The country music industry has long been notorious for its lack of diversity. Try and name any famous country star who isn’t cisgender, straight, and white. In Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music, director T.J. Parsell uncovers the stories of LGBT women in the Nashville country music scene, both singers and songwriters, who were forced to remain in the closet for years, and those who came out only to find doors that had been previously open to them now closed.
Just look up Kye Fleming, Jess Leary, Mary Anne Kennedy, and Pam Rose, and you’ll find their names on some of the biggest country hits, and it’s not just songwriting that these women have in common – they’re also all gay. While these women have all found success behind the scenes in songwriting, this has come at some cost to them. Fleming had to put her sexuality to the side for a long time to make it in such a male-dominated industry. Leary wanted to make it as a singer but didn’t want to play the game of pretending to be straight, while Rose turned down a record deal for the very same reason.
The documentary posits that the problem within the genre is the “gatekeepers of the industry”—the radio DJs and those in charge of the big record labels. This can certainly be seen in the cases of Dianne Davidson and Chely Wright. Davidson was on the brink of major success when she wrote a record that included songs about loving a woman, and all the doors to success were quickly closed to her. In 2010, Chely Wright became the first famous country star to publicly come out as gay. The result of this is that she has been unable since then to be on country radio, without which it is almost impossible to have a career in country music. Wright continues to make music but has since switched to a more Americana folk sound.
Parsell’s documentary explores these stories and treats the trauma these women have faced with great sensitivity. Stories of suicidal ideation and childhood abuse are all treated with the deep care they deserve, and the documentary certainly has the feeling that these women chose to tell these parts of their stories and were not forced to by a writer or director. One heartbreaking part is when trans singer and songwriter Cidny Bullens discusses the death of his child. This clearly traumatic part of Bullens’ life is treated by the documentary with the utmost respect and sensitivity, with Bullens being allowed to discuss this in quite frank terms and able to grieve on screen.
Throughout the film, the interviewees are able to talk candidly, both in serious conversations and when making jokes. evoking laughter one second and being brought to tears the next. It’s a testament to Parsell’s work, and the women themselves, that they’re able to bring some element of humour to this topic, especially in a way that the audience can respond to.
One criticism the documentary has faced is that it can skirt around the issues of race within the country genre. Many of the interviewees are white, an exception being singer Ruthie Foster. Foster appears in the doc for a rather short interview, which focuses largely on her sexuality and doesn’t seem to really consider her unique experiences not just as a lesbian in music, but as a black lesbian in music.
Invisible makes for an interesting and thought-provoking watch that will stick with the viewer long after it ends.
Director: T.J. Parsell
Stars: Cidny Bullens, Kye Fleming, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Pam Tillis, Chely Wright, Mary Gauthier, Ruthie Foster
Runtime: 107 minutes