The country genre is generally seen as one of the least gay-friendly in music. Chely Wright has bemoaned the loss of her career in Nashville after coming out as a lesbian, and gay musician Steve Grand has found a fanbase on YouTube, but it doesn’t seem to translate into mainstream radio or Country Music Awards success. Things could be changing, though, or maybe it’s just that some talent is undeniable, no matter the person’s sexuality. Such seems to be the case for Brandy Clark, a 36-year-old singer-songwriter whose star is rising. She also happens to be an out lesbian.
Brandy made her network television debut on The Late Show with David Letterman last night, playing her single “Stripes,” a toe-tapping Johnny Cash-inspired ditty about going to prison over finding your lover in bed with someone else. (“You were lyin’ there with nothing on/But a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde.”)
Brandy hails from the Pacific Northwest, a logging town called Morton two hours south of Seattle, interestingly not too far from where another out country singer named Brandi is from. Brandi Carlile might be a little more folk-pop infused than the brand of dark witted country Brandy Clark sings on 12 Stories, but their very different career trajectories serve as an enlightening case study. Despite releasing four albums on major label Columbia Records, Brandi has not received as warm of a welcome from the country music community at large, despite her A+ Americana songs. (Her biggest hit, “The Story,” was her least country-tinged tune and was penned by writing partner Phil Hanseroth.) It’s also worth noting that Brandy was not yet out publicly during the time of the single’s release. Brandi has also written for Miranda Lambert, even performing at her wedding to fellow country star Blake Shelton, and both Brandi and Brandy have graced the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Still Brandi has never charted in country music, while Brandy’s 12 Stories reached #23 the month of its release.
Brandy Clark’s biggest hits are for other, more established (and straight) singers, like frequent collaborator Kasey Musgraves, while her own album hasn’t been a hit, despite the songs being just as strong as those she writes for others.
CMT did play Brandy’s video for “Stripes,” which had a man as the one in bed with nothing on, next to the blonde.
“I don’t write songs for straight people or gay people or black people or white people. I write songs for people. I want them to put themselves in these songs. I would feel that way if I was straight.”
Brandy says she writes songs from personal experiences, but also through voices of characters ( “My life is pretty boring. But Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno. And he sang about it like he did.”) but many of those characters appear to be straight based on the explicit gendering of her songs. Here’s the chorus for “Crazy Women”:
Crazy women, ex-wives and old girlfriends
Keep their crazy hidden till they’re pushed off the deep end
Oh yea, God forgive them, they weren’t born like this
Oh no, crazy women are made by crazy men
12 Stories is a terrific country album, one with more depth than others on the Top 10 charts, exploring familiar themes with a more wry sense of humor or dark honesty recalling the man in black more than Taylor Swift‘s “I’ll write a song about you” method of revenge. However queer women might not yet hear themselves as part of it, and if an out singer/songwriter isn’t involving us, then who will?
“I got in my head that my goal as a songwriter was to write songs for people who didn’t write songs,” Brandy told NPR in November. “You know, somebody working at a bank or checking out groceries. The song that that woman in particular would write if she were to write a song. It took me to a great place, for me, because I never tire of that perspective.”
A noble cause, Ms. Clark. But lesbians are bankers and grocery workers, too.
It’s not one person’s fight, or even Brandy’s explicit want, most likely, to challenge the notions that country music can include LGBT people that are listening to the genre. (Because we are.) But in one of America’s truest, oldest areas of storytelling entertainment, we are denied entry by being left out of songs, music videos and the Grand Ole Opry. Brandy Clark has been granted admittance, but will she have to keep it straight to hold her place at the party?