Last year on Songland, judge Shane McAnally joked, “I was relieved when I found out [songwriting] was a job, because I thought you had to be George Strait to go to Nashville… and the truth is, my name isn’t George and I wasn’t straight!” But it turns out that McAnally, a three-time Grammy-winner and one of the most successful country songwriters of all time, embarked on his path to life as an openly gay man in country music when he appeared on another TV talent show, many years ago: Star Search.
“I was 15. I think I was on the ’91/’92 season, and I didn’t win my episode,” McAnally tells Yahoo Entertainment during an interview for Pride Month. But while he was humiliated to head home after his very public Star Search defeat (he sang Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch”), he was privately dealing with a deeper and much more agonizing situation.
“I come from a small town in Texas, and I was struggling with my sexuality, not even knowing that’s what I was going through. I was in a very religious community and trying to pray away these feelings I was having,” McAnally recalls. “When I went out to California to tape Star Search, they put us in West Hollywood — and I didn’t really put these dots together until I lived there years later, but I remember for the first time going to eat with my mom and we were walking down the street and saw two men holding hands. That was so foreign and really exhilarating and terrifying to me, because I was so interested in it, but so terrified because that was such a sin, the idea of two men engaging in any sort of interaction physically like that.”
Country music star jokes about not being straight on ‘Songland’
NBC’s fascinating new talent competition Songland, the brainchild of executive producers Adam Levine and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, puts the focus on composers instead of performers. And in the process, the show is not only making stars out of contestants submitting songs for stars like this week’s guest, Meghan Trainor, but it’s increasing the public profiles for judges Ester Dean and Shane McAnally — who are huge names in the industry, but not necessarily well-known by the average television viewer. McAnally, who moved from the tiny Texas town of Mineral Wells to Branson at age 15 and then to Nashville at 19, certainly got in the best made-for-TV zinger of Tuesday’s Songland episode, when he and Dean were discussing their largely behind-the-scenes careers. “I was relieved when I find out [songwriting] was a job, because I thought you had to be George Strait to go to Nashville,” said McAnally, “and the truth is, my name isn’t George and I wasn’t straight!” McAnally released only one solo album, in 2000, a self-titled effort that received mixed reviews and yielded three moderately successful singles that cracked the top 50 of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. But he is now one of the most successful country songwriters of all time, with a multi-page résumé that includes credits for pretty much every major name in Nashville, including Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris, Keith Urban, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay, and most notably Kacey Musgraves, whose “Follow Your Arrow” featured the inclusive line “kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into.” And McAnally has done all this as an openly gay man in a historically conservative genre/scene, which why he landed on Rolling Stone’s recent “Music’s Unsung LGBTQ Heroes” list next to Frankie Knuckles, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, and Big Freedia. McAnally shares a country pedigree with Trainor — who some may not know got her start penning songs for the likes of Rascal Flatts and Hunter Hayes – though on Songland he glowingly praised Trainor for being a complete package artist who can sing, dance, and write for both herself and others. But certainly any aspiring songwriter on Songland, like this this week’s four hopefuls, would be happy to have a career like McAnally’s or Trainor’s. While the one country-leaning songwriter of Tuesday’s bunch, Southern gentleman Zachary Kale, was passed over because his sentimental “All Over Again” was too “cute” and “bouncy” (and because newlywed Trainor apparently already has enough love songs set aside for her forthcoming third album), the three other contenders came with the “sassy power anthems” that Trainor was looking for.
McAnally went back to his small town of Mineral Wells, Texas, and he continued “praying that I would be attracted to a female, that I could be right in God’s eyes.” As he got older, he understandably feared that his sexuality could destroy his chances of country music success, because there were no openly gay artists in mainstream country in the ‘90s. So, he kept his secret. Even after he moved to Nashville, he still hadn’t so much as even kissed a man, and he was living with his college girlfriend (who remains one of his closest friends to this day). But McAnally couldn’t remain closeted forever — or could he?
This article was originally posted on yahoo.com/entertainment/.