What does NBC reality show Nashville Star and world-renowned purveyors of sexy men’s unmentionables International Jock have in common?

The answer to that question—as of the third episode of Nashville Star—is absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is, now that 19-year-old Justin Gaston, former underwear model, has been eliminated from the competition. Internet chat rooms and virtual forums were set ablaze when Gaston’s sexy photos were sent out by International Jock’s publicity department after the first episode of Nashville Star aired on NBC. Almost immediately his gorgeous physique and “All-American Heartthrob” looks were a hit with the ladies and—needless to say—the gays.

Ah, yes. See, there’s this thing that has started to happen in Nashville that perhaps you might have missed if you aren’t around industry people a lot. It revolves around allowing access to the gays because (in case you didn’t get the pamphlet) gays = money. In an industry that is going down the tubes more than ever it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that you go to where the money is.

A prominent member of Nashville’s country music industry recently told me in a phone conversation “I actually like the gay demographic more than most for a few reasons. They are more fashion conscious, they are more dedicated and they are more likely to buy your albums if they like you.”  

The problem really lies in the fact that what Nashville is currently experiencing is tolerance and not really acceptance. Anyone who doesn’t know the difference should really learn to use a dictionary. For the rest of us, we need look no further than the likes of Nashville Star judge John Rich for an example.

Rich has maximized his sales by pimping out the mantra “Love Everybody” alongside Big Kenny as one half of Big & Rich since 2004. When their debut album dropped you couldn’t walk into the Chute on Franklin Pike without hearing “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” blaring from the speakers in the western bar. I dare anyone to look me in the eye and tell me that Big & Rich didn’t realize the attraction that song—and its double entendre – would have with gay audiences especially once you add in the goofy mantra.

All of this is completely ignoring the fact that Big & Rich are a Warner Brothers act. Most of Warner’s employees are openly gay or openly gay friendly. So, it was understandably shocking to many Nashville insiders when less than a year ago John Rich started running his mouth off on the airwaves comparing gay marriage to incest while endorsing Fred Thompson for President.

There was no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind after that episode exactly where John Rich stood on the issue even after Warner forced him to make a half-hearted apology stating something to the effect that his upbringing was to blame for his ignorance and please, please, please don’t stop buying his music (my paraphrase).

Fast forward to today and John Rich is milking the gay dollars again by producing Jewel’s country debut “Perfectly Clear”. Now, I know that many people have some real problems with Jewel’s crossover into country music, but I know many more of you who, like me, see this album as the closest thing she has done to her 1995 debut “Pieces of You” since. I can only speak for myself when I say that “Pieces of You” was a major coming out album for me. It was as important to my development as a strong gay man as Melissa Etheridge’s “Yes, I Am’ or Pansy Division’s “Wish I’d Taken Pictures”. “Perfectly Clear” evokes that same sort of magic for me and I suspect many other gay men reading this.       

All that being said, the real controversy with Nashville Star for me started when Rich took what was perceived by many as a pot shot at Gaston following his second performance saying, “You’re a little too sweet and I don’t mean that in a good way,” followed immediately by Rich telling Gaston the he didn’t think Gaston belonged on the show. Well, it seems Rich got his wish as Gaston was voted off on the third episode.

I will be the first to admit that the comments were innocuous enough on their own. Had they come from Jewel or Jeffrey Steele I might not have flinched so. Admittedly, I really didn’t think Gaston belonged there either, but it was less because he sounded “too sweet” and more because the kid was picking songs that didn’t suit his voice and he just wasn’t selling it for me as a country performer. Be that as it may, I still feel like Rich went too far with his “too sweet” comment. After his last foray into public speaking he should have known better. He should have known how it would be taken by some.

Look, I know that John Rich is the “Simon Cowell” character on Nashville Star. I know he’s supposed to be a loudmouth jerk. But, does that give him free reign to say whatever pops into his little womanizing head…no not that one, the one on his shoulders. Seriously, shouldn’t people like Rich who make money off of spouting crap New Age self-help slogans like “Love Everybody” be held accountable for the words that come out of his mouth when he’s not pimping his act?

When Justin Gaston was eliminated John Rich suddenly seemed very complimentary even saying that Gaston was the best he had heard him so far. Indeed, under Jewel’s mentoring, Gaston dropped his voice to a lower register and delivered an excellent country rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” that almost sounded like a real country song. Jewel remarked that he was the most improved and Jeffrey Steele remarked that he was going to eat all the mean things he had written down to say about him because Gaston did so well.

Forgive me if I didn’t quite buy Rich’s complimentary nature. By the same token that I know Big & Rich knew the implications of “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy”, I know that John Rich knew what he was saying on live television just like he knew what he was saying when he ran off at the mouth about gay marriage. He may be ignorant, but he’s definitely not stupid.

 It really makes me wonder what’s going to come rolling out of his mouth once he finally puts two and two together and figures out that Tommy Stanley of the USS Kitty Hawk might be gay too. Surely by now he’s seen the promo shots of Stanley in his Navy Dress Whites. To some, that’s as indicative of being homosexual as posing near nude for underwear ads is.  Or, is Stanley safe because he’s in service to his country?

At the end of the day John Rich has the right to think whatever he likes. He even has the right to express those beliefs however he sees fit even if I strongly disagree with those views. I will always support a person’s right not to have their thoughts censored by others. All I ask is that Rich and people like him take on a little bit of social responsibility and learn to censor themselves a little—you know, the same way they expect us not to talk about butt-sex or fantacizing about them in the shower while they are signing CD’s that we paid for with our hard-earned money at the CMA Festival? Isn’t that fair? Or maybe I can go one better. Maybe they should just keep their politics to themselves and do what it was recently suggested another controversial country act do: Shut up and sing!  

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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