Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

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Preview: Joy Clark and TJ Osborne on Proud Radio with Hunter Kelly

Image Courtesy of Proud Radio with Hunter Kelly on Apple Music Country

The upcoming episode of Proud Radio with Hunter Kelly, which premieres this Sunday, June 26, features two CQ favorites—and we’ve got an advance taste for you! Joy Clark joins Proud Radio with Hunter Kelly to discuss her love of the guitar and finding community with other Black and queer country artists. TJ Osborne talks about his coming out journey, including his mother’s reaction, and his desire to stay in the country music genre.

Here are some key moments in the show…

Joy Clark on her awakening in the church

It started in church. There was this, I guess, just a divine happening that happened in church. That happens for a lot of musicians. And my eyes would just be glued on the bandstand. There was a guitar, there was a bass and drums, just singers. They had chimes, they had timpani, it was all-out church music, because I grew up in church. And there was just something about the guitar that, I like to say I thought it was sexy before I knew what sexy meant. It’s something about it, right? There’s something about it that just resonated with me. And I went through periods where I didn’t have a guitar, and I’d take broken tennis rackets, and that would be my guitar, or broomstick, or stretch a rubber band across the kitchen table, and just to make different noises. And it was really something that called to me, and I knew I could do it. And so I bugged my parents. And so my parents were my first supporters, and they put it on layaway, and took a couple months, and we got it out, and we were inseparable, me and my guitar.

Joy Clark on coming out and finding her community

I didn’t come out early. I should put quotes because nobody has to come out. And nothing is early and nothing is late. So I have to change my vocabulary around it. But it wasn’t until once I got to college and once I started to be on the music scene and find my community of a lot of queer black women. It was a little bit after I decided to wear my natural hair. There was something about that, that sort of made me come into myself. Once I did that, I started to find my music community, and it was all kinds of artists, mostly black women.

And once I found that, then I started to see, this is where I am. I’ve always felt out of place, but I started to find my community and I was able to sort of toggle with, “Okay, this is where I grew up. And then this is where I am now.” But I kept those worlds very separate. That was really hard. And I struggled with being a full-on person, performer, singer songwriter, guitarist, who kind of had a double life, because I was playing in church on Sundays. Not really a double life, but people didn’t know me. People didn’t know the city Joy, the college Joy or the Joy that is being open to different worlds and sociology, and things that challenge you and make you think. And I was learning all of that. And it was really correlating with me growing as an artist and finding my community. But I still had to keep them separate because I was very much on the worship team at church. And yes, my dad is a minister. You said it right. He’s a minister.

But it got to a point where I realized I am not going to grow, personally. I can’t get to the next level. Not in just music. I wasn’t even thinking about that. Just life. Yes, I decided to come out to my minister of parents and it was the hardest. I’m smiling right now when I’m thinking about it. But it was the hardest thing, the hardest conversation, the first adult conversation that I ever had with my parents. It was like, right before I chose to do it, I was thinking to myself, “Why am I doing this again? because I don’t need to talk to them about my life. I don’t do that anyway. But I can keep doing what I’m doing.” But I knew this has to be done for you to grow. Not musically. I wasn’t even thinking about music. It was just life.


You can't pair a wine with an album...can you?

Joy Clark on working with Allison Russell

Working with Allison has been like community personified. I don’t know if that’s it, but it’s as it should be. She is so aware. She’s very aware of her platform. That’s what I want to say. And being in a situation where everybody is genuinely uplifting each other, that is just you really can’t say enough about it. It’s where you want to be. It’s what I’ve always wanted, and just as a musician, too.

As a musician, being able to jump in. Like that night you were talking about. It was one of those moments where it was so easy, because when the musicianship is like, “Hey,” it’s like what? You’ve been doing this for a long time. You’ve sat in with bands in New Orleans and jammed on three-chord songs or a fun progression. So being able to pull that out in Nashville, and it was like a full circle moment of this is all the years of training of playing your own songs, accompanying yourself, accompanying singers here in New Orleans. For that to happen and for her to just go, “Hey, I want Joy to come on stage with this last one.” It’s like, yeah, this is going to be fun. This is going to be great.

