By Lily Rex
Nashville was proud as hell this CMA Fest as queer musicians rocked Assembly Food Hall for four hours during Thursday night’s Country Proud showcase.
A raucous celebration that at times turned into a dance party, it was the first ever showcase highlighting LGBTQ artists as part of CMA Fest.
Sonia Leigh opened the show with “Sweet Annie,” the hit single she wrote for Zac Brown Band. It was a wonderful start to set the tone for the show—proof that queer artists and songwriters are making thoroughly relatable music in Nashville.
Gina Venier followed with songs such as “Take me There,” “Radio Silence,” and her latest single “Nora Jane.” Venier has garnered significant attention for the song, a heartfelt coming out story with a happy ending. People and Billboard have both featured it, and some folks in the crowd could be seen in navy blue “Nora Jane” trucker hats.
Venier got some of the loudest early crowd reactions, along with Kristen Merlin, The Kentucky Gentleman, Adam Mac, and Breann Young.
Merlin showed off the powerhouse vocals that got her top five honors on Season Six of NBC’s The Voice. Her stage presence was the stuff of superstardom as she performed “Don’t Call it a Comeback,” a bluesy unreleased number called “Gravedigger,” and fan favorite, “Shame.”
Meanwhile, The Kentucky Gentleman were celebrating the release of their latest single “Love Language,” which they closed their set with. They opened with “Whatever You’re Up For,” never losing their infectious energy on “Vintage Lover” and “Vibin’.”
Mac sang a soulful, soaring rendition of “Make You Mine,” then slowed it down with his anthemic “Black and White.” Young broke hearts with a set of fiery, unreleased material, including “Why Don’t You Love Me,” and “Pour a Little Love On It.” She shared memories of playing certain bars and changing the pronouns in her songs, but those days are gone, she said. She broke out of that pattern while playing a set at East Nashville’s famous queer hangout, The Lipstick Lounge, she told us, and she isn’t looking back.
When Steff Mahan took the stage, she joked that she represents “the old guard of queer Nashville,” as she’s been around since before many in the crowd were born, and also that she “didn’t get the memo to wear a cool hat.” Indeed, rancher hats and vests abounded among both the crowd and performers, along with what I lovingly call “lesbian dad fashion,” which was exactly what I came clad in.
Mahan also told a story that stood in sharp contrast to Young’s: she was dropped from her record label and lost her publishing deal as a result of coming out. Though she was discouraged, she explained that her beloved neighbor Louise told her not to leave town. “If you have a talent, you have to do it,” she urged the crowd. “Don’t let anyone stand in your way.”
Other highlights included Jessica Rose with her singles “Whiskey Knows” and “Quit Complaining,” Harper Grae with “I Like Ya Like That” off her just released album, Confessions of a Good Southern Lady, and Zoe Cummins with “Well Tequila.”
Chris Housman also took the stage, slaying on double-bass while Charlie Worsham accompanied on guitar. The duo played “Blueneck,” “Nobody,” and “Bible Belt—” an unreleased up-tempo song that Housman has teased on Tiktok with biting wit about weaponized religion.
Maia Sharp, another old guard hero to many in the community, sang the thumping “Junkyard Dog” and sensual “Backburner” from her new album Mercy Rising, then dusted off “A Home,” a song of hers that The Chicks recorded for 2002’s Home.
If the showcase was one long song of queer gratitude and love then the crescendo would’ve been when Shelly Fairchild arrived and joyously lifted the crowd that much higher. Even Tally Bevis, the reigning Miss Tennessee, got up on her feet. It’s not as odd as it might seem: Bevis appeared in Fairchild’s music video for “Tiny Town” when she was just seven years old. She came out Thursday to support Fairchild and the rest of the showcasing artists.
“I’m so honored to be here as an ally,” she said from the stage, holding hands with Fairchild. “I grew up in Springfield, Tennessee, just north of Nashville, and I can promise you that in all the CMA fests, and all the times I have been in Nashville, there’s never been as beautiful of a night.”
Fairchild did her old favorite “Mississippi Turnpike,” which inspired dancing and singing so energetic you could barely hear her and her tambourine over the ambient joy in the room. She followed with “Damn Good Lover” before enlisting rising stars Chapel Hart to back her up on her latest, “Made to Shine.”
Lila McCann did her 1997 breakout “Down Came a Blackbird.” McCann, Sharp, and Fairchild, friends of 20 odd years, joined each other, and the last three sets became a sort of writer’s round with shared stories and memories.
The three closed the show with McCann’s classic, “I Wanna Fall in Love,” inviting Country Proud organizers, Emily and Jamie Dryburgh of RNBW Queer Music Collective, up onto the stage.
The crowd was buzzing and joyful—full of people happy to see one another, whether running into old friends or mingling alongside strangers. Old and young, stereotypical cowboys and tourists mixed with smiling queer couples who ranged from unfazed to star-struck by the iconic Ms. Kennedy Ann Scott. Scott roamed the room with all the sass and grandeur that Lipstick Lounge regulars have come to expect from their beloved emcee. I was personally too shy to tell her that her overalls were truly giving me life.
After the show, Venier said, “It was a celebration of the power of queer music.” It was a celebration, and not just of pride, but also of community.
I was taken back to the festivals I went to every summer as a gay kid growing up in Indiana. Kicking back with a lemonade slush and a funnel cake, I’d lose myself to the music of everyday people—my neighbors, mill workers. These were folks making music for the love of it, because they were called to and not for the promise of record deals. Authentic. True to themselves. This is what country music has always been to me, and I’ve never seen it on better display than on Thursday night. Lila McCann said it best: “No matter how you identify, great music is great music.”
Fairchild was a reeling, livewire of energy after the show, greeting me with a hug and a huge, warm smile. “I can’t believe that just happened. Well, I can and I can’t,” she said. “It happened because of a lot of hard work and courage and bravery. A lot of not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
According to Emily Dryburgh, though, she and Jamie didn’t hit a wall when they planned the event. When she approached CMT and CMA about sponsoring the showcase, “it wasn’t just a yes, it was a hell yes,” she said. “Love is as universal as music,” she said. “We’re trying to set a precedent.”
And set a precedent they damn sure did, showcasing four hours of pure country songs about life changes, drinking, and loving or leaving the one you’re with. As Housman sings in “Blueneck,” “George Straight or George Gay, there’s no difference.”
Visible through the Food Hall’s windows, behind the Country Proud backdrop, was the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music with her banners that proclaim her to be ‘Music’s Most Iconic Stage.’ Country Proud gave her a run for her money on Thursday, her restored windows like eyes looking in on a new congregation.
Perhaps she was feeling a little jealous, and why wouldn’t she be? But mostly, I bet she and all her ghosts were singing along with us, proud.
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