Why 2014 Was a Breakthrough Year for Country's LGBT Community

In the historically right-winged genre, musicians, fans and executives alike are finally starting to see past sexual identity

Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark pose with their CMA Song of the Year trophies for "Follow Your Arrow," one of the biggest LGBT victories in a breakthrough 2014. Credit: Sara Kauss/Getty Images

One brisk morning this past November in New York City, Ty Herndon went for a run. He woke up, slipped on his sneakers and headed out for his usual eight miles or so — just one of the ways he keeps himself looking at least a decade shy of his 52 years. It was the same way that he would start any other day – except this was anything but. After his exercise and his routine prayer and meditation, the country singer got dressed and headed to Le Parker Meridien hotel for an interview where he would publicly admit something he'd been hiding for his entire existence in the public eye: He is gay.

Related: The Forsaken: Gay Teens Shunned by Their Religious Families

"November was a pretty monumental month for a lot of things," Herndon tells Rolling Stone Country. Indeed. A few weeks earlier, Kacey Musgraves stood onstage at the CMA Awards next to her openly gay cowriters, Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, accepting Song of the Year honors for "Follow Your Arrow," which, for all intents and purposes, is about having the freedom to get high and kiss who you want, same sex or not. Chely Wright, essentially the first openly lesbian artist in the genre, was still reeling from a record Kickstarter campaign that raked in $250,000, and Billy Gilman came out hours after Herndon. So yes, it was a pretty monumental month. But, to be fair, it had been a pretty rough run thus far for LGBT acceptance in country music.

"I made a lot of mistakes over the years trying to be in this business and trying to cover up that I was gay," Herndon says. The morning of the interview he was "completely freaking out," but, after the footage aired on Entertainment Tonight and was followed by a story in People magazine, he finally felt some relief. Hiding who he was "definitely almost took my life more than once," he says. Drugs and alcohol sent him to rehab — they were easy tools to dull the pain of an existence shadowed by denial. He sang songs about being in love with women. He even married two of them. Nashville just wasn't a safe place to come out, yet.

Country music, while essentially a genre that is centered on professing the stories of real life experience, has historically never been a very friendly place to be overtly gay. Even as many minds have shifted in recent years, and marriage equality has rapidly expanded across the country, Music Row stagnated. While Macklemore and Queen Latifah led a mass wedding ceremony at January 2014's Grammys for many same-sex couples, country awards shows are still generally stuffed with safe, conservative humor. Coming out, and singing about free sexuality, hasn't been part of the program.

But this year's CMA Awards were different. When Musgraves won for "Follow Your Arrow," her out co-writers in tow, the online sphere was quick to tag it as a banner moment for gay rights. Was country music finally embracing LGBT fans and musicians? Maybe. When Herndon watched the trio accept their trophy, he cried. "I've been in the fabric of this community for a while, so I know all the voters out there," he says, "and for them to open up their hearts and do that, it was a monumental day." But really, 2014's shift didn't start with the academy or voters. A lot of it began with one girl from Texas.

When Musgraves entered the scene with "Merry Go Round," a song that is, at its core, almost more radical than "Follow Your Arrow," she wasn't shooting for mainstream stardom that might compromise her point of view. She was a transfer from Lost Highway, the now defunct label that became a part of Universal Records, and had once been home to Ryan Adams and Hayes Carll. In other words, more of a place to make albums that might land on critics' lists, rather than launch its players onto any major-network awards-show stages.

From the get-go, Mugraves was not going to be silent on the subject of LGBT issues, particularly considering that two of her most trusted collaborators, McAnally and Clark, are gay and lesbian, respectively. She made early allies with gay gossip blogger Perez Hilton, was the first country performer to play the GLAAD Media Awards and eventually found herself on tour with Katy Perry, another woman who wove a song out of same-sex lip-locking — the difference being that "I Kissed a Girl" actually topped the charts. "Follow Your Arrow," despite winning awards and riling opinions, still didn't fare spectacularly well on country radio — though no one really expected that it would.

"The fact that I'm considered progressive in this day and age is kind of sad to me," Musgraves told Out.com. "I'm not. I'm just writing and singing about things that inspire me and inspire a lot of people. Country music, especially, is supposedly a genre where you talk about real life, real things. I don't think it should be considered that crazy." Amazingly, her CMA Awards win indicated that the people voting – the infrastructure that makes up the bones of Nashville's music industry, in a state that overwhelmingly vetoes any liberal policies – might not only agree with her in that, but also be gravitating towards a more open era.

