The Tale of Two Country Singers

Two country stars made the news this past week. In neither case did it have anything to do with their music. If you believe that the arts are a terrific mirror into culture (and I do), then these stories are a fascinating insight (in some ways) into how far we’ve come and (in other ways) how far we still have left to go.

If you’ve never heard of Brothers Osborne, they are — along with Florida Georgia Line and Dan & Shay — among the most popular active country duos making music today. They are actual brothers, too. John, the oldest, sings back up vocals and plays electric guitar. Younger brother TJ is the lead vocalist. They have released three albums (in 2016, 2018, and 2020) which have peaked at third, second, and fourth on the country charts, respectively.

This past week, TJ went public with the news that he is gay. He is the first major country act to come out while signed to a major label. Stars Ty Herndon, Billy Gillman, Chely Wright (and probably others) have come out as gay in the past, but not at the peaks of their careers. They didn’t have much to lose by the time they let their true selves show.

Interestingly, though, it’s unclear whether or not Brothers Osborne will face any opposite. So far, so good. Time will tell if fans stick with the duo, but fellow artists backed TJ 100%. He got shout outs from Kacey Musgraves, Dierks Bentley, and Dan & Shay, among others. In some ways, this is shocking. Country music is historically a favorite of a more conservative audience. Masculinity has a very narrow definition in country music, and the genre famously elevates discussion around trucks, booze, and heterosexual love (and the loss of it). Any mention of “gay” has been as a pejorative, including progressive country singer Taylor Swift warned a boy with whom she’d had some trouble that she’d tell her friends he was gay in Another Picture to Burn in 2008.

For TJ Osborne to come out and there to be a collective shrug, as if to say “so what’ is a big deal in country music. It’s taken far too long — but it’s a pleasant surprise.

Meanwhile, emerging superstar Morgan Wallen is facing a backlash after he was captured on video using the n-word in reference to a friend in the midst of a drunken outburst outside his home. Almost instantaneously, his music was removed from all of Country Music Television’s platforms, as well as form iHeart Radio and other major radio corporations. His record label suspended their contract with him indefinitely.

This type of language is not really surprising. Country music has long had a race problem. With few exceptions (Charlie Pride, Darius Rucker, and emerging star Jimmie Allen) there are few stars of color to celebrate in the history of country music. Many acts utilize symbols in their names, staging, and merchandise that are traditionally viewed as racist. In the past year, both Lady Antebellum and Dixie Chicks altered the names of their acts in response to this industry-wide reckoning.

Still, the sudden and strict reaction to Wallen — who is making a lot of money right now and topping the charts with each new release — is a sign that this reckoning is genuine and will continue. It does appear that the way things have been is not the way it will be.

Despite the inappropriate language on Wallen’s part, the industry appears to be behaving based on an evolving set of values.

Obviously, in both cases there will be dissenting voices. It may be that Brothers Osborne’s career is impacted by TJ’s revelation. It may be Wallen lays low, utilizes the power of the Nashville PR machine, and recovers in a year or so.

Racism will persist. Gay artists won’t always be cheered for their transparency.

But in these two cases we are seeing the rejection of racism and the embrace of a man who in the past would have been cold-shouldered by everyone. Not every problem in country music — nor every problem in our country — has been solved.

However, if Nashville is any reflection of our broader culture, both of these events can be lauded as a step in the right direction.