HITS Daily Double


When Orville Peck offered his rendition of “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” to kick off the second night of “Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90” at the Hollywood Bowl, it seemed a fitting tribute to the Outlaw icon’s “love all” ethos. What could be more inclusive?

Nelson received the demo in the late ’80s while doing Saturday Night Live and had been playing the song for friends ever since. Debuting his version on Howard Stern’s radio show during a 2006 Valentine’s Day appearance, it seemed a perfect alignment with Brokeback Mountain and Nelson’s inclusion of “He Was a Friend of Mine” on the soundtrack of the groundbreaking gay movie with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as cowboys who were very secretly fond of each other.

But it wasn’t just opportune marketing by the Red-Headed Stranger. Nelson was celebrating his dear friend and longtime tour manager David Anderson coming out as a gay man two years prior. As Anderson told The Dallas Morning News, “This song obviously has special meaning to me in more ways than one. I want people to know more than anything—gay, straight, whatever—just how cool Willie is and... his way of thinking, his tolerance, everything about him.”

Naturally, the now 91-year-old Rock & Roll and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee trades verses with Peck on the record, as well as on the video filmed in Luck, Texas. Already covered by Pansy Division, Diaphane and Lost Dakotas, Out praises Peck’s clip because “the new gay AF music video is proof the yeehaw agenda is thriving.”

In country music, finding cliches that offend New York, Los Angeles and mainstream media is easy. There’s the loudmouthed redneck, the ignorant/arrogant Boss Hogg-type who’s uninformed, biased and/or bigoted and the smug or screeching religious justifier hiding behind a bible. Homophobia, like racism and misogyny, almost seems on brand for commercial country music.

You don’t have to go far to find strong supporting examples. Anyone who saw Kid Rock machine-gun a case of Bud Light on social media to protest a limited partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, followed by a chorus of onstage or Twitter support from John Rich, Travis Tritt, Brantley Gilbert and Riley Green, or watched Mrs. Jason Aldean volunteer on Instagram she was glad her parents didn’t give her gender-reassigning care during her tomboy phase, can nod knowingly, solid in their sense of a world where Deliverance isn’t a movie but the inevitable fate of Yankees who run afoul of cracker values.

Though it’s easy to focus on the egregious or tumble into stereotypes, the larger reality remains: There’s a vast group of straight allies in commercial country music who are vocal and proud. The same year Nelson and Emmylou Harris contributed songs to Brokeback Mountain, Dolly Parton received her second Best Original Song Oscar nomination for “Travelin’ Thru,” the end theme from the transgender-themed film Transamerica.

At the time, Parton said of the song’s inspiration, “Some people are blind and ignorant; you can’t be that prejudiced and hateful and go through this world and still be happy. I think art can change minds. It’s alright to be who you are.”

A patron saint of drag queens (she once even entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest and lost), Parton threw a light on the repression of the small-town South. “My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher,” she explained to USA Today. “It was a sin to even pluck your eyebrows, and they thought it was a sin for me to be there looking like Jezebel.” Parton understood the power of who you are, how you look and what it tells the world about you; it’s what makes the hero(ine)’s transgender journey to self-acceptance in Transamerica so compelling.

Speaking to HITS for our Nashville 2023 issue in advance of Rockstar!, Parton remained firm in her convictions. “I’m all for everybody,” she said. “I’m all-accepting. I have some of everybody in my own family and circle of friends. I’ve got alcoholics, drugs addicts... I’ve got gays, lesbians, transgender people, drag queens. I’ve got everybody in my circle of life and know them all as people. I know how serious they are about what they’re doing. I just live and let live. The people who live in glass houses are throwing the biggest rocks. How stupid is that?”

And venerable icons Parton and Nelson aren’t alone. The 21st century’s ubiquitous superstar, Taylor Swift, wrote the euphoric “Welcome to New York” for 2014’s 1989 with Ryan Tedder, which includes the lines, “Everybody here was someone before/ You can want who you want/ boys and boys and girls and girls...” An all-inclusive embrace, it spoke to her rainbow signaling.

She followed it with the even bolder “You Need to Calm Down,” which boasted the lines, “Why are you mad when you could be GLAAD?” and “‘Cause shade never made anybody less gay.” Ellen DeGeneres, Laverne Cox and Adam Rippon all make appearances in the confectionary video.

