On the Radio

03.25.14

Is Gay Singer Steve Grand Really Country Music’s Frank Ocean?

The Kickstarter campaign to fund openly gay musician Steve Grand’s debut album ‘All-American Boy’ is soaring. Is Nashville ready for its own Frank Ocean?

On July 2, 2013, little-known singer-songwriter Steve Grand YouTubed the video for his indie single “All-American Boy”, which the now 24-year-old Illinois-native made for a little over $7,000. “I’d never used a credit card before,” he recalled with a laugh. The video featured a chiseled Grand serenading an oblivious (but ultimately understanding) straight male friend, asking him to be his “All-American boy tonight/Where every day’s the 4th of July.” Seven days later, the song had gone hyper-viral and Grand was being written about by every media outlet in the country (I covered him here). It even rocketed him to a spot on Good Morning America, where they proclaimed him a “gay country star.”

Perhaps it would be more correct to say the gay male country star, since there has yet to be one in America (Canada, on the other hand, is home to sexy bear crooner Drake Jensen). But while the response from fans was instantaneous and overwhelming, critics opined that a single did not a star make, and that country music just wasn’t ready for an out gay man to top the charts.

Now, the Kickstarter campaign to fund Grand’s first album has become one of the top five most funded music campaigns in the site’s history, generating over a quarter of a million dollars so far. But the question still remains: Is the country music establishment ready for a gay star? And if so, is Grand the one?

Video screenshot

Truth be told, country music already has a long history of gay songs and singers, with obvious recent examples being k.d. Lang and Chely Wright. Dolly Parton, although rumored to be heterosexual, certainly has a big place in the gay world. Grammy award winner Kacey Musgrave scored a hit last year with “Follow Your Arrow,” in which she sings “Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into.” Latin country artist Ned Sublette wrote “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” in 1981, and Willie Nelson covered it in 2006. In 1992, Garth Brooks scored a GLAAD Media Award with his song “We Shall All Be Free,” which has the lyrics “We shall be free/When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” And there are any number of queer banjo-and-fiddle hipster bands for the country-by-way-of-NPR set (not to knock the genre; it takes up half my iPod).

Earlier country musicians may not have performed songs with explicitly homo sensibilities, but many found radio success with story songs that tweaked the sexual mores of their listeners, like Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” or Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Tom Hall’s “Harper Valley PTA.” And I know I’m not the first to wonder what made Billie Joe McAllister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. (How do I know that? Because in 1976, Warner Bros released the movie Ode to Billy Joe, which despite the change in spelling was an adaptation of Bobbie Gentry’s song. In it, Billy Joe commits suicide after a drunken gay hookup.)

There are any number of queer banjo-and-fiddle hipster bands for the country-by-way-of-NPR set (not to knock the genre; it takes up half my iPod).

I could go on, but what’s the point? No matter how long the list, a few things will remain true: all the men on the list are straight, as are the most successful women. The two lesbians listed only came out after they had released multiple albums. Country has engaged in a long flirtation with gay music, but so far, Nashville hasn’t been ready to seal the deal. But there are signs that that’s changing.

Legendary country radio DJ and songwriter Gerry House has been ensconced in the Nashville scene since 1975. In his recent memoir Country Music Broke My Brain, he has an entire chapter devoted to “Gay Country.” In his opinion “hardly anyone on Music Row would punish you if you’re gay,” and in fact, he’s “long suspected there are several major Hillbilly Twang Slingers who ride Side Saddle.”

This theory must be in the air in Nashville, because it’s also on the air in Nashville, the hit ABC show starring Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton. On the show, Chris Carmack plays up-and-coming closeted cowboy hit maker Will Lexington. In a 2013 interview with Vulture showrunner Callie Khouri said “It is something that I think is a real thing… There are always rumors.” Just ask Kenny Chesney or Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, both of whom have had to address gay rumors repeatedly throughout their careers.

The stage seems set for country’s Frank Ocean moment—which brings us back to Grand. When asked if country music is ready for a gay star, Grand comments on “this huge shift in our country socially,” which he sees as being generational. “There’s definitely a lot of progressive country music fans, especially my generation and below.” Younger listeners simply don’t care as much about labels (for sexuality or musical genres).

Even if established industry execs are still hesitant, the explosion of YouTube has made it easy for new, edgy artists to get around traditional gatekeepers. Just look at, say, Steve Grand. “All-American Boy” has nearly 3 million views.

But though country music may be ready for a gay male star, and Grand is flattered and humbled by the assertions that he’s it, he’s quick to point out that his music isn’t traditional country. He sees himself as “a pop artist with influences of country and rock and maybe some folk,” and fans can expect to see all of that on his album this summer. “I know I have a lot of country fans,” he says, from reading the messages they send him (all of which he tries to answer). He’s delighted they’re responding to his music, but he doesn’t want to misrepresent himself—there’s more to his sound than just country.

There was a time, perhaps, when that alone would have prevented Grand from becoming a country sensation, but in the age of Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood, the line between country and pop has become rather porous. Grand might not be pure country, but then again, country’s not pure country anymore either.

Who knows when country’s gay glass ceiling will break, or whether it will be done by an established artist coming out or an up-and-comer who’s never been “in.” But the glass gets thinner every year, and someday soon the sound of it shattering will be playing on every country station in America.