Billy Gilman adds his voice to the growing chorus of gay country artists.
by Gregg Shapiro
National Coming Out Day is in October, but two country music artists waited until late November to share their good news. Ty Herndon was the first one out of the gate on November 20, followed shortly thereafter on the same day by Billy Gilman. Gilman, like fellow country diva LeAnn Rimes, got his big break when he was just a kid. Possessing a powerful voice and impressive vocal range, Gilman released his major-label debut album One Voice in 2000, at the age of 11. In addition to the titular hit, the album featured a shockingly spot-on reading of Tammy Wynette’s “’Til I Can Make It on My Own.” That cover, sung with amazing authority, might qualify as an early clue that Gilman would someday come out as gay. Seriously, listen to the song.
Gilman, who continued to release albums through the early part of the 21st century, is in the process of mounting a comeback. OutSmart spoke with Gilman about coming out and his career in late November 2014.
Gregg Shapiro: How does a Rhode Island native, a New Englander, become a Nashville star?
Billy Gilman: I grew up singing country music. Country music is so huge in my neck of the woods, believe it or not. People find it hard to believe, but country music is big around here. There’s no memory of not having country music in my life. The Grand Ole Opry and watching the awards shows that would come on and listening to Garth Brooks and Pam Tillis—it was just part of my life, and always has been. It’s easier than you think. [Laughs]
As someone who got his start as a child star in country, did you ever cross paths with LeAnn Rimes, another country-music child star? Was she someone you looked to as a role model?
Absolutely! LeAnn Rimes was so great to me, and we are still great friends to this day. I met her first when I was 11. I’m sure she took a liking to me because she saw me going through what she went through a few years before, being a child herself. There’s a common factor with her, and whatnot. She’s always been a great support system.
Do you have any advice for budding child stars?
The one thing I always go back to is that you really have to love it. It has to be what you are, because there are going to be many wonderful opportunities. There are going to be huge ups and corresponding downs to a career. You have to love it to sustain yourself and to put up with what you’re going to have to put up with. If it’s what you are and you live and breathe it, like I have my whole life, you’ll be fine. You’re going to do well, because you have what it takes. You can’t just wake up one day and go, “I’m going to be a singer!” It’s tougher than that.
On November 20, history was made in Nashville and the realm of country music when you and Ty Herndon both came out as gay. You cited Ty in your coming-out message. How did he help you through this?
It was amazing! I’ve known Ty for a while. He was on the same record label as I was a few years back. He’s a great singer. This was something that I have been going back and forth with for about a month. I was nervous and reluctant. You never know what’s going to happen. I was set to do it that day and was reading Twitter and read the he had come out. I was like, “Oh, wow! This is very coincidental and very odd.” But things happen for a reason. He really helped me push the pedal to further it. He put me into high gear. He gave me enough confidence to do what I needed to do. He’s a very brave person and a courageous artist. He did help immensely in my situation. My hat’s off to him, and I’ll always thank him for that.
How has the response been from your fans?
My fans have been amazing. Even people that kind of followed my career a little bit have been amazing. No matter what you do in life, it doesn’t matter if it was this situation, or [if I had] wanted to change genres—whatever, someone is always going to have an opinion. You have to brace yourself for a good opinion or a bad one. Everyone is entitled to whatever they feel. You have to keep a positive head and do your thing. So far, the comments and support have been amazing, and I’m so grateful for that.
How did your family react to your coming out?
My family was nothing but supportive. That was really amazing to me. They have not changed. Their support has stayed the same. I am so grateful for that. It’s been nothing but positive in that respect. I’ve always been surrounded by support, and nothing has changed.
Would you ever perform at a Pride festival if you were asked?
Absolutely—if the situation is correct and it’s in a respectful manner. That’s how I’ve conducted my business for the past 15 years. I would have no problem doing that. It’s for the greater good, and that’s what it’s about.
Gregg Shapiro also interviews Ty Herndon in this issue of OutSmart magazine.