But it was in the documentary Miss Americana that Taylor’s passion for advocacy exploded. She decried then-Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn’s opposition to equal pay for women, as well as her refusal to support anti-domestic violence and stalking legislation. Literally in tears, the world’s biggest pop star threw down, “[Blackburn] thinks if you’re a gay couple, or look like a gay couple, you should be allowed to be kicked out of a restaurant. And I can’t see another commercial with her disguising these politics behind the words ‘Tennessee Christian values.’ I live in Tennessee. I am a Christian. That’s not what we stand for.”

Around the same time, she donated to the Tennessee Equality Project to defeat six anti-LGBTQ bills, known as the “Slate of Hate.” When “Calm Down” won at the MTV Video Music Awards, Swift used her speech to challenge the Trump administration to recognize the Change.org petition she’d started to protect the LGBTQ community’s rights in the workplace, the home and the streets—and which had already gathered 575,000 signatures.

She’s declared her Eras Tour stops LGBTQ+ safe spaces, telling the smashed-in crowd in Chicago, “We can’t talk about Pride without talking about pain. Right now and recently there have been so many harmful pieces of legislation that have put people in the LGBTQ+ and queer community at risk. It’s painful for everyone. Every ally, every loved one, every person in these communities... And that’s why I’m always posting, ‘This is when the midterms are. This is when these important key primaries are.’”

Not just superstars are standing up for the LGBTQ+ community; it’s also emerging voices and legions of major artists. And it started long before Pride was an open conversation on Music Row.

In 2012, Carrie Underwood, the all-American, multi-multi-platinum blonde Christian country superstar from smalltown Oklahoma, told The Independent, “I definitely think we should all have the right to love, and love publicly, the people that we want to love. Our church is gay-friendly. Above all, God wants us to love others. It’s not about setting rules or [saying] ‘Everyone has to be like me.’ No. We are all different. That’s what makes us special. We have to love each other and get on with each other. It’s not up to me to judge anybody.”

When the inevitable shitstorm resulted, the Advocate found an editor from a right-wing website, WND, who took Underwood to task. Among its questions: “Is [her church] one that affirms people in their sins?” GAH. And yet, Underwood—with 14 #1s and five Country Music Association and three Academy of Country Music Female Vocalist Awards—stood firm in her truth.

Kacey Musgraves, too, said it in song. If Swift made her point when she was established, Musgraves’ second single was the cheery “Follow Your Arrow,” written with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, who’d both lived in the pronoun-game-limbo that was Nashville in the ’90s and aughts. Articulating personal self-acceptance, Musgraves cooed, “And kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls/ If that’s what you’re into,” with a wink that said everything.

Not only did Musgraves perform “Arrow” in front of neon cacti at the 2014 Grammys, but her debut set, Same Trailer, Different Park, won Best Country Album. More to the point, “Arrow” took home 2014’s coveted CMA Song of the Year, a tacit endorsement of “Love who you love” in the Nashville industry. Since then, she’s recorded the empowering “Rainbow,” judged “RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars, collaborated with Troye Sivan, Muna, King Princess Nokia and social’d the forthright message, “If you love an LGBTQ+ person and you’re planning on voting for Donald Trump in November, that’s an act of violence against them.”

Mic drop. But it’s also why Musgraves’ shows are almost a campy, glitterfest of embrace for a wildly diverse audience. Like Swift, she wants to create a celebratory, safe space. And also like Swift, who won the Vanguard Award at 2020’s GLAAD Media Awards, Musgraves received the Vanguard Award in 2022 for her advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community.

At the spectrum’s other end, Miranda Lambert, the girl who’d shoot any man stupid enough to strike her, recorded “Y’all Means All” for Queer Eye’s sixth season, which went deep into the heart of Texas. When she hits that second verse of “You can be born in Tyler, Texas/ Raised with a Bible Belt/ If you’re torn between the Y’s and X’s/ You ain’t gotta play with the hand you’re dealt,” there’s no question where the East Texas songwriter and winningest artist in the history of the ACMs stands.

