By Dale Henry Geist
This is the second installment of a planned series where we profile activists working to make country music a more inclusive space. Our first installment was an interview with Black Opry’s Holly G. This article was first published in November 2020 and it focuses on Hunter Kelly’s Apple Music Radio show. Since its publication, Kelly has continued and expanded his staunch advocacy for queer and BIPoC voices in country music.
In August, Apple Music announced a new global radio channel, Apple Music Country, with a slew of new programs including Carrie Underwood’s “XO Radio,” Rissi Palmer’s “Color Me Country,” and the one we’re most excited about, veteran journalist Hunter Kelly’s “Proud Radio.”
In the first two shows, Kelly spun everything from k.d. lang to Paisley Fields, and interviewed such queer country artists as Brandy Clark, Brandon Stansell, Jaime Wyatt, and Waylon Payne. The third episode made its debut on Sunday, and features probing interviews with award-winning roots artist Jake Blount and pioneering singer-songwriter Chely Wright. [Ed.: since then, Kelly has featured more queer country artists and allies than we can list here.]
Kelly talked to me from his Nashville home on Election Day. We were both grateful for the distraction.
I asked Kelly how his background had prepared him to host a show like this.
“I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, obsessed with country music from the time I saw Garth Brooks when I was 11,” he said. When the time came to pick a college, there was only one choice: Belmont University in Nashville, where he enrolled in their lauded music business program. From there, he worked his way up the ladder of country music journalism, with stints at Billboard, iHeartRadio, and ABC.
Kelly came out near the beginning of his career and, to his relief, was met with near-total acceptance among his co-workers and the artists he interviewed. Though he was working strictly in mainstream country, he always kept a reporter’s eye out for the ways that country music and gay culture mixed and mingled. He ticked off a few watershed moments for me – the album release party for Kasey Musgraves’ second album, “Pageant Material,” which was held at a gay bar and featured drag queens performing her songs; Chely Wright – an established star at the time – coming out ten years ago; the 2013 release of “12 Stories,” the hit debut album by Brandy Clark, who was already out, and the arrival in Nashville of out hit songwriter Shane McAnally around the same time.
So when Apple Music decided to launch their Country Radio initiative, exec Michael Bryan knew right away who he’d call for the planned LGBTQ-themed station. Kelly jumped at the chance, quickly formulating an approach that would reach its ultimate expression in the show’s format.
The Show Takes Shape
“I was really grateful for this opportunity,” said Kelly. “I think what I bring to the table is an understanding of what are the moments that are kind of iconic to us, but also milestones, for LGBTQ people in this space.”
He continued, “Also, I have a really good idea, having been on the front lines of mainstream country for 15 years, who are our allies, who are the artists who’ve taken stands for the LGBTQ community in big and small ways. And so we have a feature on the show called ‘Thank You for Being a Friend,’ where I’m able to kind of point that out and play a song from those people. And also a segment called ‘Walls Can Fall,’ where we talk about a moment that was a big deal or a breakthrough for LGBTQ visibility in country music.”
Kelly credits Apple with giving him, along with producers Brian Hilton and Gabrielle Sanderson, free rein in programming the show. “I want to get as much music in there as possible because I’m treating it like breadcrumbs, like, ‘If you liked this, there’s so much more for you to discover in your free time.’ Doing this show has been such a process of music discovery. And so I hope it’s that for other people.”
In college, Kelly’s musical curiosity had led him to seminal Americana artists like Nickel Creek and Gillian Welch. Having made his career in mainstream country, Kelly has also been happy to stretch out and spin music that doesn’t fit neatly into that category. “It’s really fun to be able to play all kinds of music, because it all fits,” Kelly said. “Country music is a very broad umbrella.”
At first, Kelly wasn’t sure he could find enough artists to fill a single two-hour show, much less a whole series. That’s where Country Queer came in. “The other gift to me is discovering all this new music. From the beginning, putting the show together, County Queer has been a real home base for me. Through you I discovered Karen and the Sorrows, Paisley Fields, and this next episode I’m playing a song by Izzy Heltai, who I discovered through y’all.”
