Country music is having a moment. Since singer Chely Wright's widely publicized coming out in 2010, the industry has dragged its feet in welcoming a new class of queer artists to the radio waves. However, in recent years, thanks in large part to Wright's shining example, artists like Brandi Carlile, Ty Herndon, Brandy Clark, country-rap star Lil Nas X, and TV host Cody Alan have been embraced by a progressive audience who've rewarded their authenticity instead of punishing it.
Queer country stars are now proudly stepping into the light, which is why in 2020 Apple announced a global radio channel, Apple Music Country, which has a slew of new programs including veteran journalist Hunter Kelly's Proud Radio, a monthly two-hour show on Apple Music Country highlighting queer artists, their evolution, and their influence in country music. The show also has one-hour iterations on Apple Music 1 (Proud Radio With Hattie Collins) and Apple Music Hits (Proud Radio With MNEK).
The show has welcomed guests like Carlile, Clark, Wright, Dolly Parton, Paisley Fields, Waylon Payne, Brooke Eden, and more. But for the affable host, Proud Radio is not only about uplifting LGBTQ+ artists and queer history. It's meant to be a bridge toward a brighter future in country music.
"If we are not keeping up with where America is, where the world is culturally, we're leaving all kinds of money on the table," says Kelly, who has a degree in music business from Belmont University, the same college stars like Trisha Yearwood, Brad Paisley, and Josh Turner went to. "When I grew up, Will and Grace was on TV. Ellen DeGeneres was on TV every afternoon. Gay people or not, this is not some foreign concept, you know? It really is exciting. We need this representation to build a bigger tent to be able to build a wider audience."
For lifelong fans like Kelly, the queer elements of country music have never been unnoticed, especially in the women. The glitz, the glamour, and the outfits from legends like Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Reba McEntire, who've inspired countless artists with their bold, raw storytelling is often a way in for many queer men. "There was a vulnerability there," he recognizes in the female artists.
"There is a kind of thing where women in country music still have to work so much harder to get the same opportunities as men. I think that really carried over for me into working in country music. Women [were] kind of the surrogate for us as gay men, especially as I started to come out and started having experiences of romance and heartbreak and all the drama. I could put myself into that position a lot easier."
Kelly, who started as an intern at Billboard magazine before working at ABC News for nine years with radio gigs in-between, has seen firsthand the progress historically conservative artists have had in accepting LGBTQ+ breakout stars. Still, there is more to go, and many can do a better job at vocalizing their support. One example is the 2019 Country Music Awards, which Kelly was covering for Rolling Stone. Brandi Carlile gave an incredible performance, Lil Nas X took home an award (albeit untelevised), and it was during this event that Kelly noticed an overwhelming support from country legends.
"I'm in the lower level so that I have a view of the stage, but also how the artists interact with each other," he recalls. "Other artists were really happy to have Brandi Carlile there. She was with [singer] Maren Morris. Maren and Brothers Osborne, even before TJ Osborne came out [in February], they were really breaking this mold, this stronghold that we've had ever since the [Dixie Chicks] situation happened in country music."
Coming out of the pandemic, Kelly suspects we'll have a wider understanding of people's lived experiences that will, surely, transfer over to country music. "Proud Radio is breaking new ground, but it's also documenting a really exciting time in country music," he says. "When the show debuted, and people heard it, they're were like, 'I had stopped listening to country music because I thought that there was no place for queer people' or the fact that there wasn't clear representation for people of color. It turned them off, they didn't see themselves represented and they thought they were getting the message: I'm not welcome here. I don't want to see that.... There's so much more out there than [what's] played in those slots on terrestrial radio."
This story is part of Out's 2021 Pride Issue, which is on newsstands on now! To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.