran—nobody ever said a word or made me feel like an outsider.”

Did Owen make it safe to come out of the closet? Was the convergence of LGBTQ+ reality and mainstream consciousness melting unspoken bias? Higham, who was married to a woman and found himself recognizing a deeper truth about his sexuality, thinks the legalization of gay marriage in various states over the previous decade was pivotal.

“In Christian music, the gatekeepers are the church,” Higham explains. “In ours, it’s country radio. There was a lot of don’t ask/don’t tell. But things really started to change about people’s point of view when gay marriage started becoming legal.

“Fear drives people, especially the unknown. But people are more open to having these conversations. And don’t forget: Nashville’s always been a pretty closed town. Forget about being gay; it’s clique-ish, period.”

Higham was almost 40 when he realized. As he says of the reality of being a prominent manager, “This isn’t just a job for me but a lifelong dream. I was concerned about the perception that I was disingenuous, but the response was the exact opposite. I would never want to jeopardize my clients, but my truth and personal happiness was important.”

McAnally understands, confiding, “I grew up in the South, and that was never spoken of. It’s great now to have like-minded people who know the fear and what the struggle was. At six, I loved country music because it looks like home. I—and a lot of gay people—loved it even though this thing we loved shunned us.”

McAnally’s first cut came from CMA Female Vocalist and critical darling Lee Ann Womack. “Last Call” earned her a 2009 Grammy nomination. But it was Kenny Chesney’s urgent take on “Somewhere With You,” a buzz-inducing #1, that opened the floodgates.

The songwriter continues: “I was looking for a publishing deal in 2009. Somebody said he wouldn’t sign me ‘because no guy is gonna sing these songs and you’re not gonna make it as a writer writing for women.’ They were too vulnerable, I was told. But Kenny took such a huge swing that he really opened the door for me.”

Indeed, within a few years Chesney, Luke Bryan, Jake Owen, Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum and Keith Urban would all enjoy signature #1s penned by McAnally. He developed further in a loose-knit creative community that would include Brothers Osborne, Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves, as well as Sam Hunt.

Musgraves, theoretically heterosexual, has been a crusader for tolerance. Her 2014 Grammy-winning Country Album Same Trailer, Different Park contained the McAnally co-written Grammy Country Song of the Year “Merry Go ’Round” and the CMA Song of the Year “Follow Your Arrow,” famously containing the line, “Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls/ If that’s something you’re into.”

It wasn’t a “gay quake” or a reckoning. But like a wine stain on a tablecloth, the future was quietly spreading across Nashville. Clark, once the patron saint of tomboys and girls who didn’t wanna play beauty queen, has watched the evolution from across the footlights. “It’s not just 4-H kids and county fairs or the music your grandparents listen to on their way to church; country songs were being written about God, family, farms, getting and being married, front porches and iced tea—all things I love. But there’s a new kind of truth in the songs, one kids hear, and kids don’t give a shit who sleeps with whom.”

Says Time West Coast Editor Sam Lasky, who wrote the story about Osborne, “It was important to me that readers understood that despite how much progress has been made in terms of gay rights and representation—particularly for folks who live in big cities or on the coasts—there are still so many communities where homophobia persists. For T.J., who has fans in those communities, it required a lot of courage to be so open. Ultimately, I think the success of the story came down to exactly that: his willingness to be honest and vulnerable. As a writer, all I had to do was get out of the way and let him speak.”

Country music has always been a genre where the truth—often upsetting—will set you free. Owen, who got straight-to-air television deals for a late-night drama based in Texas about a family of country-music royalty and a four-part Judds series, explains, “Whether it’s ‘The Pill’ about birth control, ‘Irma Jackson’ about love and race or ‘God Bless the USA,’ those were strong personal statements. Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Lee Greenwood each absolutely meant those words. We’re accepting new storytellers, but if the stories they’re telling can change not just to speak the truth but their truth? That’s progress.”

Certainly Brandy Clark, Lily Rose and even Waylon Payne have been forthright about who they are without flexing their sexual identity. Even before Lil Nas X came out, he felt more closely akin to k.d. lang than to his “Old Town Road” partner, Billy Ray Cyrus. And Orville Peck is currently in the studio with Eric Church/Miranda Lambert producer Jay Joyce.

But don’t think gay magic is going to overtake the land of Bro Country anytime soon. Though a bit of opportunistic marketing has started to appear, McAnally is the first one to just say no.

“People say, ‘Why hasn’t [an openly] gay artist broken?’ Based on the music I’ve been sent by gay artists who are propping themselves up with that tag, it’s not been very good. The novelty of being gay isn’t enough; you have to really make it about the music. Even with T.J. and I being gay, we don’t talk about it. It’s not what our friendship’s about, or our writing. And the people here now? No one cares, except about how our kids are doing.”

Higham figures 75% of the industry truly doesn’t care, even welcomes people being true to their hearts. “There’s an acceptance now, and it’s not a big deal. When you see the music T.J. does, it says everything about forgetting what you think you know.”

Tell that to the Tennessee State Legislature. All 30 Republican House of Representatives members voted to block Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 609—which had passed the Senate unanimously—to honor Osborne for coming forward. It read in part, “Though it may have been merely a consequence of being true to himself, he has nonetheless become a trailblazer and a symbol of hope for those country-music artists and fans alike who may have become ostracized from a genre they hold dear.”

Undaunted, the Brothers tweeted at House Republican Caucus chair Jeremy Faison with an invitation to lunch. In a state notorious for LGBTQ+-thwarting legislation, the Representative tweeted back, “I would be honored to break bread with you.”

In classic form, T.J. and John Osborne continue to build bridges and kick ass. As John says, “My brother’s a tough cookie. He’s a scrapper, too. We will always tell you how we feel and what we think. The only thing behind the curtain was for privacy. Now that it’s out there, we are wide open.”

“It’s an obligation,” says T.J., who can’t wait to get out on the road, “which sounds like I don’t want it on me. But I am incredibly honored to do this work. If, by my coming forward, even one little 15-year-old T.J. doesn’t end his life, that’ll make it all worth it.”

Osborne did an interview with GLAAD about fighting for LGBTQ+ acceptance in Tennessee (and beyond) and his participation in Miley Cyrus Presents Stand by You, which debuts 6/25 on Peacock.