I grew up listening to country music. There, I said it. Consider me outed. Just like being gay, my exposure to country music was something that I could not control, even though I desperately, blindly and painfully wanted to silence every twangy voice and guitar slide on Earth. On many a fishing trip, I was exposed to Alabama, the Statler Brothers, Loretta Lynn, the Bellamy Brothers, Garth Brooks, Anne Murray, Charlie Daniels, and everything in between. I grew up watching the Grand Ole Opry, taking family vacations to Dollywood (Dolly Pardon’s theme park), and watching late-night music videos on CMT. In the South, country music was not only waiting for me when I got home, it was a part of the political, social and, most of all, religious landscape. And since my parents were “true” Southerners, I was a kid who listened to country music.
Like the Bible thumping sermons I heard every Sunday in my Southern Baptist church, I tuned country music out whenever possible. Even as a pre-teen, I knew that the messages in these songs—while lyrical and romantic, I’ll give them that—did not belong in my world, and they never would. The songs were filled with references to patriotism, God and the almighty power of alcohol, a trinity that is rarely seen in any other music genre. Not caring about these principals (and what eleven-year-old would?), I gave up country music by the time I was old enough to earn my own money. I did the same with religion, although I was more quiet about it.
But this week, as country music superstar Carrie Underwood announced her support of gay marriage, I had to rethink my anti-twang stance. The “Jesus Take the Wheel” singer, whose music represents all of the God-fearing, “the South will rise again” crap that I had heard my whole childhood, turned the genre on its head in a single interview with the British press. Not since the Dixie Chicks blasted George W. Bush has a country musician received more fallout, and all because she said that people should “have the right to love, and love publicly, the people that we want to love.” If you want to go the Biblical route, Underwood’s remarks (and those by other country musicians, like Chely Wright) were nothing if not Christ-like. Not only was Underwood preaching the importance of love to the masses, she was possibly killing her own career to do it.
If country music fans appreciated the music as a true genre, and not as a regional commodity (like collard greens and grits), Underwood’s statement would have been less incendiary. The proprietary, polarizing language of the country music community is why Underwood’s remarks—in the British media, no less—were so astounding. When alternative rock musician Adam Levine came out in support of gay rights, it was just another liberal elitest jumping on the socialist bandwagon. But when Carrie Underwood’s wheel-steering Jesus says it’s okay to support gay marriage, the whole world hears a record scratch.
In one interview, she lost so much. But she gained me—and what I can only imagine are millions of new LGBT listeners. Now that I know what she gave up, I’ll be giving up my own prejudices about country music.