Shane Stevens Makes History as Openly Gay Nashville Songwriter
You may want to let that sink in for a while — especially the first part of his credentials. Because while pop music and reality TV have had their share of “out” gay men, the Nashville-based songwriters who fit the category (“out” being the operative word) — and have earned a No. 1 country single — pretty much just equals Shane alone.
As the TV show’s title implies, the co-writer of Lady Antebellum‘s ‘American Honey’ has his best straight girl friend, country singer Sherrié Austin, proudly standing by her boy who likes boys. The pair make up one of four Nashville-based couples whose lives, relationships, differing viewpoints and common ground are documented throughout the 12-week series. It may be groundbreaking stuff for Nashville and country music, but for Shane, who has had his songs cut by artists ranging from Jordin Sparks to Montgomery Gentry, it’s another facet in a life he refuses to live in the shadows. Another aspect of Shane’s personality that’s explored openly in the series is his unabashed Christianity. He is, in fact, a self-professed “Jesus freak.”
Shane first moved to Nashville from Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 1996 with his friend, songwriter Karyn Rochelle (Kellie Pickler‘s ‘Red High Heels’ and Trisha Yearwood‘s ‘Georgia Rain’ are among the tunes she has since had recorded).
“She wanted to be a singer and a songwriter, and I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” Shane tells The Boot. “I just knew I didn’t want to live that far south anymore. It was too difficult. I was being bullied a lot in high school and at home. I needed to get out of there. I called it the black hole of death. She was my escape route.”
Although he desired a singing career, the 33-year-old says he wasn’t as sure about becoming a songwriter. “It was something I really prayed about a lot,” he acknowledges. “I went and worked at the Crab House [restaurant] downtown. My dad was a shrimper, so I knew seafood. I went there and became a trainer and waited tables for a couple of years. I met [producer] Jerry Crutchfield one night and got Karyn a publishing deal from talking to Jerry. Karyn kept encouraging me to write. She returned the favor and took me into Famous Music, and they signed me.”
Just in case the music career didn’t pan out, however, Shane also studied to be a hair stylist. In 2001, he moved to New York City to pursue a career as a pop artist.
“Then, the whole world fell apart — 9/11 happened and I promptly got dropped from my publishing deal and my record deal,” he recalls. “I literally convinced myself that I couldn’t write songs, that I was faking it, so I better just do hair. I ended up working at the salon with a bunch of celebrity hair clients who all kicked my butt and told me, ‘You’re going to be a songwriter.’ The one leading force in that was [‘Weeds’ actress] Mary-Louise Parker. She would take me to parties and one night she introduced me to Cher, Cyndi Lauper, Lenny Kravitz, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello. She was like, ‘These are the people you want to be, so go freaking be it already.’ She didn’t say ‘freaking,’ [laughs] but the next day, it just clicked again. I wrote a song and Sara Evans cut it shortly after. I got another publishing deal with Major Bob (home to the songs of Garth Brooks and the Band Perry, among others) and the rest is history.”
In spite of the perception that country music remains a bastion of conservatism, Shane has experienced nothing but an outpouring of support from his celebrity clientele and other friends within the music industry.
“Faith [Hill] has always been amazing,” he notes. “Barbara Mandrell has always been amazing. Sara Evans … Tammy Wynette. No one has ever said anything derogatory to me ever. If they have it’s been behind my back.”
One of Shane’s most vocal advocates has been singer Blake Shelton, who has in the past been criticized for making remarks perceived as being homophobic. “He loves me,” Shane says in defense of his friend. “And I love and adore him. Last year when something was on Twitter or somebody took it the wrong way, I was like, ‘OK, people, I’ve known him since I was 17 years old. He’s far beyond being a homophobe. He’ll pinch my ass and pick on me and tell me he loves me. He’ll say, ‘I know you’re gay but, really, the blue nails last night?'”
Although the country-music community has shown support, Shane reveals that living in Nashville isn’t always easy, which has made doing the TV show there an even more interesting experiment.
“In New York, you can really be who you are,” he explains. “In L.A., Miami, a lot of other cities in America, no big deal to be gay, who cares? But being in Nashville it’s still tough. Sherrié always says we’re ‘unbuckling the Bible belt.’ Matt [Shane’s longtime boyfriend] and I can’t walk down the street holding hands. Somebody might throw something at us. That’s happened to me before here. It’s getting better. It’s getting more and more open-minded, but it’s still not safe.”
In addition to documenting Shane’s life as a gay man, the TV series focuses on his burgeoning music career, and his just-released single, ‘Back to Earth.’ Also featured is the launching of Sherrié’s comeback album, ‘Circus Girl,’ released this week. The two “besties” share vocals on ‘Naughty or Nice,’ a flirtatious Christmas tune on the album. To the initial dismay of the show’s producers, however, Sherrié says their friendship definitely has more of the “nice.”
“We’re really good friends and this kind of relationship will either make you stronger, or end it,” notes Sherrié. “We’ve never had drama. Of all the couples on the show, we’re the only ones who’ve never had drama. At first on the show they were trying to figure out, ‘How do we work around this? They never fight, they never have anything bad to say about each other.’ Shane and I would get on camera and say, ‘Sorry, but we just don’t have issues with each other.'”
Perhaps the most dramatic aspects of the show are Shane’s recollections of growing up — and ultimately getting away from — an oppressive environment.
“He’s on a mission to about helping children,” says Sherrié, “because of the life he had growing up in the south and a father that called him a f– and never accepted him. He’s definitely got some deep, dark places in him that we’ve shared over the years and that we’re showing on this television show.”
“I would put my whole life out there, my struggles, my questions,” Shane confirms. “I don’t have all the answers, I haven’t figured it all out. I just know that I trust in God. I know that he loves me and loves everyone in this world has only the best things for us. I don’t care what other people think. I am a die-hard Jesus fanatic. I ran from God for 30 years of my life. I had a massive encounter with the Lord that changed my life. Everything is possible. Before, everything felt hopeless. That’s the reason I wanted to do the show — to show this community that God really loves us exactly how we are, for who we are. It’s just unconditional love and grace mercy. I didn’t understand that before because I was raised in religion … that you’re going to die and go to hell. I just know that I know that I know that’s not true. When you meet who the real God is … not who all these crazy, so-called Christians say he is, it will change you.”
Shane does confess, however, that there’s one thing he would like to have done differently during the five months the series was being filmed but couldn’t, for the sake of continuity.
“I hated my haircut during the whole show.”
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