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Country legends reach out to gay audiences

Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson aren’t afraid to go against the grain
/ Source: The Associated Press

Never mind that country music is considered bedrock conservative, the unofficial red-state soundtrack. This year, some of country’s most famous names are singing in movies with gay and transsexual themes.

Dolly Parton received an Oscar nomination for “Travelin’ Thru,” a song she wrote and sang for “Transamerica,” while Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris are heard on the Oscar frontrunner “Brokeback Mountain.”

Nelson, always an iconoclast in his music and politics, even released a gay cowboy song on Valentine’s Day, “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other).”

But don’t expect a wave of gay love songs to sweep across the heartland anytime soon.

Veteran country stars like Parton, Nelson and Harris are free to reach out to a gay audience because they already have loyal fans. Their careers aren’t driven by hit records because country radio already ignores them.

Parton, who has always embraced her large gay following, says she’s too stubborn to worry about a negative response.

“I’m old enough and cranky enough now that if someone tried to tell me what to do, I’d tell them where to put it,” Parton, 60, recently told The Associated Press.

‘It does kind of offend what country music stands for’Country station WXBX in Johnson City devoted two days of its morning show to letting listeners talk about Willie and Dolly’s “gay” songs.

“We got the sense that the audience was disappointed in these artists. For our purposes, we probably wouldn’t be interested in much airplay,” said operations manager Bill Hagy, noting that Parton and Nelson aren’t really mainstream country artists anymore.

“In my opinion,” said country fan Jamie Billman, who lives in Valley Springs, Calif., but was on vacation Thursday in Nashville, “it does kind of offend what country music stands for.”

“Transamerica” stars “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman as a transsexual who learns a week before sex-change surgery that he has a son from a fleeting heterosexual encounter, then embarks on a cross-country road trip with the teenager.

Parton wrote the closing-credits song, which has a gospel flavor with references to God and redemption. She sings, “Like a poor wayfaring stranger that they speak about in song/ I’m just a weary pilgrim trying to find what feels like home.”

“I have a person who works in my organization who once was a woman and now is a man,” Parton said. “I didn’t know for years that this person had had a sex change. I know what a wonderful person he is, and I based some of my feelings [in the song] on my feelings for him and on knowing what he went through.”

Don’t ask, don’t tellWhile Nashville has had few openly gay stars (Canadian-born k.d. lang is a notable exception, though she shifted from country to pop by 1992), the city’s gay leaders say Music Row is more hospitable than many think.

“I expected men in hoods and burning crosses, but I found a lot of people on Music Row are very open-minded,” said Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer Larry Dvoskin, who’s worked with David Bowie, Van Halen, Ricky Martin and others. “But there’s still this sort of cultural barrier, like, ‘We all love it and accept it, but we don’t want to talk about it.”’

But country singers have little reason to go public if they’re gay, said Chris Sanders, president of the Nashville Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

“The question a gay or lesbian country star has to ask himself or herself is will the public accept me as a musician and not focus on the other issue?” Sanders said.

Parton appears in gay publications, and her fans organize an annual gay and lesbian day at her amusement park, Dollywood, in her native east Tennessee. She said gay men in particular are drawn to her flamboyant appearance, highlighted by thick makeup, gaudy clothing and blonde wig.

She’s at ease bucking the Nashville norm. “I’ve always been a freak and different, oddball even in my childhood and my own family, so I can relate to people who are struggling and trying to find their true identity,” Parton said. “I do not sit in the seat of judgment. ... I love people for who they are. We’re all God’s children.”

Nelson, 72, has never cared much for the opinion on Music Row either. His fan base is much broader than the usual country audience and includes hippies, rednecks and outlaws young and old. He can record a vigilante song with tough guy Toby Keith (“Beer For My Horses”), or a reggae album with a marijuana leaf on the cover.

On the “Brokeback Mountain” soundtrack, Nelson sings the gentle “He Was a Friend of Mine.” Harris performs “A Love That Will Never Grow Old,” by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bernie Taupin. Her fragile voice fits the sparse, ethereal arrangement, evoking the wide-open Wyoming landscape. The song recently won a Golden Globe award.

Nelson’s gay cowboy song features his deadpan delivery of lines like, “What did you think all them saddles and boots was about?” Written by Texas-born singer-songwriter Ned Sublette in 1981, the song has “been in the closet for 20 years,” Nelson said in a statement.

“The timing’s right for it to come out,” he said. “I’m just opening the door.”