Shane McAnally didn’t write gay anthems with the intent of writing gay anthems. They just kind of happened.
That’s what the prolific country songwriter told Anthony Ramos from GLAAD — formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation — about his involvement in Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 “Follow Your Arrow” and her 2019 “Rainbow.”
But first, McAnally started at the beginning of what he thought was going to be a career as a country singer.
“I moved to Nashville originally in 1994. And at the end of the nineties, there was an artist who was in the closet — Ty Herndon — and he had some big hits,” McAnally said.
“And what happened was when he was outed, his career really hit a wall. So for someone like me watching that, that was scary thinking, ’Well, maybe I shouldn’t come out.’ And I wanted this dream so badly. All I ever wanted was to be in country music. And all of a sudden it looked like those two couldn’t go together. So that kept me in the closet longer.
“But ultimately because of Ty and some other artists like that who did step out first — even if they were pulled out of the closet — it at least shined a light on the fact that there are gay people making country music.”
All of those worries initially made it difficult for McAnally in songwriting sessions, he said, because he was hyper aware of the he/she pronouns in songs. “If I talked about a relationship, I’d get so caught up in, ’What story did I tell? Who did I say I was dating?’ And that completely cast a shadow over my ability to tell the story in a truthful way,” he explained. “Once I came out, and realized that everybody knew and didn’t care, it didn’t matter what pronoun I used. I was no longer worried if ’he’ or ’she’ came out of my mouth. I was able to write the line properly.
“In doing that, my songs became much more universal to straight people too, because the heart is a heart and we all hurt and love the same.”
When the conversation turned to talk of the two Musgraves songs that encourage that sentiment — love who you love — McAnally said the ideas started in a songwriting session back in 2012. “I didn’t go into any songwriting session with an agenda to write a song that was an anthem for the gay community. And I was a little bit scared that it might hurt my reputation or that it would brand me. But Kacey doesn’t have those same limitations or fears. She says exactly what’s on her mind,” he said of how Musgraves became a gay ally. “She was ready to wave her hand and say, ’You know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s like, follow your arrow, and do whatever you want.'”
When McAnally was able to tell the truth about his relationships without worrying about the pronouns, he said, the songs made more sense and were also more unique. And after that happened, he became a songwriter that people went to for certain kinds of songs of unrequited love.
And it’s not just the gay community McAnally is writing for. It’s everyone, man or woman, straight or gay.
“The first time I was ever invited on the road, after I had just had a couple of hits with Kenny Chesney and Jake Owen, Luke Bryan invited me on the road. And he is someone that I would consider — if there is a level of straight or gay, I consider him to be on the extreme straight side — so the first question I asked was, ’Does he know I’m gay?’ Because I was so afraid that I would go back into that world of pronoun fear,” McAnally said. It turned out, Bryan did know and didn’t care. They wrote “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” on that trip, and it went on to be a No. 1 song in 2012.
McAnally’s life now — with his husband Michael and their son and daughter — is one he never thought would be possible. “I was afraid to dream that big, because we’re told that that might not happen for us. And especially in the generation that I came up in, it wasn’t a time where people were able to say they were gay at such a young age. And I just always thought that whoever I was with would be a secret.”
The way he explains that sentiment, to people like his mom who didn’t understand his life at first, was like this:
“This was at airports before, when you could just walk to the gate with someone. And I said, ’You know how when you go with your partner to the gate at the airport and you kiss goodbye and watch him get on the airplane? I don’t think I’m ever going to get to do that.’ And that used to really break my heart.
“And now, I do get to do that. I get to do that with my husband and my kids and all my friends and family. Nobody ever thinks anything different. I’m really really blessed,” he said.
The Grammy, CMA and ACM award-winning songwriter and part of the songwriting competition series Songland, added, “I’m very lucky that I do live in a privileged world in that way. And so I hope that people can see this and and go, ’This is very possible because it starts with just being able to imagine it.'”