THE TRAJECTORY OF DIANNE DAVIDSON’S CAREER as a songwriter and singer was up and up, just as she had dreamed it growing up in a typically religious family in Memphis.
She had played with, sung with and impressed Linda Ronstadt, she had been touring with The Moody Blues but had to pull out of the tour early to begin work on her solo recordings back in Nashville. It was all happening.
Then that trajectory turned and Davidson crashed and burned. Not because of the songs or her talent – no one was questioning that in mid-‘70s country music where the right song at the right time could transform a life – but because Davidson’s sexuality was making powerbrokers uncomfortable, then resistant, and finally, hostile.
Couldn’t she put it away, pretend … you know, be like everyone else?
“What am I supposed to do?,” she remembers thinking, exhausted by the pressures. “I’m not going to keep singing songs that aren’t true for me.” So at 21 she quit the business, ending up doing office work, bringing up her child. Staying in country music just wasn’t a serious or healthy option.
“I think it would have really destroyed me, whereas leaving was pressing the pause button. Not that I knew it at the time,” Davidson says today. “My brother [who drummed with her] said to me you can’t stop, because I see how audiences respond to you. And I said, if I’m supposed to be doing it, why is it so hard?”
Davidson’s story is just one of those told in TJ Parsell’s film Invisible: Gay Women In Southern Music, about a group of songwriters and performers who had to choose between visibility and viability, professionally and personally, and the price they paid for that choice in what Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member, Kye Fleming, called “a man’s town”.
Alongside Fleming in the film are other regular hit suppliers for Nashville’s big names, Jess Leary, Pam Rose (one of the few already out gay writers offered a recording contract but who turned it down because “we were scared” of the inevitable blowback from the media and the public) and her songwriting partner Mary Ann Kennedy, and solo artists who have been on both sides of the wall as it were, like Ruthie Foster and Chely Wright, whose career had already seen a number one single, and a suicide attempt, when her coming out in 2010 put a brake on further success.
In its focus on people often little-known beyond those who pay attention to the small print on their CDs and records, Parsell’s film has a similar feel to Twenty Feet From Stardom, the Oscar and Grammy-winning documentary about talented backing singers and background vocalists whose careers had been thwarted by being the wrong look, the wrong colour, the wrong sex at the wrong time for a generally conservative industry.
“It was a brilliant idea [from co-producer Bill Brimm] and it struck me on many levels. Here are two things that don’t appear to go well together: a very conservative industry and lesbians, or gay men for that matter,” says Parsell. “It also hit home for me that I spent 20 years in software, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I couldn’t be out; it would have been career suicide. And I know what that cost me. It pales in comparison to what these women had to deal with, but I was immediately curious and had a tonne of questions I wanted answered.”
Bonnie Baker, whose first hit was in 1999 for be-hatted star Chad Brock, had grown up the child of an unforgiving preacher in East Texas, playing music because it was one of the few things that “made me feel good”. Playing the game in Nashville by hiding her sexuality worked professionally, but ultimately undermined her craft and herself.
“Writing has to be honest … vulnerable,” she says, and “putting away gayness” diminished that for her. But the business is not set up for that. “It is an odd mix to have such a passionate core thing as music and then have attorneys and CPAs deciding what is going to happen with it. It’s not just the people in charge; it’s what they think the audience will do and not do, and a lot of times they are correct. Chely said you’re going to lose half your audience and she was right.”
While hardly claiming Nashville – and in particular the ultraconservative, male-focused country radio, and the equally conservative audience for it – has radically changed, Invisible finds many rays of hope, not least because, as Bonnie Baker says, “saying it out loud is what will get us through”.
(Dianne Davidson and Linda Ronstadt)
Some of it is in the comfort with which the hitherto secret now can be spoken, even laughed about; some of it is in a visit by Davidson to Ronstadt, now confined to home by advancing Parkinson’s Disease that has prevented her from singing, where Davidson’s playing of a song of hers from nearly 50 years ago finds Ronstadt naturally falling into the harmony she did back then.
Not surprisingly perhaps, after the visit, conscious of all that she had given up for so long, Davidson says “screw this, I’m going to make my own records”.
Invisible: Gay Women In Southern Music is screening as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival, running February 17 to March 3.
A version of this story was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.