When Billy Gilman was a kid, his dream was to be a country singer. He loved Pam Tillis, and dreamed of one day performing on the Grand Ole Opry.
He even got to live out that dream when, as a 12-year-old, his angelic voice and quality songs on the album One Voice made the Rhode Island native a sensation. He made his Grand Ole Opry debut shortly after.
Now a young man of 26, Billy is still obsessed with being a country artist and performing. He still loves the Grand Ole Opry. Not much has changed.
Except now we are all aware that Billy is gay.
“People have been wondering for a long time, even before I knew, really” he says, laughing, on a call from his home state. “So it was time to address it and hopefully make a stand and know that it’s OK.”
2014 may well be remembered as the year country music came out of the closet. Early on, Kacey Musgraves sang about equality and personal freedom in her song “Follow Your Arrow,” nabbing an armful of awards along the way. Then in one busy country news day in November, both Billy and Ty Herndon revealed their sexual orientation, putting rumors to rest and embracing their lives openly.
For Billy’s part, it was a daunting prospect. He had at least begun to come out around his hometown and started seeing someone. But there were rumors and Billy was concerned that his fans might hear it from some other source. When he came out to his team, they informed him they had been trying to address those rumors for some time. They told him it was time to be honest.
“I was scared because I don’t think country knows the love I have for country,” he explains. “I grew up listening to it literally since birth. When I first went on the Opry, it’s amazing how emotional I was at 12 years old just because it’s been in my blood.”
Essentially, he stood to lose everything that mattered to him. But not talking about it would mean wearing a mask for the public, when basically every other artist has to put walls up to keep people from digging too much in his or her personal life. Billy contends that being in a relationship may have helped push him to come out publicly and in this case, his fans rallied when he posted a video message online with the announcement along with a tease of the video for his new single “Say You Will.”
“My fans are my fans, people are people, and I’ve always been blessed with a very strong fan base that supported me through whatever,” he says. “And I know that I’ve advocated for so much in my life that now it was time, good or bad, that I became an advocate for myself.”
That was harder than it sounds, particularly when Billy had lived much of life being, in his words, “a pleaser,” he acknowledges. “I wanted to make sure my band was happy, I wanted to make sure my fans were happy. So I just never just wanted to disrespect anyone.”
In his video revealing the news, Billy talked about his trepidation to go forward with it. Not, he explained, because he was ashamed of himself, but for totally external, business-related reasons. “[I]t’s pretty silly to know that I’m ashamed of doing this knowing that because I’m in a genre, and in an industry, that is ashamed of me for being me.”
It was unclear if he meant the industry itself, which is largely socially liberal, or if he was referring to the more socially conservative fan base of country music. In reality, it’s probably both. Billy cites the difficulty he had getting meetings before he made his announcement as evidence that Nashville executives were skittish about working with him. “I always wondered, well maybe I’m just not good enough anymore, maybe it’s just over with,” he sighs.
And while risk-averse Nashville labels may have shut their doors to Billy, in fairness, there is also the possibility that his new music wasn’t undeniable enough to trump some of the inevitable pushback. Whatever the case, Billy is aware that being an out of the closet gay man in country music carries a stigma, but says he doesn’t understand why it’s such a tough sell for many fans.
“If I handle my private life with respect, there’s nothing that will be… it will only be about the music where that [part of my life] wouldn’t become a focal point,” he says. “It’s my life and it wouldn’t be even if I was straight. My private life is my private life.”
“Respect” is a word Billy uses often, as a way of saying he’s not out to offend or upset anyone by revealing this part of his life. He refers to an old song of his from his major label days called “Shades of Life,” and its message of inclusion as one he aspires to live every day.
“I am one to respect all and some people may not and that’s OK,” he says. “They have their own convictions and you have to respect that but I’m not basing my career on a reality show where people [are] seeing it constantly. I’m just singing my songs.”
Undoubtedly, there will be (and already are) people who don’t understand this part of Billy’s life. He says he’s even gotten some crazy messages through social media, but most everyone has been supportive and eager to see what he does with “Say You Will” and anything after. He hopes that seeing one another as humans first may be the key to putting differences aside.
“I have the most conservative father you would ever want to know,” he says. “Even being from the north, he goes to the gun club and all of this, it’s very country. So it was a scary thing and he has been nothing but accepting, because you handle it with respect. In regard to people who don’t understand, you know, simply, it’s OK that you don’t. I’m still gonna be me and live my life because there’s gonna be people that do understand and do respect me. And it shouldn’t take away from my humanity, you know what I mean? It shouldn’t take away from anyone’s placement in this world.”
That’s a message that seems to be reverberating through Billy’s corner of the world. Following his announcement in November, he got a flood of emails in response, most of which were very supportive. What struck Billy—who is quick to say he came out for himself—was the amount of correspondence from young people who had been scared and confused like him and felt encouraged by his announcement.
“[They] said, ‘Thank you for allowing me to know that I’m not alone, that it’s OK. I have not heard of a young artist coming forth like this. I have someone that I can look up to,’” he recalls. “That was the most amazing thing.”