One thing’s for certain: Nashville is not what it used to be. While there have probably always been LGBTQ+ folks in Music City, with each passing year (or maybe even minute), the queer community is becoming increasingly visible, thanks in part to artists such as the newly out singer/songwriter Jaime Wyatt. The distinguished artist has had a hardscrabble life that led to sobriety and embracing her queer identity—topics she addresses on her exceptional new album, Neon Cross (New West). That project is quickly earning her a place among the current crop of reigning country divas. Wyatt was good enough to answer a few questions in advance of the release of Neon Cross.
“My role in being out and being a country singer is important—[hopefully it can] change the perception of what country music is often associated with.”
Gregg Shapiro: Jaime, I want to begin by congratulating you on the release of your new album, Neon Cross. It’s being showered with a multitude of favorable reviews. What does that kind of reception mean to you?
Jaime Wyatt: It’s everything I could hope for, absolutely. [Laughs] I definitely aim to please. Specifically, I really want people to know where these songs are coming from—what kind of experiences these songs are coming from, in hopes that it might help somebody else. I’ve definitely gone about living life, I think, the hard way. I think there’s a more efficient way to go about it. [Laughs] I’m really happy the album and its message are being well-received. It means the world to me.
With the exception of “Demon Tied to a Chair in My Brain,” you wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on Neon Cross. Can you tell the readers something about your songwriting process, and how you think it has evolved over the years?
I’ve been writing songs since I was four or five years old. I was always making up my own melodies and phrases and stuff. There was a period, when I was learning to play the guitar, that I played to the guitar. But I got back to my roots and the dreamy quality of writing, where I write the melody and the words and the hook in my head, and then bring it to the instrument. Going back to where it originally came from, when I was a child, has been successful for me. I follow the muse, rather than making the muse fit inside some sort of box. My life has shown, in every way, that I don’t fit in a box. Why should art? Art has form; don’t get me wrong. I’m not necessarily avant-garde. I’m not reinventing the wheel. This is country pop. But I’m happy that I’ve been able to go back to an organic process, especially in sobriety. It was much easier when I was in my 20s just to smoke a joint and [finger snap] get there. Now I’ve worked for it. I have different ways to get there: meditation and a lot of journaling, and a lot of reading and learning how to be with myself and go inward.
The album features a couple of guest vocalists, including Jessi Colter, the mother of producer Shooter Jennings, on “Just a Woman.” Is that how that collaboration came to be?
That’s absolutely right. I’ve got this song, and I feel like I wrote it for my mother and other people’s moms. I feel like I’m trying to imagine what Tammy Wynette would have said if she could have vocalized some pain in the limitations of being a woman during that time, or during this time. I thought, “Who can we have on there?” Then I asked Shooter if we could hire his mother, and he said, “Absolutely!” I’d met her a few times. She knew who I was and had heard my voice, and was happy to do it. It was a huge honor.
One of my favorite songs on the album is the wonderful and subtly queer “Rattlesnake Girl.” The song contains the lines “I see my sweet friends on the weekends/They all look happy and gay/They keep their secrets all covered in sequins.” That made me wonder: what would it mean to you if there was a drag queen somewhere out there getting ready to include a Jaime Wyatt song in her act?
Oh, man, if I knew that was happening, I would cry tears of joy. A drag queen getting ready for a performance (which is a holy ritual) that makes everyone feel visible and understood and accepted. I would cry because I think it would be lovely!
While things have changed in recent years, being out in Nashville is still something of a challenge. Country-music listeners turned their backs on Chely Wright and Ty Herndon after they came out. But in the interim, people have embraced singers like Mary Gauthier and Brandy Clark. Can you please say something about how you see your role as an out country artist?
That’s a good question. I hope I can articulate this enough, because it’s very important to be out and well-studied at country music. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by artists that push the envelope. That’s important, because art is supposed to challenge our perspectives. My role in being out and being a country singer is important—[hopefully it can] change the perception of what country music is often associated with. I’ve heard people say that country music is white, racist, and homophobic. I want to change that. I want it to be inclusive. I want to be a part of that movement celebrating country music with everyone! That beautiful American tradition. By the same token, people who consider country music to be only traditional have used it to exclude LGBTQ people or people of color or people who didn’t fit in this little box. If they’ve used the music for that, they’re sorely mistaken. I want to be a voice and a figure to represent the diversity that is America, and country music is American. We should all be able to enjoy this.
With live performances on the back burner for the near future, how are you reaching your fans?
We (and I say “we” because my label is helping me greatly) are partnering with magazines and music publications to livestream on social media, mainly Instagram and Facebook. We’re also in the process of making a mini-documentary about some of the causes I believe in, such as feminism and the visibility of the LGBTQ community in country music. I’m working on developing a series on current causes, as well as music, and to open up conversations online.
From every indication, Pride festivals across the U.S. are being canceled. Your album Neon Cross is being released just before Pride Month begins. How do you plan to observe Pride this year?
I was so looking forward to being at a Pride festival in my first year of being out publicly. I’ve only been out to my friends and family for four years. I was looking forward to being out on social media and at Pride festivals. I won’t get to experience that in person, but I definitely would like to incorporate celebrating my pride and being out—[to finally be able] to say “I’m out and proud,” which is crazy because I never thought I’d get there. I’m looking forward to doing that online. I’m trying to reach my people and my community and speak to my younger self—to find young people who are struggling like I was.
This article appears in the June 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.