Gay, Proud... and Country 

When a producer placed an ad looking for an openly gay country singer, who knew television would come calling?

When a producer placed an ad looking for an openly gay country singer, who knew television would come calling?

By Gail Worley, photography by Danny Bright

Brian Glenn grew up in Michigan but moved to Nashville 13 years ago to pursue a career in country music. He has the all-American good looks of a pop star and could easily pass for a decade younger than his 34 years. Brian literally grew up singing country music, playing in a family band with two cousins. Since relocating to Nashville, he has performed with Canadian country singer Michelle Wright, sung on countless demos and played at the Grand Ole Opry. Brian’s dream, of course, is to have a successful solo career singing and recording his own material.

Zack Dobbins was born in Belvidere, Ill., growing up in a strict Pentecostal family where he sang gospel music at church. His hometown was so small, he jokes, that growing up, “kids had to drive to the next town over to see a movie.” At 26, Zack’s dark-haired, model-quality good looks and chiseled physique turn heads. It’s not surprising to learn he was on both the homecoming and prom courts of his high school. Since moving to New York City in 1995, he’s worked as a model and actor, appearing in various TV, film and theater projects. Currently, he’s pursuing a career acting and singing country music.

Zack and Brian are among the throng gathered outside SIR studios on Manhattan’s West 52nd Street. It’s shortly before noon on a Thursday in August, and a line of men ranging in age from perhaps 18 to 50 hugs the exterior of the building, going all the way to the end of the block and wrapping around the corner of Eighth Avenue. It’s as oppressively humid a day as any New York City has suffered this summer; the last place anyone would want to be is outside the walls of an air-conditioned room. But the stupefying weather doesn’t deter those who’ve come to audition for a chance to appear on American Pride, a reality TV show that will follow a group of chosen performers on a quest to become a national country music star.

Contestant hopefuls have arrived from as far away as Arizona, California and Ohio, and from all over New York City. Some are dressed in traditional country garb—cowboy hats, boots and Western shirts—while others sport muscle T’s and jeans. A few have brought guitars along, while others carry violin cases or boom boxes. As these good-looking, presumably talented guys wait for their chance to enter the studios and sing, each has something in common with both Zack and Brian, the two things that are prerequisites for the American Pride auditions: Each loves country music, and each is openly gay.

The brainchild of Grammy-nominated producer/songwriter Larry Dvoskin, American Pride is the nationwide search for America’s first openly gay country star. Having already generated interest from several TV networks, Dvoskin is currently shopping the program in New York and L.A., with an eye to going into production in early 2004. And it all spawned from a tiny “Musician Wanted” ad that ran in the Nashville Scene in August 2002. At just over 1 column inch, the ad’s headline had to be attention-seizing, and it was:

GAY COUNTRY SINGER— Wanted for major recording contract by world-renowned producer/songwriter, an extraordinary singer who plays guitar. You grew up in Nashville, the South, or Midwest and are the real McCoy. If you are courageous enough to become the world’s first openly gay country star and truly fit the description above, please call Larry at Cool Guy Records.

Such a small ad could easily have gone completely unnoticed. Instead, it has launched a movement that is gaining unexpected support and enthusiasm from nearly everyone who encounters it. To hear Dvoskin tell the story, “What started as a tiny speck on music’s windshield is developing into a cultural, television and musical first, a milestone in country music, and in gay culture history.”

Deeply tanned with thinning blond hair, sparkling eyes and a puckish smile, Dvoskin, 45, is a music industry veteran who’s worked with Ricky Martin, David Bowie, Cheap Trick, Sammy Hagar and Fischerspooner. The idea of producing an openly gay country singer came to him, he says, after a conversation he had with David Browning, a Nashville musician, songwriter and producer who has worked with artists ranging from Amy Grant to Diane Warren. “David said to me in passing one day, 'Larry, there will never, ever be an openly gay male country star, because the nature of the culture is very traditionally conservative.’ To hear him say, 'never, ever’ only made me think, 'Why not?’ I knew the challenge would be getting past the conservative mind-set, but I never even considered that I couldn’t make this happen.”

