Country Queer Publisher On T.J. Osborne, Morgan Wallen & Moving the Genre Forward

Dale Henry Geist
Courtesy Photo

Dale Henry Geist

The website’s emergence comes at a time when the Nashville-centered industry is under pressure to give more credence to voices beyond white, conservative males.

At the end of a jumbled week, CountryQueer.com posted a story on Feb. 6 from contributor Holly G, who defined herself as "Black, queer, atheist. Country music fan."

For the previous three weeks, she had been listening incessantly to Morgan Wallen, whose use of a racial slur — which TMZ revealed Feb. 2 — was a betrayal to her as a Black woman.

Without that distraction, Holly G might have instead been celebrating this past week as a lesbian, for Brothers Osborne vocalist T.J. Osborne became the first artist on a major-label country roster to come out publicly as a gay man in a Time magazine piece on Feb. 3. It was a step forward for the LGBTQ+ community, though the prejudice inherent in Wallen's disgraceful speech blurred whatever progress Osborne represented.

The country industry's response to those two developments was a tad surprising: Osborne was roundly supported, while Wallen was admonished and/or punished and/or dropped by his label, his booking agency, radio, the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.

The reaction is opposite of what would have been expected in the genre during a previous era. And that's part of the reason that CountryQueer.com exists. The country culture is experiencing a major realignment, and — as Osborne addressed in the Time piece — the progressive and conservative wings of the industry and its fans are looking at the same issues through completely different lenses.

"This is the kind of central question about American culture, and country's place in it, that we've been exploring for a year or so now," says CountryQueer.com publisher Dale Henry Geist.

Officially launched in September 2019, the site endeavors to be an online magazine for gay fans of country music, a consumer segment that might feel outcast at a typical country show.

"I'm telling you: You belong, just as much as anybody," Geist wrote to readers in his inaugural welcome from the publisher. "You deserve to enjoy the music you love without hiding who you are."

It's an issue that's endemic to the LGBTQ+ life. While other audiences who are fighting for equality — such as Blacks, Latinos and women — are often identifiable by physical characteristics, most LGBTQ+ people are not. Their ability to blend in makes it easier to avoid danger, but it also makes it more difficult to connect.

"It was so lonely and isolating," Osborne told Time about life in the closet. "It made me resent people."

CountryQueer.com provided a symbolic coming-out platform for country acts when it launched an artist directory on Dec. 29, 2020. Created by filmmaker/web designer Jeremy Leroux, the directory was seeded with roughly two dozen artists who had publicly identified as LGBTQ+. Another two dozen have since signed up, though it's just the start of what could become a sizable resource.

"We've covered hundreds of artists," says Geist, pointing to the editorial segments of the site. "We anticipate that it's going to be a useful tool for journalists, people who are booking shows, DJs and so forth."

CountryQueer.com is still developing its audience, though its reach seems to be expanding quickly. It attracted 13,500 visitors in January, says Geist, noting that that figure represents a 67% increase over December, which was in turn a 70% increase over November.

Its emergence comes at a time when the industry is under pressure to give more credence to voices beyond white, conservative males. Change the Conversation has advocated for better representation of female artists for several years. Sony Music Nashville announced the signing of a Latin duo, Kat & Alex, on Feb. 1. And the business is becoming more receptive to Black performers, though the ones who have made the biggest waves thus far — including Jimmie Allen, Blanco Brown and Kane Brown — have all been men.

Critics lament, with some justification, that the business needs to open its doors wider and faster, though last week's tandem reactions — the general support of Osborne's coming out, contrasted with the rebuke of Wallen's demeaning words — suggests that the industry is trying to make strides.

"Nashville's a liberal place," suggests Geist. "The people who run the record companies are liberal. The people that do the media are liberal. That's not an issue. I'm not surprised that the industry is responding favorably to T.J."

The fan response to Osborne has likewise been positive. In addition to supportive social media posts, Brothers Osborne's on-demand audio and video streams increased 32%, and album and song sales jumped by 264% on Feb. 3-4, compared with the two previous days.

Consumer reaction to the Wallen controversy has been more divided. Despite the industry bans, sales and on-demand streaming of his music both rose. Wallen, meanwhile, received a mix of verbal responses in social media, with some fans saying he deserved his punishment while others claimed he did nothing wrong in using a bigoted slur.

Country Community Supports T.J. Osborne After Coming Out | Billboard News

Given the heightened awareness of racial issues since the murder of George Floyd in May, those defenders — and Wallen himself — seem woefully ignorant of, or insensitive to, the pain those attitudes cause.

"How do you apologize for something like that?" one major songwriter said in an off-the-record rant. "You don't. As eye-opening as 2020 was to Black Lives Matter and racial bigotry, the kid's got to know that that's just not something anybody's going to put up with anymore. Take that word and bury the son of a bitch. That's what they should do with that word. That and the Confederate flag — bury both of them because it's nothing but hate. And who wants to hate anyway?"

While the reaction was uneven, the industry and a good portion of the country fan base seemed to choose love over hate in the aftermath of Feb. 3. That should be at least a little heartening to CountryQueer. com's Holly G, though short-term words mean far less than long-term actions.

"We certainly aren't seeing the walls come tumbling down," says Geist, "but I think we may be seeing some cracks."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.