"It's been one of the most active years in terms of recognizing and acknowledging LGBT in country music," says Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, which is working steadfastly to expand its hold in the southern states, particularly in the entertainment industry, through programs like Southern Stories. "But part of the resistance has been this misperception that you are either a person of faith, or you are pro-LGBT, and they are not mutually exclusive. You can be both. And we're starting to see an evolution around that conversation as well."

Country music has never been shy when it comes to religious conviction, from George Strait's "I Saw God" to Carrie Underwood's "Something in the Water," and that's made it sometimes reluctant to openly embrace the LGBT community, though that hesitancy seems to often come from behind office doors and not from the mouths of artists themselves — and not out of hatred, but out of fear.

"I was always told I shouldn't have an opinion about anything because if someone doesn't agree with it, then they won't buy your album," says LeAnn Rimes, a close friend of Herndon who has been open with her support for the gay community for years and recently appeared in a video for GLAAD. "It's an incredibly sad way to grow up and very confusing. But hopefully we are making huge strides right now."

That definitely appears to be the case. If you examine the list of country musicians who have come out in support of LGBT rights in one way or another, it's essentially a who's who of the genre's royalty: Underwood, Dolly Parton, Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, Reba, Wynonna, even Shock'n Y'all Toby Keith. Rascall Flatts were the first to express a sentiment echoed by "Follow Your Arrow" years later with their 2009 song "Love Who You Love," which was widely embraced at the time as an anthem preaching equality. The influence of these stars – who also speak openly about faith – seems to be reaching a critical mass.

Many also attribute the recent shift in attitudes to the genre's gravitation towards pop and a younger, broader group of fans who are more liberal-minded when it comes to social issues. Additionally, it's due to a change in the internal gears of Music Row, thanks to the likes of McAnally.

The fact that a traditionally conservative industry base in Nashville has embraced him as a key conspirator represents a huge step forward. Take Sam Hunt, for one, a quite alpha-male persona who wears his collaboration with McAnally loud and proud — together, the duo writes songs about romance and does so to chart-topping results. When a New York Times article was published essentially outing McAnally (though he never quite hid his sexuality), many insisted he'd see trouble in the writing room. But the opposite happened – his star has only risen since, his romantic preference no more of a factor than it would be for a straight person, the focus only on his sharp lyrical voice and keen ear.

Same for the third "Follow Your Arrow" writer, Clark. Her 2013 record, 12 Stories, was widely regarded as a beautiful, complete work — but labels weren’t clamoring to sign her. Headlines like "Brandy Clark's debut album is a stunner: but will anybody hear it?" showed up in places like the Washington Post. When Chely Wright came out as a lesbian, she had already built a fan base; this was a country debut from an openly gay woman. Not only that, but Clark didn't play to convention. She didn't sexualize herself or go pop-star pantsless, because her particular bed-room predilections were rather moot to the plot of her music. "I don’t write songs for straight people or gay people or black people or white people," she told the Washington Post. "I write songs for people. I want them to put themselves in these songs. I would feel that way if I was straight." She announced a deal with Warner Bros. in November — with their Los Angeles arm, however.

While obstacles still remain, this year's breakthroughs should only hasten country music's full embrace of its LGBT fans and musicians. Musgraves is at work on a second album with McAnally, and Clark is up for Best Country Album and Best New Artist at February's Grammy Awards. In March, reissue label Paradise of Bachelors re-released the 1973 debut from Lavender Country — they say it's "[w]idely recognized as the first openly gay country music album" —  featuring songs like "Come Out Singing" and "Back in the Closet Again." For Herndon, he's felt the aftershocks of his announcement on the ground level. "There's artists backstage giving me hugs," he says. "And I can't walk into Costco these days without people walking up to me and telling me their story. Everyone from a grandmother whose grandson has come out or a mother who had a gay son who was struggling with it."

Leave it to Dolly Parton – country's Tennessee queen and gay icon for years, who recently hinted at a track called "Just a Wee Bit Gay" from a possible upcoming dance album – to break it down simply. "I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love," she told Billboard. "I don't think we should be judgmental. Lord, I've got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else."