For his “day job” on the ABC musical drama, Nashville, actor Chris Carmack steps into the cowboy boots of rising country singer Will Lexington, winning over female fans with his confident swagger and down-home country charm. Behind the scenes, Will has been harboring a secret, known only to a few of his friends, former lovers (and a former wife) and one special man in his life. That all changed in an instant when the character outed himself as a proud gay man in front of the press during the series’ third season finale, ending months of “come out already” cries from viewers. The proclamation sets the stage for some heretofore uncharted territory in Nashville‘s fictional realm of country music, but the real-world implications of declarations from gay country singers Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman (both on the very same day) last fall are also unprecedented.
It remains to be seen just what impact being openly gay in country music will have for all of them, but next week, Carmack will show his support for Herndon, Gilman and many others at the first annual Concert for Love and Acceptance at Nashville’s City Winery. As thousands of fans gather from around the world for the annual CMA Music Festival, this groundbreaking event, co-hosted by Herndon and political commentator Meghan McCain (daughter of Sen. John McCain), will include performances by Crystal Gayle, Jamie O’Neal, Meghan Linsey, Stella Parton and Shelly Fairchild, and also feature appearances from Tiffany, Melinda Doolittle, Desmond Child and many others. For Carmack, it’s a chance not only to express solidarity; it’s also a golden opportunity to step out from the musical identity of his TV character to perform some of his own music, which he’s been working on since first moving to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career.
Carmack is now putting the finishing touches on his upcoming EP, Pieces of You, getting band members together and arranging gigs to introduce music that may surprise fans who only know him as Will Lexington. After a battle with bronchitis, he proved the old entertainment axiom, “the show must go on,” sitting down with Rolling Stone Country as he shared the very personal inspiration behind one of the EP’s standout tracks. He also reveals the special spot where he kept his first song lyrics and speculates on Will’s post-coming-out story. (Hint: it involves unicorns.)
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Now that you’re performing your own music in live settings, how does that compare to acting in front of the camera?
Performing live is easy in front of an audience. But when there’s a guy yelling, “Alright, six, five. . .,” and then he goes [holds up four fingers and counts down], you start to go, “Wait! No, wait!” [Laughs] Why’d he stop talking? What’s gonna happen?
You’ve described “Being Alone” from the new EP as “a young person’s solitary struggle to discover his own identity while trying to adhere to the stifling plans and expectations of others.” That, of course, seems to describe Will Lexington, but how much does that describe you?
Very, very much. I wrote the song when I was living in Los Angeles, before I ever had an opportunity to be on Nashville. The inspiration for this song is very much the same as the inspiration I have for playing the character of Will – the sacrifices and loneliness somebody has to feel in order to sideline their personal life in pursuit of their dream. It’s uncanny, the parallel between the song and Will. But it’s because they both come from the same seed.
Was it a coincidence that it fit the description of the character at the same time you’re doing this music for yourself?
I think as we go through life we find so many of these things that we might write off to serendipity. But really, if we’re trying to be true to ourselves and build our lives as we go forward – the result of this comes back around and catches you here – that’s not necessarily serendipity. I really just see it as reinforcement that I’m coming from a truthful place in all things that I try to endeavor.
How would you describe the overall vibe of Pieces of You?
Expect the unexpected. [Laughs] I would say it has a very eclectic grouping of songs. I draw from many different influences – blues, jazz, funk, country and folk. All of those elements exist in all of these songs, but some are more highlighted than others. There’s some hard-hitting blues electric guitar and I’ve got some mellow acoustic guitar. I play guitar and sing on every track.
Why did you decide to release this music now?
When I came to Nashville, I was sort of experimenting with a new identity, experimenting with the country world and country writers. I realized I needed to take a step back from that, to be true to some of the music I’ve been doing over the years and to put that into the world before I move forward and redefine myself again.
Playing Will, what have you learned about country music?
In terms of exploring an identity in the country music world, what I realized very quickly was that there are people who have been performing country music since they were kids. It’s very much a part of who they are; very much that jazz and blues are a part of who I am, because I grew up listening to and playing that kind of music. I had an old blues mentor, Scotty, I played guitar in his blues band. He’d play a lick and then sometimes I’d repeat his lick. He would just laugh and say, “You’re stealin’ my licks, son!” I’d say, “Oh, sorry, Scotty, I won’t play ’em anymore.” He’d say, “No, you play all my licks because, you know what? You’re never gonna beat me at bein’ me.” I might not be able to beat these other guys at their game, but they can’t beat me at mine, so I’m just gonna play my game. That’s not to say there’s a competition. But in terms of producing and releasing my own music, it’s authentic. It comes from my heart and soul, and you can’t poke holes in that. If I was to go out there and try to be Will Lexington, with a cowboy hat on, playing country music, you can poke holes in that! Like, what farm did you grow up on? Well, I didn’t.
