Sunday, July 14, 2024

Brooke Eden: Queer and country

Even in the music world of the 21st century, some genres are more accepting of artists who are queer than others. In alternative rock, for example, being queer and out is not that unusual anymore. There are even quite a few Americana musicians who are openly gay (some of whom I’ve interviewed for QueerForty!). Country music, on the other hand, is still less accepting of people who are queer — or people who don’t conform to the norm in general, for that matter. Which makes Brooke Eden an anomaly.

Born Brooke Eden Helvie in West Palm Beach, Florida, she got into music at an early age. And even though she hasn’t released a full album yet, she’s done some pretty amazing things. Eden has appeared on American Idol (twice);  scored several hit singles; and opened for Garth Brooks! But her biggest accomplishment happened in 2021, when she married her longtime girlfriend and came out publicly. Hilary Hoover — Eden’s now-wife — is a music promoter and native Hoosier. 

More than anything, Brooke Eden comes off as a sincere, all-American girl next door who just happens to be into women. She was in Indiana when we spoke, visiting her in-laws. We covered everything from her formative years musically to her relationship with Hilary to the difficulties of coming out in a genre that is still resistant to it. Speaking with her was a pleasure. 

Queer Forty: Tell me about what it’s like being an out, queer singer in a genre that doesn’t easily embrace that. Has there been any backlash? Has there been support? Maybe there’s been both.

Brooke Eden: It’s been really interesting because I met my wife eight years ago. When we first met and the industry found out about us, they told me point blank: You can either be in a relationship with Hilary or you can be a country singer, but you can not be both. They’re not gonna play you on radio. They’re not gonna let you in. You know, they were like, “We saw it with Chely Wright and Ty Herndon. You’ll just be another story like that.” [And] I love Ty and Chely — but they did not get the fair chance that they deserved. That was really difficult. I was used to living my life as an open book. And then all of a sudden,  such a big part of my life [was] secretive. I ended up getting really sick. You know, mental health becomes physical health. I ended up getting ulcers in my small intestine and had to get off the road and almost lost my career anyway — because I was keeping so much inside of me.

So five years into being in the closet, I finally was like, “I can’t do this anymore. For all intents and purpose, I’m living a double life. I need to come out.”  It was October of 2020 and you know — minds were changing and things were just different back in 2015, when I met my now-wife. So my team was like, “We can’t promise that you’re gonna be accepted. We can’t promise that you’re gonna ever get played on country radio again. But we will support you.” So at that point, it was very much like, “I have to live my life, no matter what that looks like for my career.” And also who am I staying in the closet for? It’s just more oppression that I’m allowing to our community. For a really long time, I wished that someone else would come out so that it would be easier for me to come out. Then at some point, that mindset started to shift. And I thought, “Maybe I need to come out so it will be easier for other people to come out.” That was the mindset going into coming out. 

Coming out was nerve-wracking, but let me tell you: it was a thousand times easier than I thought it would be. I would say I was accepted by most of the gatekeepers in country music. Of course, there are fans that don’t like it. When I came out, I came out with music: with videos that included my wife. And the music video [for] my song “Sunroof” actually went number one on iTunes’ worldwide — which was great. It was so much visibility for the queer community. But also, I’m sure [some] of that was backlash from people being like, “Oh my Gosh! Have you seen this country singer holding hands and kissing a girl in her music video?” So I think there was both sides. But honestly, I was just [glad] to get the conversation started. If there’s no visibility, there’s no conversation.

I did want to ask you more about Hilary. I watched the “All My Life” — which I think you wrote for her — and I know you guys got married last year. Tell me a little more about that; I love a good love story — straight, gay or whatever. There aren’t that many these days! When did you know Hilary was the one?

Brooke Eden: Well, like you, I was very cynical when it came to love. I grew up in a family where no one stayed married. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles  — everyone was divorced. So I just kind of thought love was what you saw in the movies but [not] in real life. 

Then I met Hilary and — I mean, it was pretty instant. When I met her, it was kind of an overwhelming feeling of peace when I was in her presence. It just felt like home. She immediately felt like home. I was so confused by that when we met, because I wasn’t looking for love. I didn’t expect to all of a sudden feel this at-home feeling. But yeah — we both knew, I would say within a week, that we wanted to be together. You know, even with all the turmoil we went through when they told us that we couldn’t be out, we still were in such a blissful place because the world felt chaotic. We felt like we had this bubble around us — like when we were together, everything was okay.

