Country’s rising star on finding Nashville’s gays, country music queerness and why she ‘literally can’t’ perform with the Indigo Girls
A few years ago, Kacey Musgraves shook up country music’s conservative politics with “Follow Your Arrow,” encouraging people to “…kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.”
Gay-affirming country music artists were already percolating well before the song’s release as a growing number of female country megastars advocated for their large LGBT followings: Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood. But then, in 2013, Musgraves began leading a new wave of down-home chart-toppers who’d continue to carry the torch through to a “love is love is love,” post-marriage equality world.
Joining Musgraves on her mission to embolden the queer community is Camaron Marvel Ochs, a 31-year-old, California native known simply as Cam. Last year, Cam picked up a Grammy nod for “Burning House,” a breakout hit from her debut Untamed, ranked No. 15 among Rolling Stone’s 40 Best Country Albums of 2015. Now, the singer-songwriter is taking her album on the road for a fall trek entitled the Burning House Tour.
Recently, an untamed Cam freewheeled through a variety of queer topics: her quest to find the gays in Nashville, why it feels “totally natural” to embrace her LGBT fans and how Miley Cyrus’ openness about her pansexuality is “fucking awesome.”
Being from the Bay Area, I imagine you knew more gay people than some of your small-town country contemporaries.
It’s actually probably the weirder thing! For me, it was a reverse of the typical culture shock. I remember showing up to Nashville and being like, “Where are you hiding all of your gays and Asians? Where is everybody?!” (Laughs) It’s a totally different culture. Man, it’s a different thing to understand what it means to be outside of the Bay Area. It’s a very special little pocket I got to grow up in.
What did you learn about gay culture by being immersed in it at such a young age?
I’m not saying everything was perfect – everything is obviously still getting better everywhere – but I grew up with it being a much more normal part of life. It’s funny: When you leave some place, you don’t really realize what your values are until you leave, and then you start to realize you accidentally learned all these things.
For example, when I first moved to Nashville, one of my favorite people and my roommate for a while, who’s from Alabama and is gay, hadn’t come out to her parents yet. Obviously, it’s a personal decision, but I was just like, “Man, I see this weighing on you. Come on out! Pride is such a big party every year.” To this day, she’ll still be like, “Man, I really appreciated that. You were one of the first people who made me feel like I could be myself.” But then when she came out to her parents it was like an explosion. It was not an easy transition. Her parents grew up with certain values that kind of made it feel like being gay was equal to murdering somebody, and I didn’t even know that mindset existed. So, I was the ignorant one in that situation. I had no clue. And I didn’t realize me encouraging her was putting her in harm’s way.
They got through it and everybody is back on track, but I didn’t see that coming, because coming from the Bay Area, you’re like, “OK, maybe it’ll be kind of stressful,” but I didn’t expect that much. I feel like that’s a very good example of when (helping someone come out) can be a double-edged sword, where you just don’t understand the culture of the people you’re (meeting), and you kind of have to be sensitive to where everybody is.
I remember going to Nashville Pride the first year I went there and telling everybody, “Oh my god, get your wig, get your outfits – we’re gonna go down and we’re gonna party so hard.” It was a small riverfront party, and there were some people picketing and I was just like, “This was not the party that I wanted!”
Why do you think you gravitate toward LGBT people?
I think I really like people who are authentic and who are very much themselves, and I do think – and I don’t know if this is controversial to say – one weird benefit of the fact that maybe not everybody is fully accepting of queer people in general right now is that the people who are proudly themselves, who are out right now, are spectacular people because think how amazingly brave you have to be just to do the normal thing of being yourself. Most of them are just genuinely themselves, whereas most people don’t make a conscious choice. They don’t feel like they have something on the line about being who they are, so I do feel like there’s this special aura around people who are out, or any kind of queer.
Is it still a bold move for a country star to advocate for the gay community?
Personally, I think, and especially with women country stars, we have so many gay fans it feels totally natural. The truth is, there’s a part of the country that is still understanding it – they haven’t quite wrapped their minds around gay culture yet, or some of the people they know who are gay aren’t out to them. There’s a whole host of reasons for all that stuff, but I don’t think they realize that some of their best friends or hairstylists or bankers are gay. There’s some sort of unknown factor that keeps it out of the dialogue in country music sometimes. Obviously, the gay community is everywhere; it’s just not as outwardly present, I guess, in country music yet. So, maybe it feels bold because of that, but it’s not that bold.
You recently performed Little Big Town’s hit “Girl Crush” with Alicia Keys during the 2016 ACM Honors. The tune was controversial for being misinterpreted as a lesbian love song. What do you think the controversy says about the country community’s LGBT politics?
It’s so funny. Some people I talk to in radio said they never actually received any backlash, but then some people do. One of the guys who runs a radio station down in Texas is gay, and he got a call from somebody who was like, “I feel like this promotes the gay agenda,” and he’s like, “I do not care.” So I don’t know how much of a crazy backlash there was. It feels so weird. You know you’re in your bubble when no one you know is complaining.
When you sang it, did you feel like you were singing a lesbian song?
No! Also, that’s the reality of it: It isn’t one. If you’re gonna be mad about it, at least pick a song that’s actually (gay). I don’t think there’s much logic to it.
Who are your country music girl crushes?