Once Dvoskin’s ad appeared in the Scene, it caught the attention of The Complete Sheet, which services news stories and novelty items to morning radio disc jockeys across America. The Complete Sheet told Dvoskin his story was perfect morning-drive fodder; did he mind if they put his name and phone number on the Sheet?

Dvoskin remembers thinking, “ 'Who on earth is going to call me?’ But from 6 o’clock the next morning, my phone started ringing with stations across America calling me. It didn’t stop for about three months. Some radio stations from Texas and Florida called to heckle me, like, 'Ha ha, gay cowboy! Let’s have a laugh!’ Of course, I have a sense of humor about the whole thing, but I got these guys to take me seriously when I talked to them about inspiring principles, like the idea that if you take away country music and sexual orientation, what you have is somebody with a dream overcoming a tremendous cultural challenge. It’s a very American principle of wanting a fair and equal shot at your dream.”

Beyond the flood of calls from morning deejays, the classified ad—which ran in the Scene for several weeks—also helped bring in thousands of calls and e-mails from gay men across the country as word spread through the gay press. Some were jokes, but many more were genuine, if not downright emotional. Dvoskin was overwhelmed. “When I put the ad in the Nashville Scene, I just assumed that I’d get calls from maybe three people, I’d find one person to work with, and the project would develop over a few years.” Instead, Dvoskin likens what happened to “a rock rolling uphill on its own.”

Next, the story of this maverick producer’s search appeared in Entertainment Weekly and on the home pages of AOL and Netscape. One morning, Dvoskin answered his phone to find a representative from VH1 on the other end. “He said, 'This is a terrific idea! Do you think you’d like to do a show about it?’ Suddenly, I found myself on an entirely different playing field, from thinking I’d find a musician to record a few songs with in the studio, to VH1 suggesting we do an unscripted reality show. I’ve heard about things happening like this, but I never thought I’d experience it for myself.” Dvoskin decided it was time to get a proper television pitch together.

Enter veteran television producer and director Jeff Margolis, whose sizable list of credits includes the NBC hit series Fame, Roseanne and The Cosby Show, specials for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and countless awards shows, including the Academy Awards and the Emmys. “I selected Jeff as executive producer and director of the show because he’s highly respected and has great credibility at the networks,” says Dvoskin. “I want this project to be treated in a very serious way, and his work has integrity.”

The concept for American Pride goes beyond a nightly talent competition to focus on these individuals and their lives. Viewers will get a microcosmic view of what it’s like to be noticeably different while trying to make it in the country music business. From the New York audition tapes, about five people representing “the best of the bunch” will be selected to begin the show before shooting of the actual series begins. Dvoskin and his crew will then travel the country, stopping in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Chicago as well as places like San Antonio and Kansas City. Auditions will be staged in each locale, and, rather than eliminating performers as the show progresses, American Pride will pick up one new contestant in each city. (In this regard, it’s a refreshing change of pace from so many reality shows, which rely on cutthroat competitiveness to get viewers’ attention.) The troupe will then travel to the next stop on the itinerary. At the show’s conclusion, a big finale concert will be held in Nashville, where a winner will be chosen—possibly by an audience vote. “It’s a totally new idea,” Dvoskin says, perhaps mindful that television is already saturated with reality programming.

So how has Nashville responded to Dvoskin’s idea? Well, at least a few people have taken notice and lent their support. “An important connection directly from the Nashville Scene happened when Karen McDevitt, a local publicist on Music Row, saw the ad. She said, 'What you’re doing will really shake things up and put some new life and blood in Nashville.’ Karen flew to New York to meet with me and agreed to represent the project for free. She put out several press releases, which led to me being written up in Music Row magazine and interviewed by Brad Schmitt of The Tennessean in his column, Brad About You. And she’s not gay. She just felt this was something that, on a human level, was important to do.”

Beyond a few early supporters in Music City, American Pride also has the backing of gay rights organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). “When Scott Seomin, the entertainment media director of GLAAD, was contacted for a comment, he came out really in favor of this project,” Dvoskin says. “He said there’s a lot of homophobia in the record business, especially in country music, and that something like this is really good timing.” Another champion within the gay community has been Doug Stevens, founder of the Lesbian and Gay Country Music Association (LGCMA), which promotes and encourages gay and lesbian singers, musicians and songwriters who compose and perform gender-specific country music. Stevens has helped Dvoskin promote American Pride on the West Coast, and he also attended the New York auditions as a representative to the media.

