Abundance. If there is one word that comes to mind to describe the presence of LGBTQ+ artists and queer community support at AmericanaFest 2023, that word would be “abundance.”
My first time attending AmericanaFest was in 2021, when one of the only queer events was an inspiring Rainbow Happy Hour showcase presented by Country Queer at Vinyl Tap. We have come incredibly far in the two years since. It feels surreal to witness an abundance of queer artists, showcases and supporters at an Americana music festival and conference. But that magical feeling is rooted in the manifestation and hard work that queer artists and promoters have poured into finding and building our places in Americana music while uplifting LGBTQ+ voices.
This year, we saw many queer events and artists at the Americana Proud showcase, the Americana Honors & Awards, The Equal Access Showcase (presented by CMT, mTheory and Nashville Music Equality), the Queer Cowpoke Roundup, the Good Ol’ Queer Country Jamboree by yours truly, Queerfest and BGS, and many more.
Americana Proud at Nashville City Winery – Tuesday, September 19
On the first night of AmericanaFest, nearly 20 queer-identifying artists graced the stage at Nashville City Winery for two Americana Proud showcases lasting more than three hours. Organized by Autumn Nicholas, a queer artist themselves, it was incredible to take in Americana Proud knowing this was the first of many LGBTQ+ showcases and events to come at this year’s AmericanaFest.
Vidalia Anne Gentry, the dazzling drag queen who hosted the event, opened the show lip-syncing to Dolly Parton’s rendition of “Rocky Top.” Crys Matthews and Heather Mae sang validating, original lyrics, including, “Our love doesn’t have to look like everybody else’s.” Denitia and Julia Cannon warmed the audience with Denitia’s “All the Sweet Tea” and Cannon’s sweet harmonies.
Madeline Finn and Liv Greene wooed the crowd and Jaimee Harris touched our hearts with a song written about the Pulse Nightclub shooting – a mass shooting targeting an LGBTQ+ club in Florida that took place in June of 2016, claiming the lives of 49 individuals. The song, “Orange Avenue,” is written from the perspective of a victim who lost his life in the shooting.
The concert continued with many more outstanding up-and-coming artists, including Ally Free, Jett Holden, Kentucky Gentleman, Lila Blue, Jobi Riccio, Palmyra, ISMAY, Jessye DeSilva, Abby Posner and Madeleine Kelson with her iconic queer anthem “The Way I Do,” which declares, “God has never loved a woman the way I do.”
As a whole, the Americana Proud showcase artists presented touching lyrics, intricate guitar lines, memorable stories and warm, loving energy. It was the perfect way to kick off AmericanaFest 2023!
The 22nd Annual Americana Honors & Awards – Wednesday, September 20
The Americana Honors & Awards show took place on the second night of AmericanaFest at the Ryman Auditorium. (See a full list of winners and honorees here.) There was anything but a lack of LGBTQ+ artists, with performances from Sunny War, Adeem the Artist, S.G. Goodman, Allison Russell, Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark and Angel Olsen. Jobi Riccio also made an appearance singing harmonies with Emerging Act of the Year nominee William Prince and guitarist Joy Clark performed with Allison Russell’s band, the so-called “Rainbow Coalition.”
When S.G. Goodman took the stage, it felt like time stopped – a fitting feeling, as she performed her song “Space and Time” off of her 2020 album, Old Time Feeling. (The track was also recently cut by Tyler Childers on his latest release, Rustin’ in the Rain.) Goodman stood powerful in a black suit and red cowboy boots, her voice shaking through the Ryman, her lyrics honest, vulnerable and touching.
Goodman subsequently took home the award for Emerging Act of the Year. As she accepted the honor, the audience felt her authenticity, humor and gratitude. “I find myself pretty fortunate to have a lot of folks working beside me as if I’m making a million dollars when I’m not,” she said. “And aside from the million dollars part, I’m pretty fortunate in that, you know.”
Allison Russell earned the The Spirit of Americana / Free Speech in Music Award – and she really did earn it. Russell was instrumental in organizing the Love Rising benefit concert at Bridgestone Arena that took place on March 20, 2023. The show was stacked with many of the music industry’s top LGBTQ+ artists and allies, including Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Sheryl Crow, Hayley Williams, Hozier, Brittany Howard, Jake Wesley Rogers, Julien Baker, Joy Oladokun, Fancy Hagood, Izzy Heltai, The Highwomen, Yola and more. Proceeds from the event were donated to the Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee, OUTMemphis and The Tennessee Pride Chamber.
Russell was presented her award, fittingly, by the “Tennessee Three,” State Representatives Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson, who were infamously expelled from the Tennessee General Assembly earlier this year.
Pearson announced to the Ryman, “Last session, Tennessee Republicans ran through a bill criminalizing certain kinds of healthcare for trans people under the age of 18, other bills criminalizing drag performance when minors are present, but didn’t pass a bill to ban assault weapons.”
“We’re either all equal, or none of us are equal,” Jones followed-up. “Or as we say in Tennessee, ‘Y’all means all.’”