(Ed.: Aw, shucks.)
Jacke Blount interview excerpt
I asked Kelly if there were any artists in particular that were a revelation.
“We have Jake Blount on this episode. What you’ve done with Jake in the past was definitely part of my research,” he said. “Digging into the intention behind his music-making – it’s a great conversation with Jake because he is so brilliant, but it’s also opened me up to really take down a lot of walls between the genres. And also I’ve got to mention Katie Pruitt’s version of ‘After the Gold Rush.’ We’re playing that one on this next episode. If you haven’t heard it, her wailing at the end is so cathartic for this year.” (I have. It is.) “Or an artist like Luisa Lopez, or John Tucker – these are artists who live in my backyard, that I didn’t know were here.”
Kelly brings a sense of mission to this gig. “I had a conversation with Rachel (Cholst, who writes for CQ and hosts our podcast.) And she was like, within this program, we don’t want to stray away from the fact that as LGBTQ people, we’re still in the process of fighting for our rights. And it’s been great to, within the music, be able to speak to that.”
But while Kelly is all about bringing new queer country artists to the public’s attention, he’s not doling out charity. “That’s one of the things that I’ve been really happily surprised with. There’s not been a moment where I’ve had to play a song that I didn’t think sonically sounded great. That’s something that’s very important to me in doing the show: we’re not playing this person just because they’re in this community or we’re strong allies, but also that it sounds great. So my hope is to show that yes, these artists can compete in the mainstream.”
That also goes for the show’s audience. “If they come to it thinking, ‘This is some kind of special show where they have to be propped up – make some allowances for how it sounds.’ That’s not the case at all,” Kelly says.
In some cases, the show can be a real lifeline for listeners. “We have a guy on this episode, Sterling, from Oklahoma. He wrote in to me saying that it’s been hard for him to find himself in Oklahoma, as a gay man. And he’s now 30 and he’s come into his own and this show really represents him. It’s great to hear that because I think the assumption would be, you know, gay people aren’t fans of country music, and that’s not true at all.”
Another advantage of being on the Apple platform is its reach. “It’s been amazing to hear from people listening to the show here in America, but also in Scotland, New Zealand – we’re on in 165 countries.”
Kelly reports that he’s gotten a lot of encouragement from Nashville insiders. “It’s hard to find a country artist that doesn’t have a queer person somewhere on their staff, whether it’s the label, a songwriter, publicist, that kind of thing. I hear from a lot of people that this feels like a big milestone for visibility. But also, it’s led to conversations behind the scenes that they wouldn’t necessarily put up front, like, ‘How can country artists be better allies to the LGBTQ community?’”
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Chely Wright interview
Favorite moments? “In the latest episode, the conversation with Chely Wright is really, really powerful because she had not played the Grand Ole Opry since she came out, and for her, the Grand Ole Opry was, you know, the place she dreamed of performing. She played there every chance she got. And then after she came out, the invitations stopped coming. So 10 years later, she was able to go back and perform at the Grand Ole Opry. As her full self, as, you know, being a lesbian with a wife and two kids and also a country singer. To be able to integrate herself as a person and a country singer on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry.”
I asked Kelly if there was anything he wanted to do with the show that he hasn’t had a chance to do yet.
“Once we can actually get to travel to places and have people come together, my hope is to have live episodes, or episodes taped on location. Like, here in East Nashville, the Lipstick Lounge is my favorite karaoke bar. It’s one of the last remaining lesbian bars in America. I love going there. So in my head, I’m like, ‘We should totally do a live episode there,’ or with the Gay Ole Opry in New York. So my hope is to be able to highlight some of these pockets of the country when we’re able to travel again.” (Ed.: Us, too.)
Find “Hunter Kelly’s Proud Radio” here. Kelly can be reached at @NashvilleHK on Instagram and @hunterkelly on Twitter, and encourages artists to reach out.