No Sex Please, We’re Country

Chris Neal | February 3rd, 2011

On June 6, 1962, two days after signing their recording contract, the Beatles went to EMI Studios on Abbey Road in London for their first recording session. Having built a reputation for drawing crowds in nightclubs, their shot at stardom had come at last. Two months later, something happened that manager Brian Epstein felt could do serious damage to the fortunes of his young wards: Singer and guitarist John Lennon got married. For more than a year his wife stayed hidden away at Epstein’s insistence, keeping away from their concerts and denying that she was Lennon’s wife to anyone who asked. “Of course, some of the Liverpool fans knew, but to the rest of the country he was young, free and single,” Cynthia Lennon writes in her memoir of the marriage, John. “It hurt having to deny who I was and keep my marriage under wraps.”

By the time the Beatles arrived in America in February 1964, there was no longer any hope of keeping the marriage hush-hush. As Lennon’s face appeared on the screen during the band’s first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a caption declared, “Sorry girls, he’s married.” The girls screamed anyway, and the Beatles continued on their path to becoming the biggest thing since … well, the Beatles. So what had Epstein been afraid of? He feared that his act would hold less allure for its core audience (teenage girls) if Lennon lost the appearance of sexual and emotional availability. He believed, as do many in the entertainment world, that the rush of all those hormones was inexorably tied to the flow of all that cash. He was certainly far from the first to make that calculation—since time immemorial, celebrities have kept their significant others (and sometimes their sexual identity; think Rock Hudson) a secret in the interest of keeping the audience’s hopes up.

Mind you, it’s a reflex that defies logic. I felt a little twinge of joy in December when I learned that Scarlett Johansson was freeing herself from the bonds of matrimony, but why? There were a great many reasons that this news would never have an effect on my life, starting with the fact that I am very much still married and ending with the fact that I look like me and she looks like Scarlett Johansson. There is absolutely no reason I should have even bothered to click a link and read the news about her divorce, but I did. We like to imagine, against overwhelming odds, that we have a shot with the idols we find attractive. Hey, you never know! Johansson does fancy herself a singer, and I do occasionally meet celebrities, and maybe she secretly has a thing for cantankerous journalists …

Where was I? Oh yeah, sorry about that. One of the things I’ve always found interesting about the country music culture is that this conventional showbiz wisdom about maintaining the façade of sexual availability doesn’t seem to apply. Sexuality is still a factor, certainly—I recall going to cover Kenny Chesney’s annual fan club parties and being one of only a handful of men there; since there’s nothing about his music that should inherently appeal to women more than men, one has to assume that many of them were there in part because they found him attractive. But when the artist is no longer on the market, the dynamic somehow remains intact. Women went wild at Keith Urban shows before he was married, and they still go just as wild now. I’ve read many letters from country fans about the personal lives of artists, and very few ever expressed disappointment that one star or another had gotten married. Most heartily endorsed the marriage, even when the spouse in question didn’t fit the typical preconceptions about country music. Urban and Brad Paisley married Hollywood actresses, and their spouses were warmly welcomed into the Nashville family. Heck, Rascal Flatts’ Joe Don Rooney married a Playboy Playmate of the Year and almost no one with a vested interest in what is perhaps the most conservative genre of popular music so much as batted an eyelash—even when he shot nude photos of her for the magazine.

It would seem there is a maturity about these matters that is built into the country music model. Its listeners tend to be older than pop or rock listeners, so perhaps a 34-year-old woman is more realistic about her chances of hooking up with a star than, say, the feverish Justin Bieber fans who bombarded fellow teen phenom Selena Gomez with death threats for the crime of being seen kissing their favorite singer. (Mind you, country stars do attract their fair share of stalkers; I once interviewed an artist who I can promise that you have never heard of, and even he asked that I not mention his wife and child in the story because he had a stalker problem. But for now, let’s just focus on the sane people.) Fans have told me on countless occasions that George Strait, Alan Jackson or Tim McGraw was the sexiest thing going not just despite his unavailability but explicitly because of it. The idea that a handsome, talented man is also a responsible husband and father just makes him more desirable, while the distance between listener and star even in such a fan-friendly genre makes the attraction feel safe. Nothing’s really going to happen, so everybody’s cool. (Country does have its fair share of groupies, but that’s a tale for another day.) It’s also a more religious audience than most, and the Bible famously does have a thing or two to say about fornication and adultery.

While country music culture has plenty of aspects that rightly make us cringe, here at least is something to be proud of: a fan base whose members are generally capable of wishing someone well even if he or she marries an object of unfulfilled desire. For a genre known in part for songs about infidelity, it’s no small feat.

