Tim McGraw, Daughtry, Rita Wilson, Mickey Guyton and more demonstrated their passion for the LGBTQ community at the 5th annual Ty Herndon Concert For Love and Acceptance at the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville on Thursday (June 6).

Each artist that participates finds meaning in the cause. For Guyton, it stands for action. As a second time participant, Guyton shared how she feels a kinship with the LGBTQ community, calling the conversation surrounding the event “so important.” “Being an African American woman in country music, I know what it’s like to be different. I know what it’s like to not feel accepted and that’s why I’m here, to show solidarity and show everyone that I’m with you and I love you and I see you,” she expressed to Sounds Like Nashville on the red carpet.

Country music has a long history regarding lack of LGBTQ representation. While artists like Kacey Musgraves, Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood and more have been vocal about their support for inclusion, Guyton admits that “a lot of work” needs to done to better incorporate the LGBTQ community into the genre. “I’d be lying if I said that everything is perfect, it’s not. But in order for change to happen there has to be action from across the board…and throwing an event like this is making this a normal thing,” she says.

Billy Gilman echoes this sentiment, adding that country music has a “long way to go” when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion, believing that fans would embrace LGBTQ artists on the radio. “I think the audiences aren’t as abrasive as the men writing the documents,” he observes. “I think if they would let their guard down and try to infiltrate a little of an LGBT artist on radio, I think you’d be surprised at the lack of clapback.”

Gilman came out as gay in 2014 and has made it his mission to be a voice for those who feel suppressed. He’s met and received letters from people who share their stories of abuse and homelessness as a result of coming out. The singer says the Concert For Love and Acceptance gives a voice to those living in remote areas who aren’t always embraced with acceptance. “We need more love, and by coming here, it fuels us all to go out for the rest of the year and push through to all our kids and adults,” he says, describing the event’s mission as “creating a better world.” “Hopefully one day, we realize that we don’t need a Love and Acceptance concert, it’s all equal now. I only pray for that day.”

For Rita Wilson, the event symbolizes support. Wilson had heard about Herndon, whom she calls an “incredible artist,” and the event through a mutual friend and songwriting partner. Wilson has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community through her work with Aid for AIDS, a nonprofit that provides education and access to treatment for individuals who have HIV. “I think in my world of supporting AIDs research and finding a cure for AIDs, that’s been a big part of our involvement in the LGBTQ community. Also, I just feel like we have to do more work and accepting and just realizing that it’s not a choice…You were born that way,” she relates. “I’m a Christian and I still believe that.”

The concert also shone a spotlight on emerging artists Zolita and Jada Cato, the recipients of GLAAD’s Rising Stars Grants. Zolita is a singer-songwriter who’s music and videos highlight femme-on-femme lesbian representation, while Cato is a Birmingham-based singer and theatre actress. Growing up in Alabama, Cato was a fan of 90s country music, introduced to the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain through her sisters. She says it’s a “dream come true” to be a involved in an event that celebrates people she didn’t see represented in country music during her youth.

“When I was 14 waking up every day for high school watching CMT, I would never even dare to see a queer person or hear a queer person, or really even a person of color for that matter, and barely any women. So, it’s been nice to see the progression and be able to be a part of that because it’s hard to go against the grain and do something different but ultimately it’s worth it. It doesn’t really serve you to change your art in a way that isn’t authentic to you,” Cato explains. “I’m so grateful to be a part of something like this, in hopes that someone that is growing up watching CMT now knows that the door’s been opened.”

Similarly, Brandon Stansell grew up in a southern town where he didn’t see himself represented in the genre he admired. A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Stansell has since moved to Los Angeles to launch his country music career, releasing such songs as “Hometown” that capture the feeling of isolation, but also appreciation for the rural town he was raised in, along with a cover of Musgraves’ “Space Cowboy.” “I’ve loved country music my whole life, but I’ve never seen myself reflected in it. So I think it’s really important that queer people, just like straight people, have the opportunities to write about their experiences in an honest way and be able to put those out and have people hear them,” Stansell shares.

He cites the Concert For Love and Acceptance as an agent of change that provides a platform to tell these stories, uniting LGBTQ artists with their allies in country music. “It’s that one night where we get to shine the big spotlight on the LGBTQ community in a space where not many people see us or know that we even exist, so this is kind of the start of it,” he says. “This is that thing that changes everything.”

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