“People just want to be involved and to help out in any way they can,” Dvoskin says. “The project has become so legitimate that well-respected people within the music industry have stepped on board. We have music publisher Richard Perna [formerly of the Hammstein Music Group]—who’s had 100 Top 10 country hits—representing the project.”

Perna confided in Dvoskin that when he initially met with record industry people from Nashville, they were unanimous in their belief that no executive in the record business would be involved with anything that had to do with the “G-word.” “That was quite surprising,” says Dvoskin, “considering some presidents or chairmen of those companies are probably gay men.” A major New York record label has expressed interest in releasing the show’s soundtrack album, but, Dvoskin says, “We want to really do this right and have the record released through the Nashville office of a major label.”

While American Pride aims to establish the world’s first openly gay country star on a major label, there are openly gay country musicians with active careers; they’re just not thriving on Music Row. In “Country Undetectable: Gay Artists in Country Music,” published in the Journal of Country Music in 1998, journalist Chrissie Dickinson explored the gay country music underground and, to some extent, the overground as well. The comprehensive article included background stories and profiles of artists like vocalist Alix Dobkin, who in 1972 released Lavender Jane Loves Country, the first album featuring a woman singing love songs to other women. Also featured was the country-rock outfit Deadly Nightshade, who recorded two albums for RCA in the mid-1970s, and the late Sid Spencer, who gained some mainstream attention with his 1995 album, Out-n-About Again, before his death in 1996.

Most notably, k.d. lang began her career in country music in 1984 before coming out as a lesbian in 1992. “It’s one thing to have a gay punk band, where everything is already wide open,” singer-songwriter (and LGCMA member) Mark Wiegle notes in Dickinson’s article. “But to go into a field that is really closed, you can make that much greater impact just by being who you are.”

Perhaps gay country’s most visible spokesperson is the LGCMA’s Stevens, who in 1991 formed Doug Stevens and The Outband. “I thought we were the first and only gay country band ever, but it turns out there was another one before us,” he says. “The first openly gay country band was called Lavender Country. They played up and down the West Coast and at events very early in the Gay Pride movement.” Lavender Country’s self-titled 1973 album sits in the archives at the Country Music Foundation (which publishes the Journal of Country Music). And Patrick Hagerty, the singer-songwriter from Lavender Country, is now a member of The Outband.

Outside the mainstream, Stevens explains, there is a well-established, if niche-oriented, market for gay country singers. This includes organizations like The International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) and the International Association of Gay Square Dancing Clubs (IAGSDC). “Gay country singers regularly perform for events sponsored by these organizations. I’ve sung at a lot of IAGSDC events,” he says. “In fact, I’m living in San Francisco now because the gay square dancing group out there invited me to perform at their national convention. I fell in love with the place, so I moved there.”

The timing of American Pride is certainly right on. Mainstream culture seems to be opening up about issues of sexual orientation. Of late, there’s been the recent Lawrence vs. Texas Supreme Court ruling, which overturned sodomy laws in many states, along with the passing of the Sexual Orientation Nondiscrimination Act (SONDA) in 12 states and the District of Columbia, and the confirmation of Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop. Then there’s the seeming flood of gay-themed TV programming hitting the airwaves—which may just be a sign of the public’s growing voyeuristic fascination.

The Bravo cable network has received attention lately for two shows. Boy Meets Boy, a dating show modeled after programs like The Bachelor, featured James, a 32-year-old gay man from Southern California looking for love among 15 male contestants. (In an oddly cruel twist, some of these supposedly gay men were actually straight “ringers.”) Since the program allowed only kissing between James and his suitors, Boy Meets Boy had more in common with Will and Grace than with other reality dating shows, where racy hot tub action usually happens within the first 10 minutes of every episode.