Even louder and prouder in her advocacy is Maren Morris, forever tagged as “that lunatic country person” by Tucker Carlson after her much covered dust-up with Brittany Aldean. Beyond the line of the year, “Zip it, insurrectionist Barbie,” Morris took the moment and made lemonade. When the pushdown came, she shoved back with T-shirts boasting the line and 877 number for the Peer Support & Crisis Hotline, raising over $150,000 for GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program and Trans Lifeline.

A member of The Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, Morris was deeply moved when she received her GLAAD Media Excellence Award. Talking about being with the theater kids, the place she fit in “when I felt alone,” she then said of the praise heaped on her, “I’m not brave, stubborn to the point of delusional. Making the right decision shouldn’t take bravery or courage or heroic effort to want basic human rights for everybody... knowing you can leave your house and face violence for just being who you are, risking your life by just walking down the street. That is bravery.”

And it’s not just the women, though the above are only the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t get bigger than Garth Brooks, who received 1992’s GLAAD Award for musical excellence for “We Shall Be Free.” Beyond the celebrity-studded video, the song boldly declared, “When we’re free to love anybody we choose,” an homage to his sister, who may or may not have been ready to come out.

Three decades later, the seven-time CMA Entertainer of the Year still stands strong in his convictions. When the Bud Light controversy erupted, Brooks was quick to confirm that his Friends in Low Places bar on Nashville’s Lower Broad would absolutely serve the beleaguered beer. As he posited to Fox News, “How do you want to be treated? When you walk in here, hopefully you want to be surrounded by people who want to have fun... There are two kinds of people in the world, the good people and the people that might have a hard time today. I totally believe in people.”

He was even more direct with another publication, stating, “We’re going to serve every kind of beer. We just are ... If you’re let into this house, love one another. If you’re an asshole, there are plenty of other places on Lower Broadway.”

Zach Bryan, who’s done three tours of duty in the Navy, took to social media to share that opinion with Tritt. For a hardcore serviceman who’s built a superstar country career outside of Music Row, his advocacy lands exceptionally true: “I just think insulting transgender people is completely wrong, because we live in a country where we can all be just who we want to be.”

The statement “Don’t judge a redneck—or a queen—by the album cover” is pointedly true. Country Music Hall of Fame 2024 inductee Toby Keith, the man who wrote and sang “We’ll put a boot in your ass” on his 9/11 rallying cry, “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American),” staunchly defended the LGBTQ community.

In 2011, he told CMT: Country Music Television, “First of all, we’re going to stop somebody from getting a marriage license because they’re gay? You won’t stop them from living together, so what have you accomplished? Somebody’s sexual preference is like, ‘Who cares?’”

As John and T.J. Osborne have learned, following TJ’s coming out, quite a few. But their fans are thrilled to see the deep-voiced singer of the multiple ACM and CMA Duo of the Year live an authentic life of love and happiness. While Ty Herndon, closeted and on the rise, saw his career dissolve after his arrest in a Texas park for solicitation, one wonders what might’ve happened if he’d come forward in truth.

Whether it’s Lil Nas X aided by Billy Ray Cyrus, who understood the power of “Old Town Road” as a genre-buster, or Tyler Childers, who enlisted noted author/activist Silas House to co-produce a video for his acclaimed hard country song, “For Your Love,” which showed two coal miners finding love against all odds with dignity, collaboration empowering very real discussions about gender and sexual orientation among mainstream country fans. Rather than “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” it’s show and consider. For Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern, a veteran of C-SPAN, HGTV and The Nashville Network, she sees all boats rising in the current climate.

At the 2021 CMA Awards, Brothers Osborne cold-opened their performance of “Younger Me” with TJ speaking from his heart straight to the camera, and you could hear and feel the raw emotion in TJ’s voice as he recalled having watched the CMA Awards as a kid wondering if he could ever stand on that stage being his authentic self.

“We have LGBTQ+ artists booked on multiple stages throughout the four days of Musicfest, not just a onetime block on one stage,” Trahern says of the changes she’s seen. “I think that shows how supportive the industry and country music fans are... When I look back, progress has been made. I think there will come a day when artists are just ‘country artists,’ but I love that more artists are out than ever, that our industry is embracing inclusion.”