Gay country performers find opportunity with “Brokeback Mountain” release

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If you have no idea what “Brokeback Mountain” is by now, you may not be gay after all.

The advance word from those who’ve seen the film is far outpacing all of the anticipation that gay America could muster upon learning that the now-classic short story written by Annie Proulx would be brought to the big screen. Since its premier at the Venice Film Festival, where it subsequently won the Golden Lion (its top award), rumors have spread about viewers leaving the theaters still openly weeping at the emotional climax of the story.

Deterred by those same moviegoers’ assertion it is undeniably a “gay cowboy movie,” the production company, Focus Features, has elected for an extremely slow roll-out of the film to mainstream America. As of this writing, “Brokeback” may open locally sometime in early-mid January.

Along with this come questions from queer theorists who ask why it is being considered brave and Oscar-worthy for the heterosexual stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to portray gay when, on one hand, there are enough gay actors available to play the roles already and, on the other, how much of a stretch is truly required to act gay: aren’t the days of the Oscar-baiting performances of Tom Hanks (in “Philadelphia”) and Greg Kinnear (in “As Good As It Gets”) long gone?

In spite of the timid release schedule and this pop culture debate, the movie remains likely to introduce to mainstream America the existence of people like Jeff Miller.

Towering well over 6 feet in height, with piercing clear green eyes, Jeff is considered by some a pioneer in country music. A native of Wisconsin, he first began touring in the late 1980s and, at the suggestion of “a couple heavyweights at WSM,” moved to Nashville in 1993. He says he specializes in parodies of popular country songs, adding “little slices of gay life.”

Gay life, yes. Little slices, they are not. Jeff is an unabashedly gay country music singer-songwriter who, with the rise of Garth and all-things-country, found himself in the early-mid 1990s successfully touring the nation, selling his brand of country.

“I first started by just doing covers,” he told me, “and innocently flipping pronouns. My first parodied song was a take on George Strait’s ‘All My Exes Live In Texas,’ called ‘All My Exes Live at BJs.’ It was the name of a gay bar in San Diego where I was living at the time.”

“My first album was called ‘Not Really Strait.’”

“Virtually every city had one country bar back when Garth hit,” he said. “There were three of us at that time, touring on the national gay circuit. Sometimes we’d follow each other at certain clubs a month apart. Other times, bigger clubs or festivals would book us together.”

Given the insularity and general diffidence of Music Row, with its blame resting on radio’s limited playlists while radio accuses the Row of artistic stagnation, Jeff’s trek to Nashville never truly stood a chance of developing into a mainstream country music career. He’s proud to add, though, that a major label did offer him a development deal, as well as financial support for his tour. Eventually it all fell to the wayside but, similar to other outcasts – be they too traditional or too experimental – Jeff didn’t let Music Row’s creative timorousness inhibit him.

And he is not the only one. JD Doyle, a disc jockey at Houston radio station KPFT, earlier this year broadcast three shows on the history of gay country music. The program is filled with gay men and lesbians who, over the past forty years up to the present, have written and performed country music on their own terms. Because of the graphic nature of some of the music he intended to broadcast, Doyle chose to stream each of the shows in full on his website, www.QueerMusicHeritage.com. An interview with Jeff, along with a few other innovators of the genre, can be found on those shows.

A surprise comes partway through the final episode, when Doyle recounts the story of a possible gay-themed “Nashville Star” or “American Idol”-styled television show that was rumored a year or so ago. Though every one of the other songs in the History of Gay Country Music program were unhesitant with the use of pronouns relating to gay relationships, these songs – sung by performers anticipating success in the mainstream – eschewed any form of third person he-or-she references, choosing instead to sing about the performers’ love for an ambiguously gay “you.”

For those of us who’ve witnessed, and taken for granted, demands such as these that mainstream country music puts on its creativity for the wont of profit – or at least, a break-even point – the music of musicians like Jeff Miller is, at times, breathtaking. This is country music that appeals, in many ways, only to a gay audience. It leaves a listener wondering if XM or Sirius should consider adding a new channel to their lineups.

Take the song, “What Mattered More.” It is a song Jeff says is his most notorious. A parody of Ty Herndon’s 1995 #1 hit, “What Mattered Most,” the listener strains to catch every word after hearing the first line. Whereas the original begins, “I thought I knew the girl so well,” the first line of the Jeff Miller version is, “I thought I knew that park so well.”

(Shortly after the release of “What Mattered Most,” Herndon received criminal charges of indecent exposure and solicitation for gay sex in a Texas park; his reps at the time claimed he was under the influence of drugs, as though all drug users, by nature, expose themselves in search of man-sex in Texas.)

Jeff debuted his parody at the now-defunct Connection dance club in front of a crowd that he knew was littered with music industry players. After his performance, Jeff was accosted by those very people, asking for a copy of the lyrics. “The next day, it was the talk of Music Row, burning up the fax machines,” he said.

That his music meets this kind of success on its own terms is gratifying. “One of the big reasons I do this is for the people out in, say, Butte, Montana,” he said. “I played a bar there one time and, for gay country music, there were people who drove 60 and 80 miles to see the show. People came up to me later and said ‘this is so cool!’ The feedback was phenomenal.”

Jeff is glad “Brokeback Mountain” has sparked an interest in gay country as well as the gay cowboy lifestyle. “There’s been renewed interest in my music because of the movie,” he said. “My agents have been calling saying they’re ready to book shows for me all over in the new year. They appreciate the fact that I’m not just a singer but I’m living the country lifestyle with my horses and all.”

“This movie is just a dream come true for me.”