Charleston-native Beth Mevers got an up-close look at hidden forces that influence the sounds from of Music City as the executive director of a new documentary, Invisible.
Directed by T.J. Parsell, Invisible is a feature-length film about the gay women who have excelled in country music as singers/songwriters. The film follows the individual and collective journeys of the women (and one transgender man) who have navigated the male-dominated country music landscape to become influential voices and chart-topping recording artists while staying true to themselves.
“I learned a lot from doing this film. A whole lot,” said Mevers. “I had no idea that good old boy system up in Nashville still existed to the extent that it does. I mean, it’s alive and well.”
Queen Street Playhouse will host a benefit fundraising screening of the new film Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with a Q&A to follow.
A few of the songwriters featured are giants in the industry. Kye Fleming, Bonnie Baker, Jess Leary, Cidny Bullens, Dianne Davidson and Chely Wright are just a handful who shared their stories for Invisible. Fleming is an inductee into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and has so many No. 1 hits under her belt that she forgets how many she’s written. Leary’s lyrics have become hits for Tim McGraw and Pam Tillis.
All the artists share similar stories of life-long fixations on music-making and dreams of making it big in the country music industry. They also share the heart-breaking reality that country music remains a difficult space to make a career as an openly gay artist. A familiar refrain from the film is artists coming to Nashville with stars in their eyes, but being pressured or told directly to hide their queerness to have a career. Some tried. Many chose not to. The decision forced many to shift initial career aspirations from performers to songwriters.
Chely Wright was one of the first mainstream country music stars to come out as gay, complete with a 2010 People magazine cover story. Almost overnight, Wright lost half her fanbase and was effectively blacklisted from country radio.
“Country music, of all the genres, that one is the most tied into radio,” Mevers explained. “You tick off the radio programmers or they decide they don’t like you, or whatever, they don’t play you and that’s the end of you.”
“In the very beginning, I kind of thought to myself, ‘Boy, I sure would love to be a fly on the wall when some of these good-old boys find out how much of their beloved music was written by lesbians,'” mused Parsell, whose work examines the frank reality of sexuality behind bars and in the music industry. “But then, of course, we go so much deeper in the film. And I think that, at the end of the day, it’s a searing indictment of the patriarchy of country music and I think it’s a reflection of a lot of what’s wrong in our country and the world. I think these women lay that out in a powerful way.”
Parsell worked as a software salesman for many years before making an artistic shift later in life. A gay man, Parsell speaks passionately about having placed that part of himself aside to frequently to close deals in his days as a salesman. It’s a connection that made Invisible a tempting proposition when the concept was brought to him three years ago.
“Even though I’m a gay man, and my producing partner is a gay man, we’re both men,” Parsell said. Being a story about women, Parsell wanted Invisible to reflect that in the crew as much as possible. “So, we thought it was important to hire a woman editor, and our cinematographer is a woman, a gay woman. That made a huge difference with our subjects, in terms of just making them feel safe and willing to share with us their pain and their journeys.”
“The women in the film really brought it,” said Parsell.
The documentary has already started its festival run. It premiered at Frameline in June and won the Audience Award. It has also played at Outfest in L.A. and Austin, and has an extensive circuit planned for the rest of the year and beyond. Sunday’s fundraiser at Queen Street Playhouse is a great opportunity for the local community to catch the movie at this stage.
The stories included in Invisible are a noteworthy, hidden history of the country music landscape, and make it a must-see for audiences interested in LGBTQ+ artists, country music, or music documentaries.