In 1988, the World Health Organization designated December 1st as first World AIDS Day. Just six years later in 1994, AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25 to 44. That same year viewers were tuning in — in record numbers — to watch MTV’s The Real World, which featured Pedro Zamora, a young man living with HIV.
Not surprisingly, the conservative country-music industry had been slow to acknowledge that the disease was affecting every community, including its own. Still, there were a few high-profile celebrities paving the way for a greater understanding and compassion for those battling the disease. Perhaps the first to publicly show her support was 1989 and 1990 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Kathy Mattea. In 1992, Mattea defied the staunchly conservative organization when they instructed CMA Awards performers and presenters to wear a green ribbon to signify support for environmental causes during the live telecast rather than the ubiquitous red ribbon that supported the advancement of AIDS research. Mattea not only displayed three red ribbons, she revealed the names of the three friends who had died from the disease and in whose honor she wore the symbols.
By 1994 more country acts were rallying around AIDS-related causes, including the more than two dozen who contributed their talents to Red Hot + Country, a compilation LP that featured Mattea, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Brooks & Dunn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Suzy Bogguss, Alison Krauss, Marty Stuart, Earl Scruggs, Jackson Browne and others. The album went on to receive two Grammy nominations and a live performance by artists who appeared on the LP was taped at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for video release.
Perhaps even more significantly, 1994 marked the release of Reba McEntire’s single “She Thinks His Name Was John.” The song — from the Read My Mind album — was penned by Steve Rosen and Sandy Knox, the latter of whom also co-wrote McEntire’s “Does He Love You” as well as “Why Haven’t I Heard From You.”
“She Thinks His Name Was John” was inspired by Knox’s brother, who had succumbed to AIDS. The piano ballad details a dying woman’s murky recollections of a one-night stand she had with a stranger, which resulted in her contracting the disease. Lamenting that she would never marry or have children, the heartbreakingly downbeat storyline was representative of the plight at the time. The song’s reception at country radio was — as expected — far from overwhelming. For only the fourth time since her first Number One single in 1982, McEntire missed the Top 10. The tune peaked at Number 15 on the country chart.
Another under-the-radar chapter of AIDS’ effect on country music was unfolding around the same time with a hugely successful Nashville songwriter. Jimbeau Hinson, who co-wrote the Number One hits “Party Crowd” (David Lee Murphy), “I’m Settin’ Fancy Free” (the Oak Ridge Boys) and “Hillbilly Highway” (Steve Earle), had secretly been living with AIDS for a decade. Hinson, whose website describes him as having formerly lived an openly bisexual existence, had worked as a music publisher in his teens and abandoned thoughts of a recording career once he learned his HIV status. Once given from just six months to two years to live, Hinson released his first album Strong Medicine in 2013 on Wrinkled Records, the indie label formed by “She Thinks His Name Was John” songwriter Sandy Knox.
While HIV/AIDS remains a global concern, AIDS deaths have fallen by 42 percent since their peak in 2004, according to the United Nations AIDS website. The organization’s most recent statistics from 2012 show that between 920,000 and 1.8 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV.