While the country music music industry is still working toward equality and inclusion on several fronts, the onslaught of music streaming and maturation of social media have opened doors for artists in the LGBTQIA+ community to connect with music fans and build audiences.
While country music artist Lavender Country was a pioneer in the space, releasing a queer-themed country music album in 1973, it has a been a largely uphill battle for LGBTQIA+ artists in the genre.
Chely Wright, known for her 1997 top 20 Country Airplay hit “Shut Up and Drive” and her 1999 No. 1, “Single White Female,” came out publicly in 2007. Ty Herndon came out as gay in 2014, having previously earned a handful of No. 1 Country Airplay hits in the 1990s, including “What Matters Most” and “Living in a Moment.” That same year, Billy Gilman (who found success in country music as a child with songs including “One Voice”) also came out publicly as gay.
Since then, the country music industry has slowly seen more openly gay artists and songwriters find success. And certainly, there have been and are many within the LGBTQIA+ community who are creatives, songwriters, producers and music industry execs working behind the scenes within the industry.
In the 2000s and 2010s, songwriters Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, who are both openly gay, began having success as writers. McAnally earned No. 1 Country Airplay hits for artists including Lee Ann Womack (“Last Call”) and Kenny Chesney (“Somewhere With You”), and rose to prominence as a writer and producer working with Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves and more. Meanwhile, Clark wrote hits including Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two.”
The year 2014 brought a moment of public recognition, when Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” — which Musgraves wrote with Clark and McAnally and which famously featured the line “Kiss lots of boys/ or kiss lots of girls, if that’s what your into” — was named song of the year by the Country Music Association’s music industry voters.
Then 2021 saw two more country artists — Brooke Eden and Brothers Osborne’s T.J. Osborne — speak publicly about their sexuality. Additionally, more artists in country and Americana circles have been forthright about their sexual identities, including Lily Rose, Joy Oladokun, Orville Peck, Amythyst Kiah, Adeem the Artist and more.
We take a look at a set of songs from LGBTQIA+ artists and allies — songs which run the gamut from celebratory to reflective, from joyous to mournful — as we continue to celebrate Pride Month.
Miranda Lambert, “Y’all Means All”
Last year, Lambert revealed she had written and recorded “Y’all Means All,” to be featured on the sixth season of the hit series Queer Eye. Lambert teamed with McAnally and Luke Dick, and the trio created a song both meaningful, uplifting and filled with countrified fun.
“Luke and Shane were like, ‘Hell yeah, this is right up our alley,’ so we went over to Luke’s,” Lambert previously told Billboard of crafting the song. “We just got to bring out our fun, inner Texan. Netflix was great about sending some notes and making sure we were getting the message across for the show. I haven’t done a lot of writing for specific things for television and movies and stuff, so it was fun to try something different.”
Lily Rose, “Remind Me of You”
Lily Rose first popped up on music listeners’ radar with the viral hit “Villain.” Rose followed with “Remind Me of You,” a song written by Sam Hunt, ERNEST, Corey Crowder and Ryan Vojtesak.
Rose boldly keeps the song’s female-aimed pronouns as they are. “The coolest part about ‘Remind Me of You’ is all the pronouns of she/she her/her,” Rose previously told Billboard. “For me, I’m not going to change pronouns in every single song, but I’m going to sing whatever serves the song.”
The Highwomen, “If She Ever Leaves Me”
Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby came together to form this much-acclaimed supergroup in 2019. The song centers on a couple in a bar. One of the two women notices a man looks interested in her partner, but she quickly informs him that he’s wasting his time: “I’ve loved her in secret, I’ve loved her out loud/ The sky hasn’t always been blue/ It might last forever, or it might not work out/ But if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you,” the group sings.
Garth Brooks, “We Shall Be Free”
This 1992 release marked a timely — and, ultimately, timeless — release from Brooks, a song that spells out hopes for true freedom for all people. Brooks wrote the song with Stephanie Davis, inspired by the 1992 L.A. riots, which erupted after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of the savage beating of Rodney King — a beating that was caught on camera by a bystander, with the graphic footage broadcast into homes across the nation. “We Shall Be Free” — and its celebrity-filled music video — took aim at a number of social issues, including homophobia, freedom of religion, world hunger and racism.
