By Lily Rex
“Hurt people hurt people,” Brandon Stansell sang from the Analog at Hutton stage in Nashville recently, closing a national tour in support of his latest album, This Must Be the Place.
True as it is that hurt people hurt people, forging further paths of destruction to match their own, we can be thankful that sometimes hurt people also heal people… and ourselves, when we find community, share our stories, and lift each other up. This was the energy on full display as Stansell returned to his home state, which, to be clear, is a place that hasn’t always been kind to queer people… or to Stansell, himself.
He made waves in 2018 as the first out gay artist to debut a music video on CMT. He’s collaborated with fellow queer country icon Ty Herndon and well-known ally, Cam. Like so many in the community, he has found support everywhere except with parts of his family since coming out.
“I can’t tell you what it feels like to be back again after years of not being able to play in front of a live audience,” Stansell said as he began his set with the title track from his new album and the story of how it came about. Driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, singing in the car and enjoying that special brand of Southern California weather, he spotted a big neon sign that said ‘This Must Be The Place.’ In the aftermath of a breakup, he said he thought for the first time, ‘This is what it feels like to be back to me again.’ Then he went home and wrote the song, which he followed at the Analog show with “Good at the Time,” a cheeky song about getting back into the dating world with high hopes.
Introducing “Hurt People,” Stansell said, “A big part of my journey and part of my healing story has been knowing that we are all human, we are all fallible people.” In the transition to his next song, he added, “My journey as a queer person has been a long one. I’ve lost people along the way.”
Stansell took us on the journey with him, playing favorites such as “Slow Down,” “Hometown,” and “Never Know” from his 2017 debut alongside the songs he wrote during the pandemic that make up This Must Be The Place. The set list interspersed songs about the difficulties of being queer (“The God’s Honest Truth”) and being human (“Thirty-Three,” “Never Know”) with those more joyful (“Slow Down”), ending on a hopeful note with “Wild Ride,” an uptempo, forward-looking number about the adventures of his last couple years. “I truly believe my best days as an artist and as a human are ahead of me,” he remarked.
Openers Courtney Cole and Jeffrey James were phenomenal and set the scene with songs of healing, growth, self-compassion and love. And the crowd made it clear that they had come to show some compassion and love when James had a rough start to one of his songs, loudly cheering him on as he took a breather and restarted.
Initially watching from an upper loft ‘VIP’ area, I was soon drawn down the stairs to be as close to the stage—and Stansell’s infectious energy—as I could manage. I needed to better feel the pulse of the room, to see every detail and immerse myself in the audience.
Stansell made a national tour stop in a packed Nashville club feel intimate with perfectly timed storytelling between songs. He commanded the room with the energy of a superstar. Superstars have superfans, and I soon found myself standing right next to one.
Jim knew every word of every song, singing and swaying along, lost in the moment. He was in his 60s, with a full head of gray hair, drinking successive Miller Lites alone at a high top table. I’m ashamed my judgments got the best of me, but he sure didn’t look like the target demographic. I had to know what led him to partying at Analog in a Brandon Stansell sweatshirt.
As it turns out, this was Jim’s second time seeing Brandon perform live, and it won’t be the last. He told me he first heard Stansell’s music at a friend’s wedding. The couple had broken up and spent years apart before they saw the light and took the big plunge. Fittingly, their first dance was to Brandon’s “Pick Up Where We Left Off.”
From there, Jim listened to all of Brandon’s music, not realizing how much they had in common until he got to “Hurt People.” “I didn’t even know the guy was gay. I’m gay, but I didn’t know he was until I heard that, and it was obviously his coming out story,” Jim told me.
The last few years have left many of us in a lonely place: isolated, fearful, and longing for human connection. Stansell’s show fostered a sense of community that’s been in short supply. The sheer number of artists churned out of Nashville’s big music machine makes it all too easy to get lost in the din. But talking with Jim and watching others reel with excitement after the show, it was clear that Stansell’s musical energy is capable of creating a destination spot… a gathering place. It’s not just a quick stop along the way.
Lily Rex (they/she) is a queer, Nashville-based writer obsessed with American history, rivers, and Country/Folk/Americana music. They hail from Northwest Indiana, where they amassed over 600 bylines in three years as a government watchdog reporter for an independent newspaper, and are the author of the poetry chapbook Rivers Have Friends Too (2021). Follow them on Instagram @rexpoet