The following piece originally ran on the Huffington Post in 2016 and I thought it was an interesting read today, just a couple years later. -Kevin James Thornton
While packing up my grandfather’s belongings after his death, we found an old Gibson guitar in his closet. Stuck in the strings: a receipt from 1955. The words “promises to pay five dollars a month” were scribbled in faded pencil.
I took that guitar and a dream to Nashville. I also brought a fearless sense of self. The cover art of my first album displayed a photo of me and my drummer holding hands, and our press release introduced me as openly gay. It was 2001, and that was edgy for Nashville.
The local entertainment rag often wrote about us, as well as another local band that everyone in town loved to hate. It sometimes felt as if it was us against that band, and all of Nashville was rooting for us. I remember that summer sitting on the porch of a neighborhood cafe. Summers here are hot and sticky. It’s what makes the South feel slow. If you move too quickly, you might have a heat stroke. That rival band walked up. They had just landed a record deal. Their new jeans were the tightest I’d ever seen, and they had hair extensions. After they walked past us, we died laughing.
Two years later they were the biggest Southern rock band in the world.
Around that time, my then-roommate was on the production crew for one of the local entertainment media outlets. He started dating a young, pretty and talented new hopeful, and soon she moved in with us. My roommate and I were liberal, pot-smoking atheists. This girl was a good Republican, not used to our strange and heathen ways.
In those days my band was hot shit for what now seems like an hour and a half. Local awards. Comped meals. Tan men in sunglasses on our guest lists. But eventually the phone stopped ringing. I can’t tell you how many times we heard, “It’s great, but we just don’t know what to do with you,” which essentially meant, “Nashville isn’t ready for a gay artist.”
A handsome 1990s-era country superstar and I had a mildly flirty, drunken-gay-bar relationship for a while. His career had stalled in recent years, but he was working on a comeback — a comeback that came with intense label pressure to pretend he was straight. This isn’t a unique Nashville gay-bar conversation. Hang around Church Street on a Saturday night and you’ll learn all kinds of things. It’s a who’s who of the country- and Christian-music industries.
Let me be clear: I love Nashville. For the most part, Nashville has loved me. I’ve had an on-again-off-again love affair with this town for almost two decades. But I do sometimes wonder if things would have played out differently had I also pretended for the public.
My old roommate’s pretty, young and talented girlfriend eventually became a star. Her breakout career is hinged upon being a progressive gay ally — a far cry from her conservative roots. Around here we call it “New Nashville.” I have to believe I was the original forward-thinking gay in her life, but I may never know. Fame has whisked her away.
Nashville seems to be teetering on a sort of gay cultural tipping point, as are many realms that have traditionally been resistant to gay inclusion — like Michael Sam in the NFL or Frank Ocean in hip-hop. As the country-music capital gives an approving nod to a couple of already established gay male artists and major awards to talented female allies, I have to ask: Is Nashville ready for me?
The world has changed. Nashville has changed, and of course, I have changed. But I still have grandpa’s guitar, and I still have the dream.
Watch a mini-documentary about Kevin’s band Indiana Queen and their nearly 20-year journey in Nashville: