I don’t know about you, but when I think of country music, lesbian songwriters are not the first thing that comes to my mind. And yet, as revealed in T.J. Parsell’s Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music, there are tons of lesbian songwriters working in country music, many of them quite successfully. The key to their success, unfortunately, is contained in this film’s title: they’ve had to remain invisible as gay women in order to succeed in the industry.
Country music is a small world, mostly run by straight men who are used to getting their own way and making decisions that reflect their personal prejudices. It’s also a branch of music that is particularly dependent on radio play—if your songs are not being played on the right stations, most of which are owned by one of just a few corporations, you’re not having a career. Getting radio play also means playing footsie with the gropers who run the morning shows that provide important publicity toward having a career, and, well, let’s just say that Louis C.K. is apparently not the only dude to likes to masturbate in front of women who are not voluntary participants in this show of power.
Dianne Davidson learned the hard way what it means to step out of line, as defined by the powers that be. She was something of a prodigy in the industry, getting her first recording contract at 16, touring with acts like the Moody Blues and Linda Ronstadt, and recording 4 albums by the time she was 21. Then, just like that, she was shut out of the business, all because her 4th album included a lesbian love song. Davidson took a corporate job, told none of her coworkers that she used to be a musician, and lived that way for many years. Happily, she is now doing music again, performing and recording on an indie label.
When Kye Fleming moved to Nashville in 1977, she says it was a “man’s town” with very few women songwriters. She stayed firmly in the closet and concentrated on her career, which quickly took off—working with Dennis Morgan, in less than a year she placed 6 songs on Barbara Mandrell’s latest album. Fleming’s songs have been performed by a variety of artists, from Charley Pride and Wynonna Judd to Bette Midler and Tina Turner, and she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009. Her ambiguous first name might also have been a plus–Jess Leary, yet another successful lesbian songwriter working in country music, recalls being surprised to learn that Fleming was female.
If I try to tell the story of every woman featured in this film, I’ll be writing a novella, not a review, so I’ll just mention some of the others included: Mary Gauthier, Bonnie Baker, Ruthie Foster, Cheryl Wheeler, Mary Ann Kennedy, Pam Rose, and Cidny Bullens (formerly known as Cindy Bullens). Bullens’ story is among the most joyful: he transitioned to male in 2012, after which he said “the world opened up to me” and today is happily married and doting on his grandchildren.
Things are better today than they were in 1970—in part because there are more ways to reach an audience outside the traditional country channels—but the mainstream, big-money country scene has hardly budged. After Chely Wright came out, an interviewer on the Today Show asked if she had worried that going public would ruin her career, and she said “I still don’t know that it won’t.” Still, Invisible in primarily an upbeat film—if the women featured in it have had to make compromises, they’ve also found ways to thrive—and overall it’s a joy to watch. It doesn’t hurt that everything in Sandra Chandler and Eythan Maidhof’s cinematography is both deliberately chosen and beautiful, with particular care given to staging the interviews for each woman in a way that presents them as queens in their castles. | Sarah Boslaugh
Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music is available for home viewing through NewFest 2021 until Oct. 26. Further information about NewFest tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the NewFest2021 web site.