  1. Jon
    February 3, 2011 at 6:23 am

    And here I thought from the title that this was going to be another rant about the “sanitized” mainstream. My bad. Nice piece.

  2. Thomas
    February 3, 2011 at 7:08 am

    …common interests generally bode well for a successful marriage, i guess. the rooney’s seem to be right on track.

  3. Matt B
    February 3, 2011 at 9:29 am

    It’s great that there’s no issue with marriage and that country fans are smart enough to see past it and still love their favorites. The real question is, how would these women react if their favorite male singers were gay. Would they think of him more like they do Strait, Jackson and McGraw? Would they still like his music? Would they think he’s a fraud? Or would they never find out because he’d have to hide it until the career was virtually out of the mainstream (a la Chely Wright?).

  4. Jon
    February 3, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Why is that “the real question?” What’s unreal about the subject as Chris has discussed it? Seems to me like that’s another, different, and – at least for the time being – hypothetical question.

  5. Dave D.
    February 3, 2011 at 9:46 am

    @Matt B It’s only a sample of two, but a coworker and I often joke about the irony of our lustful feelings for a country-ish female singer who is pretty clearly gay. Then again, that may just be a guy thing.

  6. J.R. Journey
    February 3, 2011 at 10:06 am

    Once again, Chris Neal has forced my brain to focus on ideals it hadn’t quite assembled yet. :)

    I enjoy reading articles that have a decidedly positive feel, and especially when they’re presented in such a neat package.

  7. Razor X
    February 3, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I remember reading that when Dolly Parton got married, Monument Records execs wanted to keep it a secret because they thought her records would sell better if the public thought she was single.

  8. Ken Morton, Jr.
    February 3, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Chris, great piece. This reminded me of a quote I had seen from Rosanne Cash awhile back:

    “When I first moved to Nashville,” she recalled, “the first record exec I met said, `Well now, we just have to make this girl f***able.’”

    She went on to elaborate that she resisted and did just fine, thank you.

  9. Fizz
    February 3, 2011 at 11:40 am

    I can’t say I ever really gave much tought to whether my favorite artists, no matter the genre, were married or not. Somewhere along the way, I guess I naturally began to assume that they probably were. As long as they didn’t become henpecked househusbands in their music, it makes no never-mind to me, as they say. It’s also nice when an artist’s marriage doesn’t become tabloid fodder and end up overshadowing the music.

    Maybe country fans are more “accepting” of married performers because marriage has always been a part of the music. Not too many rock songs speak explicitly about marriage or refer to a wife or husband by that term, instead preferring to keep it vague. Even the nature of a good ol’ cheatin’ song is based around marriage, after all. Maybe there just isn’t the pressure in country that exists in rock to maintain the wild, free-wheeling do-whatever-you-want image and fantasy lifestyle.

    As for Chesney … maybe his female fans knew his marriage wouldn’t last and were simply prepared to wait it out.

  10. Matt B
    February 3, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Jon, I wasn’t trying to say that Chris’s excellent article was any less real than what I asked, I was just bringing up the question since it does seem to fit within the context of what he’s saying here.

  11. Ben Foster
    February 3, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I’ve greatly enjoyed your recent pieces, Chris, and this one was no exception. I appreciate how they often cause us to see the current country market in a more positive light.

  12. Ben Foster
    February 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Alison, I think you really hit the nail on the head with your comment. Makes perfect sense.

  13. J.R. Journey
    February 3, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Re: Dolly Parton. She went on to say in her book that Fred Foster (head of Monument at the time) told her to wait a year before getting married, to allow her career to take off. She, of course, married Carl Dean anyway. When the year had passed, Foster told her it was probably okay to get married now. He had no idea they were about to celebrate their first anniversary.

    I always liked that story.

  14. stormy
    February 3, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    The kind of person who finds the married guy attractive because he’s married usually (at least in my experience) is also the person that thinks a man is more handsome when he’s wearing his wedding ring. A sign of faithfulness and an object of desire, not for that particular man but for what he represents.

    There is also the flip side–women who find married men attractive because if he is already committed to someone else you don’t have to worry about committing yourself to him.

  15. Chris N.
    February 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Alison makes the point much clearer than I did.

    I’ve always thought women like a guy with a wedding ring because it means another woman has given him the stamp of approval. Like, “Clearly somebody can put up with this idiot, so he can’t be all bad.”

  16. Katie N.
    February 3, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Darling, if you ever get a chance with ScarJo, I say go for it. Just get me Ryan Reynolds’ number while you’re at it.

  17. Chris N.
    February 3, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Darling, you have yourself a deal.

  18. stormy
    February 3, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Actually, to get you Ryan these days he’d have to get Sandra Bullock out of the way.

