Over the weekend, in a grassy field deep within the Malibu mountains, cars were filled with queer film and music fans excited to see the premiere of Three Chords and a Lie, the new documentary about rising country music star Brandon Stansell. The out singer performed a few of his hits at Outfest’s drive-in movie series—a clever Covid-19 workaround for the queer film festival—before introducing his movie to an excited, supportive crowd.
But things weren’t always so blissful for Stansell. Just 10 years prior, he was ostracized from his strict Southern Baptist family after coming out as gay. He spent the past decade healing from that pain, finding a new support system, and building a name for himself in country music by being exactly who he is. The 33-year-old’s new documentary chronicles his trip back to his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he invites his estranged family to hear him perform for the first time.
NewNowNext caught up with Brandon ahead of the Outfest premiere to talk about his experience making the film, his journey over the past decade, and, of course, his favorite RuPaul’s Drag Race queens.
Three Chords and a Lie follows you back to your hometown a decade after you first told your family that you’re gay. What would you say surprised you most about your coming out experience?
Well, nothing [laughs]. I mean, I knew it would be a tough road. I think when I grew up, being gay was probably the worst thing that anyone could be. I grew up in a strict Southern Baptist family just outside of Chatanooga, Tennessee, and I always knew from the time that I was really little that I was queer. So it was pretty tough growing up knowing that I was this thing that I wasn’t supposed to be. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out when it would actually be possible for me to come out, and when I would have the actual strength to do it. That happened when I was about 22, at the end of college. But no, I wasn’t surprised by anyone’s reaction. My hope was that it wouldn’t be as bad as it was and that it would get better. It hasn’t really been the case, but I wasn’t surprised by people for the most part.
In the film, you discuss being ostracized from your family after coming out. Can you talk a little bit about your experience?
I think I have a shared experience with a lot of queer people who have a pretty big fallout with their support system—the people they grew up with, their parents and siblings and friends. We were all indoctrinated with this idea that being queer was wrong, that being gay was evil. It isn’t natural. It’s a sin. You couldn’t be that way and still be a part of a church or your family unit. It just wasn’t accessible. So I watched this support system that I had known my entire life evaporate over a short period of time. That was tough, but I’ve talked a lot about it since then, written a lot about it since then. One of the first things I ever wrote about this experience is the song I put out in 2017 called “Hometown.” It describes my feelings about my coming out experience. It was tough, and I went through some rough years, but I’m thankful for them because they made me who I am and that’s someone who I’m proud of.
There’s a sense that it’s easier for kids to come out these days because of a growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Do you think that’s true in your hometown or are they not quite there yet?
I think it is really different than when I lived in Chattanooga. There’s a part of the documentary where I go down to Chattanooga Pride, which I had never been to. I didn’t even know it was a thing. I assumed these places had small events, but this was a really big, good-sized Pride event right in downtown Chattanooga. And I met a lot of young people who were at Pride for the first time, kids in their teens, and I got to ask them basically this question. How has the city changed? And it’s changed a lot for the better. So I’m encouraged by that.
Why did you originally decide to do the documentary? Were you ever worried about being so vulnerable while filming?
I vacillated about whether or not to do this project and a friend of mine basically said, “There’s a chance that you may look crazy and broken and just a mess. But there’s also a chance that by telling your story honestly and letting people inside in a deeper way, that you could really impact some lives.” So to me, it was worth the potential of me looking like a broken mess. I began to focus less on making sure that I was looking good or presenting myself in a glossy way, and tried to look at this project for what it was and what its purpose was. I think when I kind of stood back and looked at where we are in the world now with the pandemic and the administration, it added to the importance. I’m an adult who can take care of himself, but even I was feeling the pressures and the strains of this climate. So I can’t imagine what it’s like for even more marginalized communities and the youth in our country, a lot of whom were maybe me 10 years ago, who are living at home and struggling with coming out and meanwhile facing all this added pressure and stress of these times. So I just felt like if I could put something into the world like this documentary, that it might help lift some of that weight. So yeah, it’s definitely a heavy film, but I’m hopeful that people find some light in it.
What’s one thing that you hope closeted kids take away from the film?
