'My Best Self Is Being Me': How These New Country Artists Unveiled Sensitive Realities

Nate Barnes
Jason Myers

Nate Barnes

How do you reveal something sensitive about yourself to a stranger who may ridicule you for who you are?

Three newer artists — Ian Munsick, Brooke Eden and Nate Barnes — found themselves in the uncomfortable position of addressing difficult personal topics during rollouts of new music in the first quarter of 2021. Munsick has a speech impediment, first addressed in a People magazine story; Eden came out fully as a lesbian in her "Sunroof" video after much setup on social media; and Barnes announced on Twitter that he identifies as biracial after a Pitchfork story harshly miscast him as just another white male in a sea of good-ol'-boy country singers. The Pitchfork story was later amended.

In each case, the artists and their teams have faced a dilemma: How truthful should you be? When is the appropriate time and method to make the reveal? And how do you walk the line between using a sensitive issue to demonstrate your relatability versus turning it into the primary way you're portrayed?

"I don't think any of us who are just being real about our lives are wanting these pieces of us that are fragile and vulnerable to be used as gimmicks," says Eden.

These three artists aren't the only country acts who have made major self-statements in recent weeks. Brothers Osborne's T.J. Osborne came out as a gay man in a Feb. 3 Time magazine piece. During a Country Radio Seminar panel, Luke Combs addressed old photos that depict him with Confederate flag imagery, saying he did not think of the red-and-blue X as a racist symbol at the time the photos were taken and that he no longer condones its use.

Both Osborne and Combs were widely supported for their positions, though in each case, the artists are well established with identifiable hits and major awards. They are already associated with a specific persona, and their large fan bases that are prone to support them were likely to see these new developments as one facet of the act's larger personality.

Munsick, Eden and Barnes are lesser-known figures, and their individual traits may have a larger sway in creating their public personalities moving forward. Thus, the timing and approach are crucial.

"If you do it too early and then you make it like a playing card, then that's when people can turn it around on you and say, ‘Oh, you're just using that to your advantage,' " says Munsick of his speech issues. "I don't want people to think that I'm doing that, so I just feel like slowly easing into it."

Munsick, whose debut album, Coyote Cry, arrived on Feb. 26, kept his impediment quiet enough that some of his fans are only finding out about it now after following him for eight years on social media. Even his wife, Not a Public Figure Management CEO/executive creative director Caroline Rudolph, was barely aware of it because Munsick is so at ease with her. But as they began to have meetings around town, he stammered more often in board rooms. Executives generally overlooked it, though they would ask Rudolph about it separately. Their response was invariably favorable, but she began studying the career of Mel Tillis, a Country Music Hall of Fame member who disarmed audiences by poking fun at his own speaking difficulties, which were offset by his word-perfect performances.

"People find it endearing," says Rudolph, "or they like when people overcome hurdles to succeed."

Some issues of sensitivity, including speech impediments and race, are quickly apparent as the artist meets the public in person. Thus, a delay has limitations. When RCA released Charley Pride's 1965 debut single, for example, the label shipped it to radio stations without the then-standard glossy publicity photo. That allowed time for programmers to evaluate him objectively before they discovered that he was African American, a shocking development at the time. More recently, in the cases of Darius Rucker and Jimmie Allen, a photo accompanied their initial press materials, and the reveal was completed.

By contrast, sexual orientation is a topic that is easier to hide, which also complicates the decisions about when — or if — that trait should be revealed.

Eden had been silenced for years about her sexuality by executives who are no longer part of her team. The road to disclosure was difficult: Some people in the music business knew, many did not, and when entering a room, she found herself trying to remember who fit into which circle and wondering if someone else had clued anyone into her secret.

Additionally, she began a relationship with Hilary Hoover, depicted in the "Sunroof" video. Eden asked Hoover, who was living as an openly gay woman, to go back into the closet in many situations, and it created tension for much of their five years together. Eden developed ulcers, and her doctor convinced her to take time off from touring to heal.

Eden increasingly referred to gay issues and causes on social media on her way to coming out, a move that reached its ultimate expression when she kissed Hoover at the end of the colorful "Sunroof" video, released March 5. As a result, Eden feels better prepared than ever to move forward with her career.

"I think that you make your best art when you're able to be your best self, and my best self is being me," she says. "I've mostly seen a stronger connection with my fans because there's no more wall there — there's no more, ‘This is 90% of me, but I have to hold this 10% back of me.' There's no more of that."

Barnes' reveal as biracial was the most awkward. Quartz Hill had shown video profiles of the Michigan native during virtual introductions with radio and other media that included a Black man in a segment about his family. When asked, Barnes identified the man as his stepfather. His bio also noted that Barnes' grandfather was a Mississippi sharecropper who was friends with B.B. King. Those all served as hints about his ethnicity, though Barnes is light-skinned enough to be presumed Caucasian, and while some of his biographical elements fit Black culture, they can also apply to a white man. The Pitchfork writer had not been privy to a virtual introduction, and when the story presumed him to be Caucasian, Barnes' mom sent him a copy of the piece. He felt compelled to take a stand, embracing his biracial heritage.

The situation deprived him of the ability to choose when he would fully reveal that piece of his story, though he addressed it with a certain grace.

"I grew up in a racially diverse family — in a home where I didn't have to put a color on anybody's face," he tweeted. "My Granddad Willie always taught me not to judge people by the color of their skin but by their heart and their character."

Quartz Hill and its corporate partner, The Orchard, declined to make Barnes or his executive team available for comment.

"We were always transparent about Nate's background," the label said in a statement. "We support him completely, especially in his personal and family life. We will continue to follow his lead."

Ultimately, the acts are unable to control how the audience reacts to the things that make them different. But in the age of social media, fans increasingly expect a relationship with the artists they admire, and relationships generally work better when both sides are being honest.

"We're not here for headlines," says Eden. "We're here for life, and for real stories and for authenticity."

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