  19. Fizz
    February 3, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    As far as “another rant about sanitized country msuic,” maybe that’s not all bad. After all, I’m not sure I WANT to hear Alan Jackson sing about getting his ashes hauled, or Jennifer Nettles brag about golf balls and garden hoses. Yuck!

  20. luckyoldsun
    February 3, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Dolly also has a husband who does not appear with her–and she wrote that she travels with another woman and that they share a bed–but that they don’t do anything “bad” in the bed. She seems to be sending mixed signals, inviting open, liberal-minded people to think one thing, while maintaining deniability for people for whom that might be a problem.

  21. Hoggy from Oz
    February 4, 2011 at 2:32 am

    One of the reasons I love country music is that it’s superstars can generally also be considered great role models. I am not ashamed to say to my mates that Brad Paisley (for example) is one of my heroes. They may not know who he is, but when compared to my friends, whose favourite music artists have been caught up in all kinds of scandals, Paisley, and many other country stars can be respected for much more than just their achievements in music.

  22. Fizz
    February 4, 2011 at 9:18 am

    @Luckyoldsun: A revelation like that, on Dolly’s part, would seem to be inviting trouble. Seriously, what good could come out of making something like that public?

  23. WAYNOE (pseudonym)
    February 4, 2011 at 9:32 am

    @Fizz – Ole Dolly has a habit for saying things without thinking at times. Of course, your post is not credible since you do not use your real name.

  24. Fizz
    February 4, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Oh, of course, Waynoe, or more precisely because my name isn’t you-know-what. But yeah, something like that would best be left in the realm of “My neighbor pumped out the septic system of Dolly’s tour manager’s brother-in-law, and he told me her husband don’t travel with her,and she sleeps with a WOMAN! He said they don’t do nothin’, though.”

    Will Dolly’s next album (of old western songs, of course) be called Yodeling In The Canyon?

  25. Jon
    February 4, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Actually, as those who’ve had some connection with her know (and those who think they know her from reading tabloid articles don’t), “Ole Dolly” is one of the sharpest people in the music business. Probably any other business, for that matter.

  26. Fizz
    February 4, 2011 at 11:42 am

    That’s obvious even to people not on your enlightened plane, Jon. Lighten up!

  27. WAYNOE (pseudonym)
    February 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    @Fizz – Some people like to hear themselves talk and read their own writing. I am glad we were informed that “Ole Dolly” was sharp. I am sure none of us picked up on that before. What brilliant investigative journalism!

  28. Brady Vercher
    February 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Let’s get back on topic, please.

  29. WAYNOE (pseudonym)
    February 4, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    No problem Brady as long as your request is to ALL parties and not just to my reply.

  30. Alison
    February 4, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    @Stormy- Point taken. I’ve run in to a few of those ladies but I have to be honest, most of the women I personally know who have a thing for guys in wedding rings are all about the fantasy. We always end up talking about how lucky his lady must be. :)

    @Chris N.- Haha- yeah! You’re totally right. Someone else has decided that this guy is good enough to keep forever, which says a lot about him.

  31. luckyoldsun
    February 4, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    FIZZ–
    Dolly is one of the select country artists–Cash and Willie also come to mind–who also have a substantial urban fan base. And Dolly also is one of those women artists–like Bette Middler (and Judy Garland, historically)–who seem to have fans in the dragster community–and I’m not referring to anything involving turbocharged engines. So I think she sends different signals depending on which base she’s addressing.

    Anyway, whatever she’s doing, she obviously does it very well.

  32. Buddy
    February 5, 2011 at 10:58 am

    “I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere…”

  33. Mojo Bone
    February 5, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    Sorry ladies, but while I definitely agree with that ‘seal of approval’ thing, the fact remains, I got hit on way more when I wore a wedding ring. (though I suppose the size of the rock coulda had something to do with it) In my experience, (I’ve been a musician for nigh thirty years) there’s little difference between country groupies and any other variety, they’re jes’ slightly older, heavier and have fewer tattoos, piercings and teeth.(also, bigger hair) I found Matt B.’s comment interesting; I guess we won’t know the answers to the questions he raises, ’til we have the first openly gay male country star. I reckon it won’t be long…he’ll probably be a bull rider and a war hero, too.(unless it turns out Toby Keith’s been compensating for something all along)

  34. Del Rio
    September 30, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Chris Issac is / was married when he was first starting out. My band opened for him in Boston and we even cooked him dinner. It was a *HUGE* deal to his manager that NO ONE spoke of Chris being married, basically for the same reasons in this article. Back in your arms they said, and he said no. So even Chris was confused.

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