In Her Best Light

Photos: Russ Harrington

Trisha Yearwood has never cared what the country community thought of her LGBTQ allyship, so why start now? The country music icon, who has lent her robust and emotionally resonant mezzo-soprano to hit songs like “She’s in Love With the Boy,” “How Do I Live,” “Walkaway Joe” and “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl),” sang at a Nashville gay bar two years after Ellen DeGeneres’s sexuality destroyed her sitcom and not long before the Dixie Chicks got Dixie Chick’d.

So imagine country music and the associated conservative values of 1999, when Yearwood performed for gay clubgoers at The Connection during the height of her crossover success, showing her true colors by headlining an event to raise money for her cancer-stricken gay friend. Yearwood was already a major star, having soared to music stardom when “She’s in Love With the Boy,” the lead single from her 1991 self-titled debut album, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs.

In 2012, Billboard named Yearwood and her husband Garth Brooks the “Most Powerful Celebrity Couple in Music,” based on their combined album sales. (At the time, the couple, who’ve been married since 2005, edged out Beyoncé and Jay-Z.)

With Every Girl, the 55-year-old, three-time Grammy winner and host of her own Food Network show, Trisha’s Southern Kitchen, returns with her first studio album of new material in 12 years and a corresponding nationwide tour. In a recent conversation, Yearwood spoke about getting a kick out of why some lesbians are relating to her new single, marrying Garth because he’s open-minded, how her concerts are a “safe place” for LGBTQ fans, and the Nashville closet.

Let’s start with the album’s lead single “Every Girl in This Town,” which I’ve renamed “Every Gay in This Town.” I hope you don’t mind.

(Laughs.) That works for me!

You sing “We keep kissin’ boys, trying to figure it out” and, I mean, story of my life. Know any single gay cowboys who are handsome, employed and emotionally available?

(Laughs.) It’s funny that you say that because we did it live the other night and one of my guys who works with me – he’s my social media guy – is gay, and I saw him in the crowd and he loves the song so much and I sang that right to him. He was just laughing. And then I had a couple of girls who came up to me when we did an album signing recently, and a girl introduced me to her wife and said, “That song speaks to me. It’s like you keep kissing boys trying to figure it out. I finally figured it out.” (Laughs.) It was pretty great. The song works for everyone!

Is it true you were the first major country artist to play a gay venue in Nashville?

I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but it was a benefit for a friend of mine who’s a hairdresser who had cancer. And he’s a friend of mine, gay or straight. So it’s like, I’m there. I didn’t even give it a thought. I’m sure there were people who thought it was great, and I’m sure there were people who thought it wasn’t great and I don’t care.

What kind of reaction did you get from the country music community and fans for performing at a gay bar?

I don’t know. I feel strangely lucky, I guess. People don’t tend to, especially during that time, tell you things to your face. You know, we’re still that way. We talk about each other behind our backs, but nobody’s gonna come up to you and say, “Hey, I think what you did was wrong,” because what do they think I’m gonna say? They know they’re wrong for even thinking that. Somewhere deep down they know they’re wrong. But I didn’t get any flak. I’m sure there were people who, again, talked about me behind my back, but it was the right thing to do.

Was your appearance at The Connection your first time at a gay club?

No. (Laughs.)

Oh? Tell me more.

(Laughs.) Another hairdresser friend of mine asked me to come to his birthday party and I went. I can’t remember the name of the place here at the time. It was on 8th Avenue. I think it’s gone. I’m sure everything’s gone now since I’m old. (Laughs.) But it was the first time I saw a drag queen impersonating me singing “She’s in Love With the Boy,” and I was like, “I’ve made it now. I’m famous now. That’s happened.”

And you tipped her $5.

I did! You know that story! And I did because why wouldn’t you?

So she made a good Trisha?

She did, she did! You know, I can look like a pretty good drag queen myself.

Wait, you’ve done drag?

I do drag well. Yes, I do a good Trisha Yearwood impersonation.

It helps that you are her, so I feel like you have a slight advantage. What was the LGBTQ community like where you grew up in Georgia?

