Raising their voices

TJ Parsell on Nashville, misogyny and Invisible: Gay Women In Southern Music

by Jennie Kermode

Invisible: Gay Women In Southern Music
Invisible: Gay Women In Southern Music

There are some big names in TJ Parsell’s latest documentary. There are also a lot of names you may not immediately recognise, but if you’re a country music fan, you may well find them in your record collection. between them, they have written an impressive number of hits. Why didn’t they find success by recording their own material? Because they were women attracted to other women, and as far as many of the key figures in the industry were concerned, that made them unacceptable.

Meeting up to talk about Invisible: Gay Women In Southern Music during its run at Newfest, TJ reflected on what it does to creative artists to grow up in a homophobic culture, on the misogyny that makes life difficult for women in the industry more generally, and on how he brought together an impressive group of women and persuaded them to speak out about their experiences. It began, he says, almost by accident.

“So yeah, what happened, I had just moved to Nashville. And a friend of mine called me up one day, and he said, TJ, I got this idea for a film. And it was a guy that was in the stained glass business, so I didn't have high expectations. You know, everybody's got an idea for a film. And so I had coffee with him. And I said, ‘What do you got?’ And he said, ‘gay women in country music. There's this whole network of gay women songwriters who've written for everybody. And many of them are my friends.’

“I just looked at him, I thought, what a brilliant idea. You know, because here's two things that don't seem to go together. Right? I can't imagine a more repressive industry than country music. So in my mind, I had a ton of questions that I wanted to ask these women in terms of how did they do that? How did they navigate this industry that's not very welcoming to anyone who's different? So much of songwriting is about being vulnerable and being authentic, and yet you're not allowed to be your authentic self in this industry. So how do they reconcile those things?

“Three weeks later, I was sitting down with with Mary Gauthier for the first interview, and I was blown away by how open and willing to talk about it she was, and how vulnerable she was willing to be in the interview. And then a week later, Jess Leary said ‘Mary Gauthier did it, I'll do it.’ And a week later, Bonnie Baker said ‘Oh, Jess and Mary, did it, I'll do it.’ And the project just took off. And these women had so much to say. I would say this was a project that chose me, and I just had the privilege of going along for the ride.”

Did he get the feeling that it was something they'd wanted to talk about for a long time?

“Yes. Well, some of them. Some of them had never talked about it, like Kye Fleming. She was very reticent to do it. And the night before, she called us up, she said, ‘I'm not feeling well, I'm not sure I can make it.’ We said, ‘Well, why don't we wait until the morning and see how you do? Why don't you just come in? We'll see how it goes.’ But I think even those women who had never been open, like Bonnie Baker, about this aspect of their story, got the importance of telling the story. They were all in from that perspective. And then, you know, others like Mary Gauthier and Dianne Davidson, they were gung-ho from the very beginning. They were like ‘I'm in and I got a lot to say, so sit back.’

“Early on, we kind of realised – Bill and I, my producing partner – we're both gay men, but we're men. And so we felt it was important to make some of the key hiring department heads women. So my cinematographer was a gay woman. And my editor was, she's married now, but she's bisexual. And I mean, I think it was really important to have those women in key positions to help us get as deep as we were able to get in the story.”

Most of the women in the film are at a fairly advanced stage in their careers. Is that simply because it can take a while to build up a reputation, or is that because younger and less well established women are still very worried about the potential damage to their careers if they come out?

“You know, it's interesting because we had a young woman, Katie Pruitt, whose song Loving Her plays over the closing credits. Katie was all in to do the project, and she's of this younger generation that doesn't care. You know, they're there. And it's very exciting to see. Katie Pruitt’s song Loving Her is an unabashed love song to her girlfriend. And the irony is that here, Dianne Davidson in our film, you know, it was a lesbian love song that killed her career. Now today we've got a young artist whose lesbian love song is launching her career.

“But having said that, she was all gung-ho to be part of the project. And you know, Katie's an up and rising talent in Nashville. A lot of people are predicting in a couple of years she's going to be headlining at the Ryman and she has big management and a big record deal but at the time she was in negotiation for two record deals and her middle aged heterosexual manager talked her out of it. He told her ‘Don't do it. Wait until you're on the other side and then you can do it but don't do it now. And there are still artists in Nashville that everybody knows are gay but they're having to operate under this ‘don't ask, don't tell’, under the radar way of being. I think that country music is is lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of you know, just catching up culturally.”

Do you think there are some signs of change, if she's able to be as open as she has been?

“I think there’s hope. Katie Pruitt gets a lot of play, and country radio is is such a dominant factor. You know, without radio airplay you don't have much of a career, and country radio’s controlled by two or three corporations that are very conservative and very misogynistic about airplay. There was a study done in 2010 on radio airplay and only 13% of it was women, so there's some disparities of representation for women generally and then you know you add in that they’re gay artists and then it's even more difficult to break through into the mainstream. There might be hope with the fact that more and more people are getting their their content from places other than radio, but still country radio dominates that genre.”

We discuss misogyny in the industry and I ask if there has ever been much of a #MeToo movement there.