I love Kacey Musgraves. Obsessed with Kacey Musgraves. And I’m kind of friends with her, so it feels weird to secretly admire her all the time! (Laughs) But man, she’s done such a killer job. I’m always so impressed by her.
And then there’s fellow ally Dolly Parton, of course. You recently had a porch sit-down with her.
She’s amazing. When you’re talking to her, she’s always got the cutest and sweetest response. And you can see it in her eyes – she knows what she’s saying at all times, and it’s impressive to be around.
Did she give you any songwriting advice?
Yeah, I was like, “Gimme all your tips!” She’s like, “Pick the right songs.” Not all her best songs were ones that she wrote, so she wasn’t really afraid to do that. And sometimes as an artist you can get a little high and mighty about your art and you want to control all of it.
Were you that way with Untamed?
Well, I wrote or co-wrote all of those songs. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Yeah. I think it’s a tough line to walk where you want to make something that fulfills your creative needs, but also, it has to be something that really reaches other people and isn’t just something you make in your basement for yourself to listen to all day. It’s gotta be something that appeals to other people, so you can have a joint experience with them. I try to walk the line between obsessively controlling everything that is going on and just realizing that you have to have other people in mind while you’re making it.
At this point in your career, are you aware of your gay following?
Yes, definitely. I see all kinds of people at meet-and-greets. It’s really nice when younger gay fans do know that you are supportive. That’s really important. I hate to call myself a role model, but somebody who is more in the public eye who’s on their team is always nice. They seem excited about that, and that’s why it is nice when (artists) do take the time to say something a little more public so that their fans know.
That might be more important in the country community because there are so few vocal allies.
Yeah, I know. But I mean, even Carrie Underwood is on it. I remember being younger and my grandpa had a ranch. We went across the street, across to the neighboring spot that had horses. We were small, so we were leaning on the lower rung of the fence. My grandpa and his pal were leaning on the upper rung of the fence. We’re watching, and I could hear them shootin’ shit and they’re talking about, “Did you hear about Bob? He was wearing his heels to church and they asked him to stop coming.” This was a heavyset, super-country dude who everybody knew. I didn’t know him. I was too little. But I remember over the dinner table my grandpa went, “You know, I don’t think that’s right.” That was a big thing, to hear your grandpa say that. I feel like that’s a very country value to say, “I don’t think you support each other.” I know people talk the talk and don’t quite walk the walk.
What did your grandpa teach you about acceptance?
I probably picked up open-mindedness from him, but I just feel my parents and the whole community – it just seemed like a normal thing. I couldn’t even tell you where I picked it up from. Being in Nashville, sometimes I’ll be behind on (LGBT issues) now because of how progressive the Bay Area is. I’ll be behind on the correct term or the correct pronouns, (and) it’s my job to keep up with that too, but that’s when I feel like, “OK, that’s my battle; it’s not just, ‘Do you accept gay people?’” That’s normal.
Tell me about your obsession with the Indigo Girls.
They tweeted at me, and I died. I’ve been to three of their shows, if not four. And I remember one time seeing them walk by, and my mom is like, “Go say hi,” and I said, “No. I literally can’t.” And they tweeted at me: “We love ‘Burning House,’” and they’re like, “We should write some time,” and I’m like, I can’t. I can’t be in the room with them. You know what I mean? It just won’t happen. I can’t do it. Some of your heroes, you just want them to stay heroes. Like, I don’t want you to be a real person.
Did your infatuation with the Indigo Girls ever lead people to assume you might be gay?
To be honest, some of the people who did listen to the Indigo Girls in choir with me did end up being gay! (Laughs) But a bunch of them were straight too! It was a mix. I was really lucky that when I hit college, an album by the Indigo Girls was the first I found on my own; it didn’t come to me through my parents or through the radio. I found this music and I was obsessed with it. As far as I know nobody asked if I was gay, but I probably would’ve been very complimented because I love the Indigo Girls so much! (Laughs)
You co-wrote “Maybe You’re Right” for Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz album. What do you think of her using her platform to talk about issues that address sexual fluidity and queerness?
Her Happy Hippie Foundation (which rallies young people to fight injustice) is so cool. And man, she’s country too. I mean, she came from a country background. And I’m not close with her, but I think it’s so cool what she’s doing. It’s kind of a tough line to walk because sometimes I get annoyed when people speak on subjects they aren’t fully educated on, or sometimes if I just don’t agree with them, I’m like, stick to your trade. I don’t want to hear what else you have to say. (Laughs) As far as I know she’s straight…
She’s openly pansexual, actually.
Oh, really? That’s cool. I didn’t know that. OK, that’s awesome!
And she’s become an emblem for young queer kids to subvert labels.
That’s awesome. I think that’s probably where everybody is headed, which is amazing. I’m so glad she does that. Because as someone who identifies as straight, sometimes it feels very unfair that more often than not a straight person will be the person who has a platform, or a white person will be the one who has a platform, or a man will be the one who has a platform. Sometimes that gets a little tricky because you’re speaking about people who aren’t quite you. But Miley – if she is pansexual, that’s fucking awesome. And it’s so great because I’m sure she’s taking a lot of heat from people who don’t quite understand, but being the one who’s pushing forward and taking the blowback is gonna make it so much easier for the next generation.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. He can proudly say Mariah Carey once called him a “daaahhhling.” Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).