Nonexistent. Well, probably there, but I was born in ’64, so during my teenager years, the ’70s, early ’80s, like most kids in the South, I didn’t really have an encounter with anyone who was openly gay until I was in college. I know there were gay people in my hometown, but it was just one of those things that people didn’t talk about.

I’m so lucky to be in an industry that’s really open. I was raised by a family who never made me feel like I shouldn’t be an open person, so I’m lucky in that way too. The other day we were just talking about how hard it must be to live a life where you can’t really be yourself. So I like where we are. I know it’s still not easy in certain circles, but I like where we are and where we’re going. We preach “love one another” and that’s what we’re supposed to do.

Do you think today’s country music community is more open to the LGBTQ community?

I think the community here as a whole has always been very open. It’s the public community, you know? So coming out and being an openly gay artist is happening, but it’s still not probably easy, but because there are more people who have come out, it’s gonna be easier. But this community as a whole, as far as the town and the industry that works here, it seems very open. Nashville seems very open and progressive. But I still think the artists probably have a difficult time. But now that there are people who have come out and said they’re openly gay, somebody’s gotta start that and pave the way, and so they have the hardest time. It’s kind of the best kept secret in Nashville that when people come out as gay, no one’s surprised. (Laughs.)

Are there still closeted country stars that you know of?

I don’t know for sure. I’m sure there are.

In 1993, Garth released “We Shall Be Free,” which stirred controversy with the line, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” I remember how big of a deal that was.

Yeah. I live in a house that is about tolerance and love. I wouldn’t be married to a guy who didn’t feel that way, and he’s been public about that too. Like you said, it’s in that song. You just speak your truth.

Country artist Chely Wright acknowledged that you were one of very few country stars to offer your support when she came out in 2010. What kind of support did you offer her?

I think it’s one thing to say, “Oh, I’m fine with that,” and another thing to show up and be a friend. And she had a benefit party every year. I had gone the year before, and that year was the year right after the (coming out) announcement that she had that party. I just went. It was kind of like going to the benefit for the hairdresser: I didn’t think about it. She’s my friend, I’ve been before, she asked me to go and I’m going. And so I don’t ever set out to make some sort of strong statement. I’m just friends with who I’m friends with, and if somebody wants to comment about that, that’s fine.

Why do you think more country artists weren’t showing their support for the LGBTQ community like you were early on in your career? 

I don’t want to give myself this positive, like, “Oh my gosh, you’re so amazing because you did that” because I don’t really look at it that way at all. I think if I was making a statement, it’s just that you should be there for your friends. And that’s not just a gay or straight statement; that’s a “just how I was raised” statement.

Are you inspired by artists like Brandi Carlile, who is infiltrating the country arena as an out lesbian?

I’m inspired by her as a person in music. For me, it’s really about the music. I was on a label with a diverse bunch of artists, and I don’t know how k.d. lang made it work in the late ’80s, early ’90s, because she had enormous success. But I tend to just look at it like when I heard Brandi for the first time – and actually her voice reminds me a little bit of k.d.’s – my first thought wasn’t “she’s gay”; it was, “I like her voice.” Maybe that’s why I am the way I am, because it’s just not my first thought. We all want to be accepted for who we are inside and what we do. Even if people like our music, what I do in my personal life is 100 percent secondary.

You courted a wildly passionate lesbian following at the beginning of your career. Why do you think lesbians gravitated toward you?

I have no idea! I really don’t know what it is. It’s also, you know, you guys. Maybe because I do “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in concert. (Laughs.)

That can’t hurt.

(Laughs.) Maybe it’s inclusion. The questions you’re asking me are not questions I obviously get asked in a typical interview and I haven’t ever thought about it in that way, but just your questions make me feel like maybe people realize it’s a safe place. You’re not gonna be judged.

Covering Melissa Etheridge’s “You Can Sleep While I Drive” in 1995 might have had something to do with building your lesbian following. You must’ve forgotten all about that.

I did forget about that. I love that song so much. The other song of hers that I just love is “Bring Me Some Water.” I think that was the first thing I heard (of hers). I remember hearing that on the radio going, “Oh my god, who is that?” Just powerful.

