No More Bystanders: Why It’s Time for Country Music Fans to Step Up

First, there were the drafts of tweets that went unsent. Then there were the profanity-laced text messages to trusted friends. Finally, there were nerve-calming cooking videos on YouTube. Making some sense of the sadness and confusion I felt in the wake of the Morgan Wallen video took time. The disappointing revelation that country’s hottest new star had been caught on camera using a racist slur was quickly followed by the joyful coming out of Brothers Osborne frontman T.J. Osborne, stirring up even more emotions. As a country-music fan from small-town Alabama who is also gay, I found elements of both news stories that resonated with me.

Hometown pride is a recurring theme in country music in general and specifically in Wallen’s music. It’s the cornerstone of one of his biggest hits, “More Than My Hometown,” in which the song’s narrator bids farewell to a girl with a “wild” in her eyes that he “just wasn’t born with” as she heads off to a new life in the big city. He’ll stay put, thank you very much, because he “ain’t the runaway kind.” In addition to the sadness about their parting, there’s also some underlying anxiety about what leaving might mean: Hometown is comfortable and familiar; the big city contains a multitude of unknowns that might change a person.

That certainly tracks with my own experience. My hometown isn’t much different from Wallen’s Sneedville, Tennessee, origins. They’re both situated in largely rural areas, and, like many others all over this country, are overwhelmingly white, straight, and resistant to change.

The straight part is important because when T.J. Osborne’s news broke the same day that everything was imploding for Wallen, it connected some dots for me about the way we act when there’s no one to challenge us — as well as how we behave to get by when we don’t fit. As dissimilar as these two events seem on the surface, they’re relatives sprung from that anxiety I hear coursing through “More Than My Hometown.”

I’ve been out for the bulk of my professional life in Nashville, but I remember all too well the feeling of having to disguise myself for acceptance back in my hometown. I was, in a sense, a T.J. Osborne type surrounded by way too many people who casually spoke like Morgan Wallen in the video. Confederate flags were (and to a degree still are) a popular yard decoration, shrines for an imaginary heroic past to accompany their Crimson Tide or Auburn Tigers logos. My high school’s fight song was “Dixie” until 2018. I don’t know that it occurred to me at the time, because my history lessons were heavy on Lost Cause mythology and I was still woefully ignorant about race in this country, but I try to imagine what it would’ve been like to be a visiting athlete from a more diverse school in Decatur or Huntsville, and I feel ashamed.

“I was, in a sense, a T.J. Osborne type surrounded by way too many people who casually spoke like Morgan Wallen in the video.”

As much as we like to imagine ourselves the heroes in our own stories, speaking up isn’t the easiest or most advisable thing to do when your own safety is in jeopardy. I’d heard gay slurs like the f-word tossed around enough in hallways and locker rooms to know that I likely wasn’t in a position to change hearts and minds. I learned from my Southern Baptist church that it wasn’t OK for me to explore my own feelings. I learned that the loudest bigots wouldn’t ever have to answer for the things they said, so I was better off staying under the radar. I learned that I had to act and look a certain way, or there’d be trouble, possibly violence, and likely a big thumbs-down from Jesus. And I say all of this fully aware of the complicated privilege it entails, of being a middle-class white man who could “pass” as straight (for a time). Black people in this country have no such option and, 20-plus years on, I still feel sorry I didn’t say anything back then.

As a teenager in the Nineties, I gravitated mainly toward rap and what I perceived as the weirdness of punk rock instead of to the decade’s big country stars, who did not seem to be making music with me in mind. I liked my grandfather’s Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves albums fine, but they almost seemed like people from another universe. As an adult, I came back around to the contemporary stuff with a new appreciation for grown-ass storytelling and the unmistakable campiness of Dolly, Reba, and Tammy.

I see these same narratives playing out with LGBTQ country stars of the past. That fear forced ridiculously talented singers like Ty Herndon and Chely Wright to hide themselves until well after their commercial peaks. So T.J. Osborne’s choice to come out while signed to a major label and enjoying modest but — let’s be clear — not Morgan Wallen-level success is remarkable. That choice would have meant so much to me back then and will certainly do the same for scores of queer kids all over this country right now. It’s got life-saving potential.

My story isn’t unique. There are thousands of kids in this country who have had to disguise themselves, who may be disguising themselves still, because casual bigotry is the norm where they live. Because very few people are challenging it, and any change is happening at a glacial pace. I am not implying that everyone in these spaces is a violent racist, but make no mistake, a white person’s casual use of the n-word is an act of violence.

In a way, these two events occurring in a single day is a good encapsulation of both America and the country-music industry in 2021: One side is backward-looking and casually bigoted; the other, progressive and cautiously optimistic. Racism has been baked into the experience since the outset. We presently have a range of civil liberties that always seem one Supreme Court justice away from being revoked. Multiple chances are reserved exclusively for straight white men, and anyone classified as “other” often has to claw and fight to get a first chance.

The Wallen/Osborne news happened the same week that Mickey Guyton, the highest-profile black woman working in country music, got to make her late-night television debut. The song she performed on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert was “Black Like Me,” a searing, honest look at the experiences of being black in an industry — and country — where whiteness is foregrounded. It hasn’t made it on the country charts yet, but it did get a Grammy nomination.

So that’s why I bristle a little bit when I hear country artists singing earnestly about unity or getting across a great divide. Those sides aren’t equivalent. It is impossible to square vague support of civil rights with racism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia, and any other attitudes and behaviors that lessen and promote violence against marginalized groups. There is no way to bridge that particular chasm.

As many have already pointed out, Morgan Wallen is but a symptom of a larger systemic issue — both in country music and in the United States. Hopefully he’s on the track to a deeper understanding about why his actions were unacceptable. What remains to be seen is whether anyone in country music — artist or fan — will follow him as he leaves the comfort of hometown behind for whatever change lies ahead. What we must no longer accept is that these behaviors are OK to ignore while we look the other way.