When Brandi Carlile earned six nominations at February’s Grammy Awards, delivered a show-stopping performance of her Song of the Year contender “The Joke” and won three categories, a curious thing happened: She got labeled as a country singer.
In her friend John Prine’s backstage dressing room at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium recently, the mere thought of her music getting played on country radio makes Carlile throw her head back and laugh.
“Can you imagine it?” she quipped. “It would sound so weird.”
But that’s not why the country label is curious. It’s curious because Carlile abandoned classic country music and The Grand Ole Opry when she was 11 years old. Carlile is gay and at that age she knew there was something different about her sexuality.
“I always wanted to be a famous singer,” she said. “I didn’t think they would accept me.”
In fact, she knew they wouldn’t. Her church didn’t accept her. Neither did her town and when she sought out the corners of her community where her beloved classic country was the most vibrant, she felt shunned there, too. From there, Carlile fell in love with Elton John, the British pop invasion and flamboyant European rock and roll. But at 37 years old, Carlile has a message for her 11-year-old self: There is acceptance in country music.
”It’s 2019 and things are so different now and people are becoming more and more accepting,” said Maren Morris, Carlile’s frequent collaborator. “I think this is an amazing moment for her and a step for country music to have an openly gay woman on this awards show. Her performance with Dierks is going to be so beautiful, as she is.”
In addition to Dierks Bentley and Morris, in the last year Carlile has started co-producing Tanya Tucker’s comeback album with Shooter Jennings. She’s also currently in Highwomen, a four-woman supergroup comprised of Carlile, Morris, Amanda Shires and hit country songwriter Natalie Hemby.
In her 20s, Carlile realized her forsaken classic country was closer than she thought to the direction she’s taken her music, bridged by Elton John’s love of Elvis Presley and Little Richard and Americana’s palpable influence on the genre.
“I found my roots again and I suddenly realized it never left me — I just didn’t think it would accept me,” she said, the long fringe on her black stage jacket brushing against her knee. “I feel like it’s accepting me now in a big way. In fact, no one has hurt me yet. Everyone has wrapped their arms around me, and I think that’s really good for young girls and boys to see.”
Carlile, who still lives in her hometown of Ravensdale in Washington state, is married to Catherine Shepherd. They have two daughters, Evangeline, 6, and Elijah, 1. Carlile’s family is her priority. She refuses to be away from them for more than 72 hours, and she’s only willing to do that every few months.
They were with her Feb. 10 at the Grammy Awards and when she returned from that life-changing night, they had made her a cake and festively decorated their hotel room. Between her wins and her critically acclaimed performance, Carlile said she sensed a shift happen.
“I suddenly felt like I had this momentum and the wind was at my back in a way that it hasn’t been since I was a little girl and since I got signed, certainly,” she explained. “I’ve never felt so much like I have a real shot of weaving myself into the musical landscape of this country, and I’m really aware of it and I’m not going to waste a single second. I’m not one of those people who can pretend I don’t care about what happened.”
Making the most of the opportunity is about more than being famous. For Carlile, it’s about making a difference, being a role model for women and girls and her desire to inspire empathy in this country in a time she feels it’s desperately needed.
“I only had the radio, that’s all I had growing up,” she said, even though music from tanya Tucker, The Judds, Pam Tillis, Deana Carter and Dixie Chicks shaped her life. “And despite what we want to believe on the coasts, a lot of America still only has the radio and we need to put more women on it. When I turn it on, I can’t hear a woman to save my life. I don’t have a car ride long enough that I can go on to hear a woman anymore. It’s astounding to me.”
She’s determined, but not accusatory or bitter. Jennings calls her a human blowtorch.
“She has dealt with so many levels of friction in so many levels of her life and she’s never been deterred by it,” he explained. “Nothing is going to stop her. The fuel is there. The fire is there. I trust everything that comes out of her because I think she’s motivated only by her love of music. All the other walls that people try and put up have never kept her back.”
Highwomen are part of Carlile’s push to get more female voices on country radio. She said the group is modern country and when she heard the album they’ve been making, it was so good that it scared her.
“The songs just sounded game-changing,” she said. “And I like my life the way it is. I was looking at this like a side project or something, and then I heard it and I realized it wasn’t.”
Although her newest album “By the Way, I Forgive You” is barely one year old, Carlile is already thinking about her next studio project, too, which will be her seventh.
“It needs to be a big truth bomb,” she said. “It needs to be an inward journey, for sure, and a recheck I think about some of the classic truth-telling albums like [Carole King’s] ‘Tapestry’ and [Joni Mitchell’s] ‘Blue.’”
Wherever she lands, her longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth — known as the twins — know it will be deep and authentic.
“You get it all at face value with her,” said Tim Hanesroth. “She doesn’t hold back who she is. Her intention is to go there, that’s how she exists.”
“She’s kind of on a mission,” added Phil Hanesroth. “There’s not a lot of fluff in what she writes. She sets the bar and is like, ‘I don’t want to say anything that isn’t important to me.’ She’s on a tear right now for singing about issues, human rights, feminism, outsiders being let in.”
But even with her missions, her new groups, her Grammy Awards and frequent travel, Carlile is still a wife and mom who, as she sings about in her song “Evangeline,” can’t shower alone or eat when she wants to, but loves her girls unabashedly.
“If there’s one thing I hope to do for my kids, it’s to help — even if it’s just laying one stone, to build a world where they have representation, other women they can look up to so they know they can do whatever kind of job they want, they can be whoever they want,” she said. “I hope in my own way that I can move the needle a tiny bit.”
Read more at usatoday.com.