On Bravo’s far more popular Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a team of gay men, the Fab Five, provide a grooming and home decor makeover to fashion-challenged straight men. Although Queer Eye has met with criticism for reinforcing some gay stereotypes—e.g., all gay men are neat freaks and impeccable dressers—it has been just as lauded for giving gay men a forum to be themselves. “I’m glad we can take five gay men and present five different archetypes to the American public,” says American Pride auditionee Frank Griggs, 22, of Manhattan. “I think the show has been such a success because it’s not patronizing, and the producers let the Fab Five do and say whatever they want. It’s a lot harder to be forced into a stereotype when you’re allowed to be yourself.”

“To be doing a project like American Pride at this particular time is very exciting,” says Dvoskin, “but it’s not like we thought, 'Gay is popular, so let’s do something gay!’ It’s way beyond that. It’s closer to what happened in the ’60s, or with women’s rights, when people felt like they’d been sitting in the water, and suddenly a wave came along and carried them somewhere. This idea caught fire because so many people were empowered by the situation and the synergy around it. Part of what has made this so much fun is the inspiration coming from the people who are auditioning. Many of them say they’ve always wanted to live their dream, but didn’t want to have to lie about who they are to do so. To give someone a vehicle of integrity where they can show off and be honest about themselves is very fulfilling.”

But there’s still a big question hanging over American Pride: Is producer David Browning right, or is Nashville actually ready to embrace an openly gay country singer? The question is doubly complex. As with gays and lesbians, country audiences are also subjected to typecasting—as traditional, deeply religious right-wingers, despite the fact that research shows the audience is considerably more diverse than that.

“I think that part of the surprise in our culture is how things are often not as they appear,” says Dvoskin. “People have a stereotype in their minds about gays—especially a gay cowboy. I mean, a cowboy is the most macho, masculine image that we have. Once people get a chance to become familiar with the performers, to see that these are just normal, talented guys, it might erase some of that fear of the unknown, which is what all prejudice stems from in the first place.”

Back at the audition in Manhattan, Brian Glenn voices his opinion: “As my life began to change and I came out, my conditioning told me there was no way people would accept an openly gay country music artist. Then Larry Dvoskin comes along and says, 'Not only is it OK, it’s a prerequisite that you are a gay country singer.’ When I first read an article about this project, I thought, 'Why not check it out?’ I’m really glad I did.”

Country music enthusiasts extend far beyond the Nashville city limits—indeed, to all corners of the globe. So even if Music Row doesn’t embrace American Pride, that won’t necessarily hinder the show or its potential to reach people. After all, there are plenty of artists in country music history who succeeded only after they’d left Nashville. Besides, more than a star search is at stake here.

“There are other important things going on here,” says Doug Stevens. “First, we’re educating straight people about gay lives: bringing to traditional country music fans the idea that there is such a thing as gay people who come from and identify with country culture, and who listen to country music. These gay people would really like to hear their lives sung about also. We’re also educating our own gay culture about people who identify with and like country music. Many gay people may think that gay people only like disco music or only live in urban areas and don’t like country music. I think those are two really worthwhile things this project will accomplish.”

Matt Alber, 28, is a native of Wichita, Kan., who now makes his home in San Francisco. Matt bears a striking resemblance to Tim McGraw, and it’s rumored he’ll be one of the singers chosen to form the core group that launches the American Pride series. “I’m really excited about this show,” he says. “I think the [country] music industry has done music fans a disservice by condescending to them, thinking the public will not accept a gay artist. All people really want is a good song they can listen to and identify with. We can do that just as good as any straight artist. The best thing that could come out of this program would be to teach America that they can fall in love with a singer like me.”

Matt Alber, 28, is a native of Wichita, Kan., who now makes his home in San Francisco. Matt bears a striking resemblance to Tim McGraw, and it’s rumored he’ll be one of the singers chosen to form the core group that launches the American Pride series. “I’m really excited about this show,” he says. “I think the [country] music industry has done music fans a disservice by condescending to them, thinking the public will not accept a gay artist. All people really want is a good song they can listen to and identify with. We can do that just as good as any straight artist. The best thing that could come out of this program would be to teach America that they can fall in love with a singer like me.”

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