LGBTQ+ country singers on 'breaking down the system,' increasing visibility in genre

"We have the same ups and downs and sideways as everybody else."

June 21, 2024, 4:05 AM

LGBTQ+ country singers are more visible than ever, but they're still waiting for their true breakout moment.

For every masked crooner like Orville Peck, genre-bending singer-songwriter like Brandi Carlile or T.J. Osborne -- one-half of the hitmaking duo Brothers Osborne -- there are numerous other performers who are fighting for the spotlight in a genre that's still overwhelmingly white, male and straight.

That doesn't mean there hasn't been progress, though.

Grammy-nominated singer Ty Herndon, for example, came out publicly a decade ago in June 2014 and has embraced his identity in the years since.

Most notably, he re-released his most popular song, "What Mattered Most," which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1995, for Pride Month in 2019, swapping the pronouns within it to reflect his status as an openly gay man.

On top of that, Herndon has been a beacon of hope for the queer community by creating the Concert for Love and Acceptance, an annual show for queer artists and allies to come together to support LGBTQ+ youth as well as uplift LGBTQ+ performers in the country genre.

This, Herndon told "Good Morning America" at CMA Fest 2024, is already a dream come true.

"It was amazing," he said of this year's Concert for Love and Acceptance. "For the first time, I didn't host my own event. I sat down in the front row and just enjoyed these beautiful artists feeling so free."

He added, "It made my heart just fly because everyone was so comfortable and [there was] just standing ovation after standing ovation after standing ovation. It was just a really beautiful night for the LGBTQ+ community."

Beyond the label

"GMA" caught up with other LGBTQ+ country singers at CMA Fest, held annually in Nashville, Tennessee, and many of those artists expressed that their biggest hope for their community is that they are able to move beyond being labeled as such.

"Guilty as Sin" singer Chris Housman, who recently dropped his debut album, "Blueneck," said he hopes "we don't even have to mention that we're queer one day," but acknowledged it's still important to do so.

"It's, of course, very necessary right now, because we're still not seeing the representation that we should, especially when the talent is undeniable and the songs are undeniable," he explained.

Brandon Campbell, one-half of the duo The Kentucky Gentlemen, agreed, saying, "People always put us in the box, and it's hard to escape that box."

Singer-songwriter Brooke Eden, who put her relationship with her wife Hilary front and center on her 2023 EP "Outlaw Love," said it's been "so cool to see a story that is so mine -- that is so me -- also be so many other people's stories as well."

"People always put us in the box, and it's hard to escape that box." – Brandon Campbell of The Kentucky Gentlemen

Eden said that in highlighting her LGBTQ+ identity, she's had fans telling her that her music "helped them feel like they could be themselves and feel safe in country music."

She said this is why she believes it's vital to "continue to be visible and be loud."

Denitia, one of CMT's 2024 Next Women of Country, said her hope is that LGBTQ+ artists "just have the opportunity to share our stories."

"We have these stories that sort of transcend where we're from and who we are and that actually connect us all as people," she added. "And just for visibility, that'd be really great."

Open hearts, open ears

Denitia, who is set to hit the road this fall on tour with Mickey Guyton, told "GMA" the biggest barrier facing LGBTQ+ artists within the country music genre is "visibility and having more platforms for us and for the whole community to be able to share our stories and our music and connect with people."

Housman pointed to country radio and the country industry in general as needing "a little bit of breaking down the system" that's been built up for so long.

"It just is so well established that it's gonna take quite a bit of work to shake that up a little bit," he added. "But we're not trying to, like, overthrow country music by any means, we're just trying to have a little spot … for the gays."

Latina country singer Angie K praised the LGBTQ+ community within the genre as being "wildly beautiful" and reasoned that "there's a little bit of a hesitation at the top," which she said has proven to be an obstacle for queer singers.

"It's not evil," she clarified. "No one's angry and not letting you up there, but they think it can't be done."

Angie K also noted that there's "a small percentage of very, very loud haters out there," but that they only inspire her to continue speaking out.

"When I want to hold my girlfriend's hand, I do it, and when I want to talk about my girlfriend onstage, I do it," she said, adding that it's her hope to show "we have the same ups and downs and sideways as everybody else."

"No one's angry and not letting you up there, but they think it can't be done." – Angie K

Derek Campbell, the other half of The Kentucky Gentlemen and Brandon Campbell's twin brother, said it's important for artists to be "showing up every day as yourself."

"Honestly, that's what has started to open doors for us," he added. "Ten toes down being undeniably you. It'll get there."

This mindset, Herndon said, is one thing that will help LGBTQ+ country artists succeed -- in addition to embracing the history of the genre while paving a way forward.

He offered his best advice to any up-and-coming queer artist trying to make it, saying, "Know country music from the bottom of your heart and write about your life and lead with that. Lead with your talent, lead with all the beautiful gifts that God gave you and then this magical thing happens: You get to be even more you than you ever dreamed and you ever imagined."

Ever hopeful for the future of queer artists in the country genre, Herndon said he's enjoying watching folks embrace their identity, make a big impression and move the needle for the community.

"Authenticity is just a part of what is being so accepted right now in Nashville," he continued. "And the beautiful part about that is that these guys are coming to town and they're just being themselves, and they're doing it beautifully."