“All My Life” was actually [the] first dance song at our wedding. The first verse [says] “All my life, I thought that I was built to ride out into the sunset all alone.” And that’s truly how I felt! I never thought I would get married. I was 25 when I finally fell in love. You know, in your early 20s, you’ve seen all your friends fall in love in high school and get married or get their hearts broken: all these things you’re watching other people experience. I was dating guys in high school, through my early 20s, and I never felt those feelings. So at some point you go, “I’m 24 years old. All my friends have fallen in love and [had] these experiences since they were 15, 16 years old. So if I haven’t felt those feelings in the last nine years, why would it start now?” I never thought that I would fall in love until I met Hilary. It was like everything [changed] in the snap of a finger. Love songs [suddenly] made sense and rom-coms made sense! All the things that I was so cynical about all of a sudden felt like magic. 

We’ve been together for almost eight years now and we still feel like we’re on our honeymoon. It’s crazy. 

That’s lovely. To go back to music — when did you get into country? Were you a big fan of it growing up or did that happen a little later?

Brooke Eden: My Dad was — and actually still is — a drummer in a local country band. So we only listened to country music up until, you know, maybe I was 10 when The Spice Girls came out (laughs). Up until then, I pretty much only knew Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntyre, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw. Those were what we always listened to. I grew up in a home where country music was always being played on the radio. 

When I was five, [my father] realized that I could sing. And he asked me if I wanted to start singing with his bands on the weekends. So my friends are having sleepovers and I’m at the local country bar, singing for all the patrons at 10pm! It was a really interesting way to get into music. It was just right there on a silver platter; anytime I wanted to play with my Dad’s band, I was able to. By the time I was 12, I was getting asked to open up for Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn whenever they were coming into my hometown. 

I read that you actually opened for Garth Brooks at one point! What was that like?

Brooke Eden: Yeah! I opened for Garth in 2019, in Autzen Stadium in Oregon and there were 70 thousand people. It was wild. Since then Garth and Trisha Yearwood, his wife, have become like mentors to me. Garth actually sang my wife and me down the aisle.

Oh man, that’s amazing!

Brooke Eden: Yeah! And Trish officiated our wedding. It’s been really cool to have such iconic country artists kinda take us under their wing and be such allies. I think that helped a lot in coming out — just having country music icons that have our back.

I have to be honest: I’m more of a rock and roll guy, so I don’t know Garth’s music as much as someone who grew up on country would. But I read something about two weeks ago. You know, there’s this whole controversy with Bud Light because one of their spokespeople happens to be transgender. In this news story, Garth was quoted as saying he was still gonna still serve Bud Light in his bar, everybody’s welcome and, if you don’t like it, go somewhere else! It was really nice to read that. But it was also disheartening to read see the comments. For every person who supported Garth, there would be some other redneck saying, “I’m not listening to Garth Brooks [anymore].” If you’re that worried about the spokesperson for a beer, you need to get a life! 

It’s a very weird time in America. We’ve moved forward in certain ways. But in other ways, particularly since Donald Trump, I [think] we’ve actually moved backwards.

Brooke Eden: Yeah, [Trump] gave them approval. I couldn’t agree more. And that definitely caused us to go backwards. It’s really saddening to think of it like that. There’s no reason that we should be going backwards] in America. You know, the Statue Of Liberty has its foot up because we’re supposed to be moving forward. So to watch America go backwards is saddening, for sure.

To wrap up: let’s say there’s someone out there in the country music world who happens to be queer and is not out. What advice would you give that person?

Brooke Eden: Honestly, you have to be so firm in who you are. For me, it’s all about safety first. So if you feel safe enough to come out, I think it’s really important that you do. You know, it’s all about visibility. As a country music artist, your entire job is to tell your truth. How are you supposed to tell your truth if you’re hiding such a big part of you? So I would just say stand in your truth as much as you possibly can. It’s so important that you bring representation to the country music scene. Because the more of us that come along, the more people [will] realize, “Oh! This is a very common thing. You can be queer and also be country.”  

Get Brooke Eden’s latest EP, Outlaw Love HERE!


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Dave Steinfeld

Dave Steinfeld grew up in Connecticut and is now based in New York City. He has been a professional journalist since 1999 and has very possibly written about women in music more than any male journalist in America. He has interviewed Patti Smith, Neneh Cherry, Ani DiFranco, Ann Wilson, Marianne Faithfull, Chrissie Hynde, Cyndi Lauper, Sophie B. Hawkins, the Indigo Girls, and Amanda Palmer who once called him “an honorary lesbian.” Dave has written for Curve, BUST, Bitch, Essence, Glide, Louder, and many more titles.

Dave Steinfeld has 12 posts and counting. See all posts by Dave Steinfeld

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