We in the queer community are coming out of a long period of time when artists were kicked off of labels for coming out, when being in the closet was considered necessary to grow a career as an artist in the music industry (especially in country music spaces), entering a new era when many celebrate, uplift and openly work to build an inclusive industry filled with diverse backgrounds and identities.
As Russell gave her acceptance speech she declared, “We are not divided, we are united.” As a nominee for both Song of the Year and Artist of the Year, she returned to the stage throughout the evening. She was glowing, wearing a sparkly golden gown, rocking out on banjo backed by a band of women, queer folks and artists of color.
Equal Access: Presented By CMT, mtheory and Nashville Music Equality – Thursday, September 21
The Equal Access showcase took place on Thursday at Delgado Guitars and was developed by mtheory, which has a mission to empower artists and managers who come from underrepresented backgrounds within country music. They highlighted Gina Venier and Denitia, who proudly identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, and Nat Myers and Bella White, as well.
Gina Venier played her iconic song titled “Nora Jane,” sharing her fears about coming out to her family. The song features lyrics like, “What’s my dad gonna do when I bring you home?” and, “I’m afraid everyone I love won’t love me the same. When I tell ’em your name, Nora Jane.” The song does an incredible job at showing the feelings, thought process and fears around coming out.
Good Ol’ Queer Country Jamboree by Queerfest + BGS – Saturday, September 23
Finally, our very own special event, a collaboration between Queerfest, BGS and Soho House Nashville featured Cidny Bullens, Chris Housman, Jett Holden, Amanda Fields & Megan McCormick and Adeem the Artist. To cap off the week of AmericanaFest events and programs, we gathered in the whimsical, exclusive garden at Soho House in Nashville’s Wedgewood Houston neighborhood on a perfect sunny and mild afternoon.
Cidny Bullens opened the show as our special, surprise guest, speaking on his experience as a transgender artist with a decades-long career pre- and post-transition. Chris Housman shared his reality of changing the pronouns in his songs at certain shows where acceptance and inclusivity aren’t a given, emphasizing how important it is to have spaces where artists feel comfortable being openly themselves. He played his viral single “Blueneck” with the well-loved lyric, “I guess I’m a red state blueneck.”
The next artist, Jett Holden, was introduced by Holly G, founder of the Black Opry, a collective building a supportive community for Black artists, fans and industry professionals in roots music. Holden touched on the experience of coming out and while he wasn’t disowned, he noticed queer conversations being shoved aside, and he felt unsure about where he stood with his family. Megan McCormick & Amanda Fields shared an incredible country- and bluegrass-infused set with upright bass supporting their graceful voices and melodic guitar lines intertwining in harmony.
Adeem the Artist was the culmination of our Jamboree, playing many queer-centered songs including “I Never Came Out,” from their 2021 breakout album, Cast Iron Pansexual. They spoke on their experiences encountering hate and queerphobia and transphobia at the festival earlier in the week and the difference between performative acceptance and truly doing the work. As Adeem closed out the event, they shared, “This was a nice vibe after a kinda shitty week,” underlining the importance of creating inclusive, LGBTQ-centered spaces. Soho House was filled with loving, supportive energy and was a perfect way to wrap up the last official day of AmericanaFest 2023.
Additional LGBTQ+ Showcasing Artists
In addition to queer-centered events and showcases, there were many LGBTQ+ artists who showcased, performed, or appeared at special events throughout AmericanaFest 2023, including but not limited to the following:
Aaron Lee Tasjan
Adeem the Artist
Ever More Nest
Julian Talamantez Brolaski
Secret Emchy Society
We’d like to acknowledge that these are merely the artists we encountered who overtly and publicly identify with the LGBTQ+ community and are currently open about their identities. There are surely many more, as yet not visible to us, who were also involved this year that we hope to highlight in the future.
We would also love to acknowledge the Queer Cowpoke Roundup event that took place at The Groove, a queer-owned records store in East Nashville, on Saturday afternoon featuring a lineup of Austin Lucas, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Julie Nolen, Melody Walker, Mercy Bell, Secret Emchy Society, Shawna Virago and Wiley Gaby. Although there were often unintentional overlaps in queer events on the AmericanaFest schedule, it emphasizes just how abundant LGBTQ+ artists, events, organizations and promoters were at AmericanaFest 2023.
As a whole, it’s exciting to see this volume of phenomenal, openly LGBTQ+ artists showcasing, holding inclusive events and being nominated for and taking home awards. Experiencing the cultivated queer spaces at AmericanaFest was lovely – yes, there were several reports of queerphobia, transphobia, misogyny and hate being directed at and overheard by LGBTQ+ artists throughout the week, too. We’ve come so far, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Even so, we are holding gratitude for the critical mass of queer music and community at AmericanaFest 2023, and we look forward to continuing to develop a more inclusive music industry together.
All Photos: Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association
Lead Image: Allison Russell; S.G. Goodman; Adeem the Artist; all by Erika Goldring