So, what was your upbringing like?
When I describe it to people, they say it sounds like I grew up in a different generation. And it feels very much like I did sometimes. I grew up in a neighborhood that was surrounded by farms. There was a horse farm behind me and dairy farms on either side. We would go out and play with the boys that lived on the farm. We’d roam the creeks, fish the ponds, climb trees, build treehouses. We’d find old tractors and try to fix them up. We came home when my dad whistled for us at dinner. Having lived in Los Angeles, in a world where children can’t leave their parents’ sight, it feels like I grew up in a little bit of a dreamscape. When I do my work on Will Lexington, his family and where he grew up, that’s very easy for me because I relate to the countryside, the fields and farms, growing up with a lot of land around you. That’s work I don’t necessarily have to do on my character because it comes so naturally.
How old were you when you first started writing and performing songs?
I started writing silly little songs in kindergarten. I’d write them down on little pieces of paper and keep them in my piggybank. I became more serious about songwriting when I moved to Los Angeles. I was all by myself and trying to make it as an actor in a somewhat hostile environment. I sought refuge in my bedroom with a guitar.
Next week, you’re playing the first annual Concert for Love and Acceptance at Nashville’s City Winery. Why did you decide to get involved with it?
I think it’s wonderful. It’s the first time this has happened during the CMA Music Festival. I ran into Ty at another event and he asked me about it. It’s so poignant to the character I’m playing at the moment. I am obviously in such support of hoping that country audiences can show love and acceptance to all people.
Living in L.A. is a very different environment. Have you always been very open in your acceptance of other people?
Well, yeah. I grew up doing theater and some of my closest friends and mentors were gay. It was always a very natural cross-section of people I knew and loved. It was never really presented to me as [something to be accepted]. It was just my life and these were people I cared about. All of a sudden you’re in country music and there’s a different, pervasive mindset. Whereas before it was, “These are my friends and family and I love these people.” All of a sudden you’re “accepting” and it’s elevated. But it needs to be looked at that way because there are people whose minds need to be changed. They need to know that, perhaps, there is an elevated status to love and acceptance. But, for me, it was always just a natural part of my life.
How much do you know about Will’s arc for the upcoming season?
I have no idea. I’m really looking forward to finding out. Of course, I could press the writers and find out, but I actually get such a kick out of the discovery myself. When I get a new script and discover what’s going to happen with Will, that excitement informs my performance as well. Sometimes I feel like getting the details too far ahead can rob me of that spark.
Now that Will is “out” though, can we assume everything ahead will be smooth sailing?
[Laughs] Oh, yeah! It’s all gumdrops and unicorns from here on out, right? Living in a fairytale land in the clouds. Uh, no. I think being out is something that was very important for Will to do because it was important for him as an individual. He has removed a roadblock from his own life and his own pursuit of happiness. Being out publicly was the right choice in terms of his own ability to live with himself and to pursue a meaningful life. He had lied for so long. It’s one thing to not tell the whole truth to the world. That’s somebody’s own decision; they can do whatever they want. But he had lied and it had eaten him up. He needed to change that.
What’s the reaction been from fans of the show since his coming-out?
Everyone was waiting for him to come out and cheering for him to do that. The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. There were people who were frustrated that it took this long. But it was the path Will needed to take. People would say to me, “It’s 2015, just come out already!” As the person who has to step into Will’s shoes, I’d get my back up a little bit and be like, “How dare you? This is Will’s life and his decisions to make.” But as a supporter of Will, I would be like, “Yeah, do it! They’re gonna love you. They’re gonna support you. It’s gonna be OK.” It’s this double-edged sword, but I’m so happy it went down the way it did in the timeframe it did. It gave Will the time and the motivation and the specific moment that was right.
What kinds of things happening for Will in the new season would give you the most satisfaction as an actor?
The awkward thing about it is you hope bad things happen to your character because that’s the food of drama. But I can say that I really hope Will and Kevin Bicks get to give it a go. I love working with Kyle [Dean Massey], and I think the dynamic of those two characters. . . It’s so great to see Will finally feeling something real. If he loses Kevin, he’s likely to put the armor back up. I want to see him with the armor down for a while.
In addition to the City Winery event on June 12th, Carmack will play CMA Music Fest’s Belk Park Stage on June 13th. Look for his EP, Pieces of You, to be released later this year.