“I hope I'm in terms of Country radio I hope that we will spark some of that conversation,” he says. “I'm a sexual assault survivor. myself so when I heard about what was going on in radio with sexual harassment, the degree in which that goes on, I got really angry. And I mean, why in 2021 are we still putting up with that? Country radio is is the Harvey Weinstein of the country music industry and nobody wants to talk about it. Many artists in our in our film did not want to talk about that. There was one that I asked on camera and she just immediately said ‘No comment.’ You could watch her stiffen up. And she said ‘Turn that off for a minute.’ And Kye Fleming was in the room and the two of them started talking and within five minutes, they came to the conclusion that they didn't know a single woman who had not experienced that, on country radio.”

He raises Taylor Swift’s lawsuit against David Mueller, which saw a jury accept her contention that the then DJ had groped her during a meet-and-greet even in Colorado. “When she did it, she said, ‘You know, I'm one of the few people that has become large enough that I can do this.’ But many of the women were afraid to talk about it because they’re still reliant on that source to promote their artistry. I was able to get Chely Wright to talk about it, because she's got nothing to lose.

“I think the thing that broke my heart really was Dianne Davidson's story, and hearing her sing. Her career was cut short at 21 because she had a lesbian love song. And when I heard Dianne singing for the first time I got moved and was really disappointed, because I thought, you know, we've been deprived of this talent for so long for such a stupid reason. And when I look at country radio, and the degree in which women are subjected to harassment, it makes me sad, because I think how much great talent we lost because there were women that just could not stomach that. And why would we put up with that? That is just wrong at every level. I hope that this stirs a conversation and a reckoning.”

I note that it’s interesting to see a contribution from Cydny Bullens in the film because, as a trans man, he’s experienced the different ways in which the industry treats people based on gender.

“Yes, indeed. He's an outlier in that he's a trans man and all the rest of the subjects in our film are women. We did make a conscious decision early on that we wanted to just focus on gay women, because we felt like that might be a little less threatening, for some audiences, than gay men in country. But Sydney's story was compelling, because he had experienced the music industry, as you say, from both sides of the gender line. And we thought that was a very unique and powerful perspective to bring.

“What happened was when the editor sent me the the cut back it was so strong, and had its own logical beginning, middle and an end to it, that I thought, wow, this would make a great short. And we packaged it up and put it on the festival circuit in 2019 [as The Gender Line]. And it had a really great reception, we played probably 30 festivals and won a handful of awards. And many of those festivals invited us back with Invisible so it was very effective for us as a kind of a marketing strategy for the larger project. But I think Sydney's story is just riveting. You know, there's just so many turning points to the fact that he's gone through everything that he has experienced in his life, and still has that amount of gratitude. It just it moves me every time. He's just an extraordinary human being, and I love him to death.”

For people like me who have only a limited knowledge of the genre, one of the names that stands out in discussion during the film is kd lang. Does TJ see her as one of many musicians who have chosen to take their talents elsewhere after finding country music too hostile to persist with?

“Yes, and I think it was Pam Tillis that said that was country music's loss. The Nashville music industry was not very welcoming to kd lang. They didn't know what to do with her and they weren't kind to her and she said, ‘Screw you, I'm going over to pop.’ And she had an enormous career. I think that part of the point of the film is, you know, geez, what have we lost? And for what?

“It didn't make the final cut the film, but we did do a thing where we did some man on the street interviews in different parts of town, like outside the Country Music Hall of Fame and down on Broadway and over near Belmont University, which is very Christian university, just asking people ‘Do you care who wrote your music?’ or ‘How would you feel to know that a lesbian wrote some of your favourite hits?’ And almost every single person we talked to didn't care. They were like, you know, ‘A good song is a good song. If it’s the truth, if it touches me, if it moves me, that's all that matters.’ But I think it's the industry that is still in the dark ages. And those good old boys, they're still at the levers of power and are just holding on to that.

“It was not long into this project that I started to scratch my head and wonder how much of what these women were dealing with was because they were gay, and how much was because they're women. I think that, ultimately, the film serves as an indictment of the patriarchy of the country music industry.”

So how does he feel about its reception at festivals?

“It's very moving to me,” he says. “Because of the pandemic, everything got paused, but it's been almost four and a half years since I started the project and these women invited me into their world and into their lives, and I've fallen in love with every one of them. And I think that, by and large, what I was trying to do was figure out ways in which I could present their stories in a way that the audiences will fall in love with them as well. And just to see that happening is very moving. Audiences are identifying with these women, even though they're not necessarily into country music. I even had a man in a wheelchair, in San Francisco, who said to me ‘Obviously I'm not a woman, I'm not into country music, I'm not even gay, but there's something about the film which captured the essence of being invisible and that spoke to me.’ And that is so incredibly radical.

Finally, we discuss the other work that he has in the pipeline.

“I wrote a book about my wayward youth and my experience as a troubled kid who ended up in an adult prison,” he says. “I spent a big part of my life doing advocacy work around that, and I wrote a book. And that's why I went to film school. I wanted to adapt that into a film. And was working on that when my friend Bill called me up and said, ‘Hey, I got this idea for a movie.’ And I'm enormously grateful to him, because it was very refreshing to get out of prison for a little while, and I think it helped me see how much I learned as a filmmaker. I went to NYU at 50 years old – I’m kind of a late bloomer. But my mission was to adapt Fish into a feature and then this took me away for a little bit.

“I learned an enormous amount as a filmmaker in the making of this movie, and now I'm ready to to make Fish. I just came from a meeting with a producer and we were talking about a rewrite that we're going to do on the script, but yeah, that's my next project.”

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