Singer, songwriter Shane McAnally reveals why his coming out journey was so important, and why he "prayed away" his feelings early on in his career.
LYNDSEY PARKER: I want to go all the way back to the beginning. Because before you were on Songland, I just found out that you were on Star Search. Please tell me all about it. I looked on YouTube, and I couldn't find your performance.
SHANE MCANALLY: Oh, thank god, so I was 15. I think I was on the '91, '92 season, and I didn't win my episode. 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. 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. I remember for the first time, you know, like 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 and the idea of two men engaging in any sort of interaction physically like that.
LYNDSEY PARKER: When did you start to realize, I'm gay, or I might be gay, or even have an idea of what that is, what that meant.
SHANE MCANALLY: Well, I certainly didn't know what it meant, because I didn't know any gay people. As I hit puberty and I start having thoughts, feelings of physical reaction, and it's two boys as opposed to girls. I was scared to death. I thought-- I secretly thought maybe everyone felt that way and that it was something that just changed. What I was doing was going to church and going to the altar every time they had altar call and praying about it.
LYNDSEY PARKER: Like praying to not be gay, or praying for the feelings to go away, or--
SHANE MCANALLY: Praying not to be gay, because I think that word in my head was too scary to even consider. Praying that I would be attracted to a female, that I could be right in God's eyes. Surprisingly, even after moving to Nashville, I still wasn't-- I had never been in a relationship with a man or even kissed a boy.
I went to the University of Texas for two semesters, and I met a girl there, who is still one of my closest friends. And we dated, and ultimately, she moved to Nashville with me. And during the process of her 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, and 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. I mean, I hate that.
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. And around that time to even confirm our fears, Ty Herndon, who was having a lot of hits, had a situation, where he had been outed. And he was even married to a woman, and it really hurt his career.
So if anything-- and that was right around the time that my record came out. So certainly, if I had 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.
LYNDSEY PARKER: Is that why you eventually decided to work behind the scenes, where you had, obviously, crazy success?
SHANE MCANALLY: What ultimately happened was my record deal fell apart in Nashville for other reasons. The music just didn't connect, and I moved to Los Angeles. And there I was back in West Hollywood, where I had been a decade before, sort of seeing all of this happen around me. I felt protected, because nobody out there-- first of all, I hadn't had enough of a career for people to know me.
So I just sort of started living as an out man in West Hollywood. The years I spent there, I was still doing music, but I was just doing singer songwriter shows. Now I realize that writing all those songs by myself, the cathartic sort of journey of coming out was all something that had to happen so that when I went back to Nashville, I knew who I was. And that really changed everything for me.
When I got back to Nashville, those first few months, I was living on my sister's couch. And I was still having that problem of writing with people I used to know and using the wrong pronoun. I mean, even after all this, and I was just-- I didn't know what Nashville would think.
And 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 gotta be telling the truth. That's top level.
LYNDSEY PARKER: What was the reaction within the industry? It seems like within Nashville that is, did you experience any of the things that you were fearing that you wouldn't be accepted or that people wouldn't want to work with you?
SHANE MCANALLY: No, none. It was all-- if any of that happened-- and I've said this before. If that happened, It didn't. It never happened in front of me. I never felt on the outside of anything once I was out.
It's so funny. It seems the opposite, you know? I went outside, and everyone let me in. But the true sort of biggest idea of what the good old boys club is in Nashville, the leader of that is Luke Bryan. He sort of represents our industry from that point of view, and 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 was like, I just want to be sure that, does Luke know that I'm gay? They said, I don't know. Would you like me to ask him? And I was like, I mean, I don't know. I don't know.
I don't want that be a surprise, and it didn't mean anything. I was just like, oh yeah, I guess I knew that. I mean, it just wasn't a conversation. I realized how long I had been holding on to that, but everyone else had gotten past it.
LYNDSEY PARKER: Obviously, being LGBTQ in the country world, it's a different world than it used to be, but it's still a tough world. And I can maybe count on two hands the amount of mainstream openly gay singers, who are very successful, who are like household names.
SHANE MCANALLY: 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, saying, oh, and by the way, I'm gay. That would be really interesting, and it'll happen.