TJ Osborne on liking redneck stuff and being gay

I’m very fortunate to have grown up in a family that was very accepting of people like that so I never really necessarily felt like I had to hide. I think it was a bit of maybe in some ways kind of the opposite, I didn’t feel that way so I would be like maybe I’m not gay because I liked kind of redneck stuff and I enjoyed it. I didn’t do it for a façade, I enjoyed fishing and I enjoyed this country lifestyle. So, for a long time I was like, I don’t know that I am because once again, my mind what it was to be gay was you had to look a certain way or sound a certain way and I didn’t. So I’m like, maybe I’m not.

TJ Osborne on no longer using the word ‘Girl’ in songs

We have a song called “Rum.” And in that song, it doesn’t really reference necessarily a relationship, but it says, “Sitting with the finest example of a beautiful girl.” And I liked the way that line is. I just liked the way it sounds, but I knew from then I was like, “I don’t ever want to say girl again in a song.” One, it kind of became a country cliche to always say it in every song. But I just knew that it hit the gut in a weird way. Or people will pitch me songs for that. People still pitch me songs with girl in it. I’m like, “What the hell? Read a book.”

Anyhow. Now, if you notice, from there, every other song we had was gender neutral. We didn’t have anything specific about that. And over the years, there’s people who would contact us. And that would be like gay couples that would get married and actually be like, “Man, it’s awesome. We like country music, but we can’t play any songs at our wedding because they all reference a girl or they reference particularly that.” So, that’s also was another part of our strategy was, eventually, I’m going to come out, and I don’t want like 10 songs that say girl because that’s going to seem really strange.”

TJ Osborne on kissing his boyfriend before accepting a CMA Award

That was a moment when it happened. I didn’t think like, “Let me give my boyfriend a kiss on national television.” It was like, “Okay, we just won. This is the shock. Here’s the person I love. I’m going to give him a kiss.” Like I would do any other moment in my life that would be like this. And it wasn’t until I went backstage, everyone was like, “Oh, man. Everyone’s talking about that.” I’m like, “Talking about what?” And they were like, “The kiss.” I’m like, “What kiss are you…” I was like so confused. I’m like, “What kiss?” Like, “You kissed Abi before you went on stage.” I still was like, “Well, what’s the big deal?” I mean, we’re talking about this, but then I didn’t necessarily… After processing it, I was like, “Well, I guess…”

It’s one thing hearing about it, but then getting to actually see it happen. I didn’t realize at the time how important that was for a lot of people. Because I have heard a lot of people bring that up, and it’s wonderful that they got to feel that and see that happen I suppose. But I didn’t realize that at the moment how important that would be for people to see.”

TJ Osborne on expressing himself through fashion and not hiding mannerisms

Actually I was in a therapy session. That’s exactly what it was. I was explaining to her that I think for me it was different in some ways in the sense that for most of my life, I didn’t hide who I was in the sense of how I carry myself, my mannerisms. They’re all very naturally this, and so I never felt like I had to maybe put a veil up or act more masculine to try to hide it. I just happened to naturally kind of be this way, and it made it easy for a long time for me to avoid that. Then I made the joke that I was like, now the only thing that really changes is my fashion choices on the Red Carpet. I would kind of tame that down a little bit.

I’m like, sequins, slippers, probably not going to wear those this year. Maybe next year. So that part, certainly and I think the other thing that has changed immensely is when we perform live, I didn’t realize that I was processing or filtering kind of maybe some of my physical mannerisms. Not that I’m strutting around on stage and putting on this performance, but I mean, I would just make sure that I wouldn’t do something that would lean into maybe making people question my sexuality because I just wanted to kind of avoid that because ultimately I didn’t want to deny it. I just didn’t want anyone asking because I didn’t want to lie about it, and I knew I wouldn’t, so I would steer around it as much as possible.”

TJ Osborne on the difference between the reaction to the “Stay a Little Longer” music video and his coming out

The other thing, just to show kind of, I think where we’ve grown in country music that is interesting to me is I actually, we got way more blow back for having a gay couple in that music video than we did when I actually came out. A lot of people are like, “How was it received?” It was very little, I mean, a couple little things here and there, once again, when you’re in the public eye, every thing you do, someone hates something. It’s just part of social media these days, but it was way worse when we had that video. I mean, we had people that were some… We had death threats and a lot of really aggressive behavior.

