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Last year on Songland, judge Shane McAnally joked, “I was relieved when I found out [songwriting] was a job, because I thought you had to be George Strait to go to Nashville… and the truth is, my name isn’t George and I wasn’t straight!” But it turns out that McAnally, a three-time Grammy-winner and one of the most successful country songwriters of all time (his hits include Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” and “Break Up in a Small Town” and Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart”), embarked on his path to life as an openly gay man in country music when he appeared on another TV talent show, many years ago: Star Search.
“I was 15. I think I was on the '91/'92 season, and I didn't win my episode,” McAnally tells Yahoo Entertainment during an interview for Pride Month. But while he was humiliated to head home after his very public Star Search defeat (he sang Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch”), he was privately dealing with a deeper and much more agonizing situation.
“I come from a small town in Texas, and I was struggling with my sexuality, not even knowing that's what I was going through. I was in a very religious community and trying to pray away these feelings I was having,” McAnally recalls. “When I went out to California to tape Star Search, they put us in West Hollywood — and I didn't really put these dots together until I lived there years later, but I remember for the first time going to eat with my mom and we were walking down the street and saw two men holding hands. That was so foreign and really exhilarating and terrifying to me, because I was so interested in it, but so terrified because that was such a sin, the idea of two men engaging in any sort of interaction physically like that.”
McAnally went back to his small town of Mineral Wells, Texas, and he continued “praying that I would be attracted to a female, that I could be right in God's eyes.” As he got older, he understandably feared that his sexuality could destroy his chances of country music success, because there were no openly gay artists in mainstream country in the ‘90s. So, he kept his secret. Even after he moved to Nashville, he still hadn’t so much as even kissed a man, and he was living with his college girlfriend (who remains one of his closest friends to this day). But McAnally couldn’t remain closeted forever — or could he?
“During the process of [my girlfriend] being in Nashville and me getting this record deal, it started to really creep up. Like, I'm 24 years old at this point, and I'm really feeling the struggle of my sexuality. I came out to her, and we were so embedded in this world of fear that that would keep me from having this country music dream, and she was such a true-hearted person and wanted my dream as bad as I did, that then she became my ‘beard,’” McAnally recalls with a wry chuckle. “I mean, I hate that [term], but I went on the road and she toured with me. That was all we knew to do, because we knew that anything else wouldn't work.
“Around that time, to even confirm our fears, [country star] Ty Herndon, who was having a lot of hits, had had a situation where he had been outed — and he was even married to a woman. It really hurt his career. And that was right around the time that my record came out,” McAnally continues. “So certainly, if I’d even had a toe outside of the closet, I got it pushed right back in, because I was so afraid of what it would mean to my career.”
McAnally ended up releasing only one solo album, a self-titled 2000 effort on Curb Records, that received mixed reviews and yielded three moderately successful singles that cracked the Billboard Hot Country Songs top 50. So, when his Curb deal ultimately fell apart, he decided to reinvent himself in the city that had made such an impression on him a decade earlier: the LGBTQ-friendly community of West Hollywood, where he felt “protected” and “started living as an out man,” even working at the famous gay bar Micky’s for a while.
“The years I spent [in L.A.], I was still doing music, but I was just doing singer-songwriter shows. I would play acoustically, like at Hotel Café, Cat Club. I wasn't walking up onstage and saying, ‘I'm here, I'm queer!’ It wasn't anything like that. But the crowd knew and I could make jokes and sort of have this underlying rapport. It was good,” McAnally recalls.
And that is when McAnally remembered another prayer he had made back when he was starting his music career. “The other thing that is so interesting about that sort of prayer is it comes back later in another form. … I started professionally when I was 12, traveling in bands and things, started recording my own songs around the age of 14 or 15, and I hadn't had anything work for me until I was 34. Over 20 years of working at it and my new prayer became, ‘God, why would you give me this passion? Give me something else,’” he says. “Because I just was so obsessed with music that it couldn't have been His plan to give me this gift and this drive and this ambition, but then to not let it work out for me.”
When McAnally finally returned to Nashville, after his prayer was answered in the form of country star Lee Ann Womack agreeing to record his song “Last Call,” he had a new sense of self, now that he was out of the closet — and that is what helped him write his best material. “I knew who I was, and that really changed everything for me,” he says. “I didn't understand that until I was on the other side of it, just how big that was. Because when you are trying to create something that you hope connects with people, you’ve got to be telling the truth at some level. If you're not being yourself, that's going to come through. And so, that was a big shift for me. Retroactively I always joke that I had been doing it for over 20 years at that point, but then things started to happen really, really fast.”
McAnally has since built a multi-page résumé that includes credits for pretty much every major name in Nashville, including Sam Hunt, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire, Kelly Clarkson, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay, Tim McGraw, and ironically, George Strait. His career is also notable for his many collaborations with Kacey Musgraves, whose 2014 CMA Awards Song of the Year-winner “Follow Your Arrow” (co-written with McAnally and lesbian songwriter Brandy Clark) features the inclusive line “kiss lots of boys — or kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into!” And McAnally has done all this as a gay man in a historically conservative genre/scene, a feat that landed him on Rolling Stone’s recent “Music’s Unsung LGBTQ Heroes” list next to Frankie Knuckles, Klaus Nomi, Rob Halford, and Big Freedia.
McAnally has been so completely accepted by the Nashville community, in fact, that the city’s mayor even officiated his 2012 wedding to his Michael Baum, with whom he now has two children. So, it turned out that all of his fears that his career would be ruined if he came out were totally unfounded.
“I never felt on the outside of anything once I was out. It's so funny — it seems the opposite. I went outside and everyone let me in,” McAnally laughs. “The true sort of biggest idea of what the good ole boys’ club is in Nashville, the leader of that is Luke Bryan. That's somebody that sort of represents our industry from that [bro-country] point of view. He was one of the first people who invited me to go on the road and write songs, and I actually said to the person who set it up, ‘I just want to be sure, does Luke know that I'm gay?... I don't want that to be a surprise.’ But it just didn't mean anything; [Bryan said], ‘Oh yeah, I guess I knew that.’ I mean, it just wasn't a conversation. I realized how long I had been holding onto that, but everyone else had gotten past it.”
McAnally confesses that he hasn’t completely abandoned his dream of being a recording artist himself, especially now that his two seasons on NBC’s Songland have introduced him to a whole new audience. “I feel vulnerable saying that out loud, because I certainly have the voices that everyone has, which is ‘Who do you think you are?’ I'm 45 years old. I haven't had success with my voice singing, and so there's those demons,” he admits. “But the thing is, I'm trying to overcome all those things in my life.”
McAnally may or may not end up becoming a mainstream gay country singer, but he believes change is happening in Nashville regardless. “I'd like to see what would happen if somebody made a country music record that is commercial by today's standards, that is a little safer in that regard — and then the person who's having hits, like Luke Combs or somebody, says, ‘Oh, and by the way, I'm gay!’ That would be really interesting,” he muses. “And it'll happen.”
Check out Shane McAnally’s extended Yahoo Entertainment interview about ‘Songland,’ his journey, and career below:
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