I hope they can watch it and see that this is not a unique story. People have weathered this storm before and come out better on the other side, so I think that’s encouraging. But I also hope that families with queer people in them see this and that they kind of get a little slice of what the coming out process was like and what the aftermath can be. And how important it is to love your kid and be careful about the things you say when your queer brother or sister or son or daughter decides to be honest about who they are. I hope that both sides see this film and take away different things from it.
Do you think your family will watch the film when it comes out? What are you most anxious for them to see?
I don’t know if they will. I hope that they do because they’re obviously a big part of our story. I feel like there is this freedom, especially with people who are religious, where they feel they can treat queer people however they want to as long as it is in line with what their religion teaches them to do. But they don’t want people to talk about that because it’s somehow embarrassing to them. It’s somehow injurious to them when you actually talk about the things they did, or you kind of feel like you’re living in this weird world where they start to try to dictate your experiences to you. I think a part of the project was just to kind of break those chains, to tell my story as honestly and authentically as I could. So yeah, my hope is that’s what will come through. I guess time will tell.
Switching gears to your music itself, when did you feel like you could be an openly gay man and still pursue a music career? How did you decide to let your queer identity be a part of your music, as opposed to trying to avoid it?
Well, I started writing music after I came out. I’ve been a singer and performer my whole life and it was always a struggle for me to not know where I would land. After I came out, I stopped performing for a while because I needed to take care of myself. When I first moved out to LA, I finally started writing music. I think once you get yourself out of what can be a really dark place, there’s really nothing that you would ever do to set yourself back into that space. So when I started writing music, there was never a question as to whether or not I was going to be authentic to who I was. Or whether or not I was going to try to hide this part of myself in an attempt to have a big career – or in an attempt to have a career, period! I was gonna write my songs, I was gonna sing them, and I was gonna be me. If you liked it, great, and if you didn’t…I just told people to keep their big mouths shut! [Laughs] But yeah, I had already done so much growing, I wasn’t going to turn back.
Did you ever even think growing up that you would see someone gay on CMT, let alone that it would be you with the first queer-themed video on the channel?
No! I wanted so much to not be gay. I spent so much time wishing that I wasn’t this way. So I never imagined that I would be leading any kind of charge in terms of LGBTQ representation—that didn’t really have my name on it. But it’s interesting, I’m working on my next project, and I kind of wrote this reflective song about where I am in my life. I feel like the temptation is to always be like, “Well, I haven’t done this or that, and I’m not quite where I wanted to be, and my relationships aren’t where I want them to be, and I’m still single and I thought maybe I’d have kids by now, or not be in a tiny little apartment.” I think that’s the temptation. But when I flip it, I also can’t believe that I’m getting to write and sing country music as an openly queer person. I can’t believe that I’m getting to make things that are getting put up into these places like CMT that I loved so much growing up, and always wished that I could be a part of, and now I am. So it was this weird flip where I was like, “Oh wow, I never thought that either, but here we are.”
I love your connection to drag queens in your work. Eureka O’Hara appeared in one of your videos, you wrote songs that appeared on Blair St. Clair’s recent album. You’re obviously a Drag Race fan, so I have to ask: Who do you want to see on All Stars 6?
Oh my gosh, that’s a great question. You know, I’m so interconnected with so many of these queens… somebody’s gonna read this! I can’t even remember who’s been on All Stars and who hasn’t. You know what, I’ll dodge the question and say I was so proud of Blair on this last season, and I was so proud to have written on that record and have those songs come out while she was ruling the roost on the last All Stars season, so that was a lot of fun for me.
You mentioned working on your next project, can you give a little tease to fans about what’s coming next?
Yeah, so obviously the Hurt People EP is heavy, and purposefully so. It’s the soundtrack for the documentary and it’s something I’m really passionate about—very specifically singing and writing about queer stories for this very specific genre of music. I think it’s a voice that has gotten left out and not really heard. But the next record is a lot more upbeat. It’s a lot easier to listen to, so I’m excited about doing that. Just to have something fun to play. It’s a six-song EP and I’m excited to just have some big pop-country sounds out into the world again. So, coming soon…
Three Chords and a Lie is available now on Outfest’s streaming service, Outfest Now.