I think it was like weaning people off of what they perceive country music to be, and having to shake up that narrative a little bit and expose that there were other things, other ways of thinking. I don’t think where we are now is because of that music video, but I do think that music video played a part in where we are currently and we obviously, still have a long way to go, but I think starting the conversation, being a part of that is I think has been certainly integral in where we are in our current career as far as the fans that we have, who I think are very forward-thinking and more open-minded.

TJ Osborne on staying in the genre after coming out

I think people like you and I are needed in the genre more than ever. And we love country music, we’re country music fans. There is people with some opposing mindsets that have a good, strong grip on the genre and they can have that piece of the pie. But there’s people that are out there that I know because I’m one of them that have a different mindset, but still really love the music. And I hear all the time, I just heard it just two nights ago, we played a benefit in Kansas City and this older gay couple, married couple came up and the gentleman said to me he’s like, “I have loved country music my whole life and I’ve ran away from it for decades now. And I finally feel like I can come back to it and feel like I belong here.” And I’m like, God. That to me just shatters me to hear. And I tend to kind of forget how important it is to have that representation or whatever you want to call it.

TJ Osborne on what it means to be gay and love country music

There’s also the balance, I don’t have to keep going on and on about this, but that I feel like I’m finally starting to figure out is, I didn’t want to, now that I’m out, just suddenly be labeled as, “That’s the gay guy.” I wanted to be, “Okay. That’s TJ Osborne, who’s in this band, who happens to also be gay.” I didn’t want that to be at the forefront of the conversation piece for people.

Now, it was trying to find that balance of, yes, I want to talk about it, because if I don’t and I just let it go away to the wayside, then what a missed opportunity to, hopefully, get others to see and hear what country music can look… or what it is to be gay, what that means. If you were to say, “Act,” to someone who’s not gay, to act gay, they would put on a very flamboyant show, which is, in our mind, what it would be, in preconceived notions, to be, when in reality, it is that. But it’s also me, it’s you, it’s a lot of different things.

Fancy and I have talked about that. What does he say? He says something like, “We’re in the same bowl, but we’re different fruits.” That’s why I do think to bring it up if they don’t talk about it. I want people to have that moment. But at the same time, I don’t want people being like, “Jesus, we get it. We know. Move on. Quit talking about it.””

TJ Osborne on Rodney, a patron at his mom’s hair salon

For instance, there was a guy. His name was Rodney and he always just had very fishnet shirts and Daisy Duke shorts and the whole thing and was so incredibly okay with himself. And this would’ve been in the, I guess, probably early nineties, in that area. So it was very uncommon.

And I was like, “Whoa, I’ve never seen anyone like this before,” and he’d come in and it was always like everything was just… There was a fire that broke out in the back of the salon and Rodney was like, “Y’all,” he said, “There’s a fire,” and then everyone’s still going. He’s like, “There’s a fire.” He was super extra and just was that type of person that seeing someone… I didn’t see necessarily myself in Rodney in the sense that I wanted to dress the way he did, but seeing someone that felt so comfortable in their own skin to do those things and did not give a shit what anyone thought of him, that was him and he was going to be himself, that was inspiring to me.

TJ Osborne on how long it took for his mother to accept his sexuality

Well, the funny thing is, and my mom’s come around, she was the one that struggled the most for the longest time with accepting my sexuality and, I don’t know if you would call it irony or not, but she is to me, like kind of like a gay icon in the making. I don’t know what it is about her, but the gays just freak out over her. I think because she is just so authentically herself, and she does not G.A.F. She is just purely that woman and has such a strong gravity to her that I think, I used to hate for the largest part of my life, but now I’ve come to really respect.

I think a lot of those same qualities that I have now for good or for bad, but she does think sometimes, and I’m like … I’ll post it on my Instagram. She’s like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “The gays have to see this, like they are going to freak out,” and they do every time. I just think it’s funny that the… Here’s the thing too, she was a hair dresser. My first experience being around gay men were through her being in a salon and seeing men that were very openly gay and proud, and that those were my first time I’m experiencing that coming from a really small town. At the same time, I’m like, “You’re struggling with the perception of me being gay. You don’t have a problem with gay people, but your idea of who I am isn’t that,” so it took her a long time to kind of restructure that in her mind.

Tune in this Sunday, June 26, at 2pm PT / 4pm CT / 5pm ET, or any time afterward at on Apple Music Country.

Media and quotes courtesy of Proud Radio with Hunter Kelly on Apple Music Country.