Pop-Country Artist’s New Projects: Beacons of Hope for Queer Youth
By Rachel Cholst, Contributing Editor
“My hope is that it’s a tool that can help,” Brandon Stansell deflects. Stansell is a jack of many trades, though modesty might be where his mastery lies. He’s shown an impressive musical range with the singles he’s released, made country music history with the first video on CMT to explicitly address queer themes, and is the subject of a new documentary about his experiences growing up gay in Chattanooga. The documentary, Three Chords and a Lie, out today, contains four original songs that will be released on July 10th as an EP, Hurt People. A single, “Like Us,” will be out this Friday.
“My goal is to write queer stories for a country audience. To shed a light on experiences that queer people have that other people don’t,” he explains of the EP. “I always come to it from that perspective.”
These songs build bridges, too. “I’m always wildly surprised that the first person that’s like, ‘Man, I relate to that song!’ is always a straight white woman.”
“Like, I didn’t write it for you! But I’m so glad you find yourself in it.”
Straight (But Not) Outta Chattanooga
Stansell grew up outside of Chattanooga and couldn’t get out fast enough. When asked about his experiences there, Stansell cracked: “Growing up queer in Tennessee? Zero stars. Do not recommend that.”
“I think it’s tough being in a place where you feel like the only one. Thankfully there was something always in the back of my mind that knew that it was going to be OK and that I was going to find my way out and find my way to a place where I could be me freely and that I could be around people like me.” As is often the case with queer people, others sensed it without knowing how to put their finger on it. “People have told me my whole life that I have an old soul, so I don’t know if there was something really old in me. It was tough, but, you know, I made it through.”
So he went to Nashville, but not for the reason you’d think: he’d set his sights on the then-Southern Baptist Belmont University because his sister had gone there to study the business of music.
“My oldest sister was the person I always looked up to. She was all the woman I wanted to be.”
Of course, there were practical considerations: “I also knew that my parents were never going to pay for a music degree. So, music business seems like the next best thing. I told my college counselor that that’s where I was going to go. And she was like, ‘Well, you should apply to other places too.’ I was like, ‘Nope, that’s it. That’s all I’m applying to!’”
(In spite of the university’s conservative Christian affiliations, they seem to be producing quite a range of queer country talent: Katie Pruitt, about whom Stansell effused in our chat, is a fellow alumna.)
Stansell came out in his senior year at Belmont, which led him to move to New York City. Even though it’s not the typical stop for an aspiring country singer, “It is for a queer person. I was never really around people like myself and I wanted to be in a place where I thought I could feel comfortable.”
But home found Stansell: as it turns out, the occupants of two apartments in his Washington Heights building were friends of his from Chattanooga. (In one of those weird coincedences, that pad was not far from where this writer lived at the time.)
After a few years, Stansell sought friendlier climes in LA, where he’s lived for the past six years. It’s worked out for him. After all, this is the period where he’d start to make history.
“Hometown” In Our Homes
Stansell made headlines in 2018 when CMT aired the haunting video for his song “Hometown,” which relates his coming out experience.
“The goal was to create a shortened version of a lot of experiences that I had had. Coming out is something that is so unique to our community. Unless you’re queer or unless you have a queer loved one, it’s not a story that most people are really exposed to.”
Leslie Fram and Cody Alan at CMT recognized the potential in that story — one that is rarely told in country music. Stansell performed a showcase at the network and the pair requested his materials. Within a day of the showcase, CMT asked to premiere the video.
Stansell was, of course, elated. “I was excited for people like me to finally get to see themselves in a space where they hadn’t before.”
Not one to slow down, Stansell also lent his talents to the 2019 short film Dominant Chord by Canadian filmmaker Jeremy LeRoux. The song, “Wide Awake,” had already been written for the film but Stansell’s impassioned vocals make the song a focal point of the production.
Now, Stansell’s ready to appear on the silver screen itself.
Hurt People and Lies
Stansell’s next project, the documentary Three Chords And a Lie, produced by Stansell’s friend Leslie Jordan, will be available in Canada starting today through OutTV. Its songs are collected on the EP Hurt People, which will be out on July 10th. (A first single, “Hurt People,” came out on May 31st, and a second, “Like Us,” is out on Friday.)
All these projects emphasize queer storytelling. Stansell believes they can be of service to those struggling to come out.
“My hope is that both the EP and documentary serve as a tool, not only to my community, but also to the straight community, you know, family and friends of queer people. This is a little look into what it’s like to be gay growing up in the South and what the coming out experience is like.”
Stansell tends to go for a big pop sound, in contrast to most queer country singers, who seem to drive along the Americana highway.
“It really doesn’t have more meaning than that’s just what I like. You know, I grew up on nineties country. I grew up with those big quintessential country sounds. So when I came to make music of my own, that was a really big inspiration.”
However, Stansell also finds inspiration among Americana artists, and opted for a more stripped-down feel on Hurt People. “I’ve been heavily influenced by Americana artists, queer country artists, like Brandi Carlile and Tracy Chapman. I’ve produced songs that are really radio friendly and some that aren’t. You know, I wouldn’t consider ‘Hurt People’ to be a country radio song. I wouldn’t change it, though, because I’m creating music that I am proud of and that I think people want to listen to, whether they’re listening to it on a radio or not.”
While the other three songs on Hurt People are “bare bones,” Stansell pulled out all the stops with Grammy-nominated country star Cam on the EP’s title track. Cam has been a staunch ally of the queer community, regularly featuring Ellen Angelico in her backup band and including a queer kiss at the climax of her steamy music video for “‘Til There’s Nothing Left.”
The pair met at a benefit for the organization Launchpad Nashville, which supports homeless youth. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the youth Launchpad serves are queer.
It was an auspicious night for Stansell, who helped organize the premiere: it was the night before “Hometown” premiered on CMT. Stansell connected to Cam through her college roommate, who worked at Launchpad.
The pair stayed in touch. She was one of the first people Brandon sent “Hurt People” to. “I’m a big fan of her voice. I wanted her to be a part of it, so I sent it to her and she sent me a bunch of crying emojis back.”
Unfortunately, the pair had to record separately once self-isolation measures were put into place — but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the song.
The global pandemic has not broken Stansell’s stride. He’s pushing full steam ahead with Three Chords And a Lie.
“No, it didn’t feel weird to make a documentary about myself. The purpose of it is to tell everyone about my life in an effort that it’s not replicated. It’s also to show that not only did I have this experience, but it’s also still happening to kids. We interviewed a bunch of kids that are being helped by Launchpad to tell their stories, too, so it feels bigger than me. Obviously,” he adds, “I have some tools at my disposal to write about them in a way that I have found that people connect to.” (That humility again.)
The documentary is a natural extension of his songwriting. “I was gonna write the music anyway. I wanted to take my experiences and the experiences of others and bring them to the surface to start a conversation about how we treat queer people in this country. We can do better.”
While Stansell has faced significant obstacles in his early life, he’s found increasing acceptance in the country music community.
“Fans of country music are ready for stories like this. The years of pandering is coming to an end. I think they’re ready for more real human stories about people like them, people in their communities, and the people that surround us.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Brandon Stansell’s new EP, Hurt People, will be released on July 10th. Three Chords and a Lie is available today in Canada on OUTtv. “Like Us” will be available Friday, June 26, on all major streaming services.