“When we’re free to love anyone we choose/ When this world’s big enough for all different views/ When we all can worship from our own kind of pew/ Then we shall be free,” Brooks sings on a key line.
The song also led to a tense moment at the 1993 Super Bowl, where Brooks was scheduled to perform the national anthem. As part of the agreement, NBC would play the video for “We Shall Be Free” after the national anthem was performed. However, on the day of the big game, NBC executives deemed the song too controversial and decided to not play the video. Brooks stood his ground, refusing to perform the national anthem unless the video was played. As Brooks left the stadium, NBC acquiesced, and played the “We Shall Be Free” video.
Ty Herndon, “What Mattered Most” (Alternative Version)
In 2019, Herndon revised his 1995 hit “What Mattered Most,” changing the pronouns to male pronouns to fit his sexual identity.
In the original version, Herndon sang “Her eyes are blue, her hair was long/ In ’64, she was born in Baton Rouge.” In his updated version, Herndon’s offers, “His eyes are blue, his hair is long/ In ‘64, he was born in Baton Rouge.” He revamped the song in order to provide a positive influence and message to younger members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
He previously told NPR, “When I go and speak to kids, I hear this all the time. They’re like — especially the LGBT kids — ‘We really want to like country music, but we don’t think country music likes us … It starts with me. It starts with artists that have been there.”
Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”
This 2013 release, which Musgraves penned with openly gay songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, earned both praise and criticism for its lyrics, which espouses doing what feels right — and includes the key inclusive lyric, “kiss lots of boys – or lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into.”
“Follow Your Arrow” made history when it earned song of the year honors at the Country Music Association Awards in 2014.
Brooke Eden, “Got No Choice”
In 2021, Eden went public with her love story with music exec Hilary Hoover, writing a trio of songs — including “Got No Choice” — that detailed their blissful relationship, along with colorful, joyous music videos accompanying each track. On “Got No Choice,” Eden sings, “This heart wants no one else and I can’t help myself.”
Eden and Hoover wed in 2022, and Eden has continued releasing inclusive, LGBTQIA+ positive songs — including one of her latest, “Outlaw Love.”
Lavender Country, “Come Out Singing”
Included on the group Lavender Country’s groundbreaking, gay-themed, eponymous 1973 album, this song is a musical ray of sunshine, as the singer basks in the happiness of a new relationship. “Morning time feels so fine/ When I’m hangin’ out with you,” Patrick Haggerty sings on the lighthearted track.
Lavender Country released a followup album in 2019, titled Blackberry Rose. Haggerty died in 2022 at age 78.
Joy Oladokun, “Pride”
Singer-songwriter Oladokun offers an anthem of hope and strength with this track, which she wrote with Konrad Snyder and Charles Wright. The song includes key moments of defiance and wisdom, notably in the chorus, with “No hands can take what’s ours/ They can’t change the beauty that’s inside/ Pride.” The song is included on the 2023 album Proof of Life.
Oladokun also recently penned a Pride Month Love Letter, celebrating the “life, love, creativity and resilience” of the LGBTQIA+ commuinity.
Brothers Osborne, “Younger Me”
Brothers Osborne’s TJ Osborne came out as gay in an interview with TIME in 2021, and soon, the sibling duo released this song, crafted as a song to TJ’s younger self, filled with encouragement and wisdom. The song includes the key lines, “Youth ain’t wasted on the young/ These trips around the sun/ I needed every one/ To get where I’m standing now/ It’s an uphill road to run,” a nod to how surviving through hard times have helped give heightened appreciation of brighter days now.
“I’ve always wished I could speak to my younger self, give him a hug and show him who he’d become and what he’d achieve,” TJ said on Twitter soon after the song’s release. “Once I came out, that feeling was overwhelmingly strong that this song was born and the time to share it is now.”