As for your gay male fans: How many times have they expressed their gratitude to you for the “Walkaway Joe” video and the fact that without it we may not have been able to experience a 23-year-old Matthew McConaughey in a field without his shirt? Because thank you for that.

Well, you’re welcome. (Laughs.) Yes, I’m totally responsible for his career and he just never calls, he never writes. I finally got a chance to thank him. When I did that video, the b-roll was shot in Austin, Texas; I wasn’t even there. He was an aspiring actor who just came in for casting. People still don’t realize it. They’ll see the video on YouTube and be like, “Oh my god, that looks like Matthew McConaughey, but he looks 12!” And I’m like, “It is him!”

You got him when he was a baby.

Total baby.

Every Girl is your first solo studio album in 12 years. Why not release more music more regularly?

I will, I will. I think what happened was I was on an almost-four-year tour with my husband and that was a lot of dates. When I wasn’t touring, I was filming the cooking show and I do a lot of other things, but music is what feeds my soul. I didn’t really intend for that much time to pass, and I think if I’d made a record during that time it might have been frantic and just thrown together because there was so much going on.

So in 2018, when the tour had ended in December the year before, I knew I had time and that’s when I sat down and made both albums, the Let’s Be Frank album and the country album. I really was able to just concentrate on that, which made it fun because I could really just pour myself into really digging and finding those songs. And the result of this album – I don’t know if I’ve been happier with an album. The song choices and really getting to spend time with them and just listen and listen and listen and not settle has been good.

The luxury of making this album (was) almost in the way I made the first album, where you just listen to songs and nobody is really paying attention because you’ve slipped under the radar and you have all the time in the world, and once an album takes off then it’s hard to find that time. So I felt that I had that luxury last year of just really focusing on the music, which was really a gift.

You recently acknowledged that you’re a big Lizzo fan. When’s the Trisha-Lizzo duet happening?

I would really have to up my game to sing with Lizzo, but I would totally be up for it. When I went to see her, we were doing the cooking show, and what I do in the mornings when I’m sitting in the makeup chair for 90 minutes is, I’m listening to stuff that pumps me up for the day. Usually it’s Bruno Mars or Beyoncé. I had it on the Bruno Mars channel and (Lizzo’s) “Juice” came on and I’m a huge Prince fan and I was like, “I love this girl, who is this?”

She’d been around for five years, but this was right before things started to really jump for her and she happened to be playing a small club here in Nashville. So I went and stood in the crowd with 200 people, mostly a bunch of white girls and a bunch of gay boys, and just loved it. I only knew that one song; now I know them all, so I can’t wait to go see her again. But it was so cool. And what I loved about her was just – she’s a movement. For everybody. She is an icon for all of us in that she’s about accepting yourself and loving yourself the way you are. And that’s a message that is universal. That’s a message I need to hear for myself.

What about incorporating a “Good as Hell” or “Juice” cover into your upcoming tour setlist?

I try to stick to things I know I can do well. I could really screw that up!

I think a Trisha Yearwood rap is what the world might need right now.

I don’t think so! I’m gonna disagree with you on that one. (Laughs.)

Let’s talk food. Is there a dish your queer friends request when they come over for dinner? I’m good with anything low carb. 

(Laughs.) No, there’s no specific dish. I’m the person whose house you come to when you want comfort food, so if you’re going to boot camp and you wanna take a day off, that’s when you come to my house. (Laughs.) You don’t come to my house for low carb. Your cheat day? Come to my house.

Wendy Williams went on your show and said your set had the best lighting. Just how magical is this Trisha’s Southern Kitchen lighting?

When we started doing a cooking show, the lighting was about the food. I was like, “I understand that, but I have this whole other career and I really wanna look pretty, OK? Can we light the host a little bit?” (Laughs.) So I kind of pushed the barrier a little bit because I really did want it to be pretty. I’m like, “I want this to be beautiful so that it’s a thing in my world.”

So are you feeling pretty on set?

Yeah. If I could take a guy with a key light everywhere I go, I’d take him to the grocery store.

As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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