T.J. Parsell’s documentary about queer women and the country music they make gives its subjects and their work space to shine.
(This review is part of our 2021 coverage of Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival)
Bonnie Baker. Kye Fleming. Jess Leary. Mary Gauthier. Pam Rose. Mary Ann Kennedy. Dianne Davidson. Virginia Team. Ruthie Foster. Cidney Bullens. Chely Wright.
It’s no mean feat to recount the grand scope of T.J. Parsell’s documentary Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music which details the life and work of these and other influential queer folks. To do so would be to retell the history of country music. Queer women have been writing and loving in Nashville since the beginning, but after the early 1970s, the presence and community of queer women hit songwriters grew exponentially. This growth, however, has come with great personal and artistic sacrifice.
As much as this documentary is a celebration of the many, many talents these women possess, it’s also about the dreams that were cut short because the country music industry was too cowardly and prejudiced to support them. There is heartbreak and anguish as these women recount their decisions to live honestly rather than fulfill their dreams of becoming a country music artist. The rejection still stings. How could it not?
That doesn’t mean this is a documentary of anguish and misery; quite the opposite. There’s a staggering amount of laughter had in Invisible. The picture’s subjects find tremendous humor in their truth. They chuckle at the nonsensical suggestion that they were even able to be put in a closet, that their queerness was just far too radiant. They even find a way to laugh in the face of the myriad systemic issues they have faced and continue to face in their industry.
“Gatekeeping” is often taken as synonymous with exclusion. But it’s more material than that. As Invisible makes frustratingly clear, country radio stands almost unparalleled among the country music industry’s gatekeepers. Radio is the site where the arbitration of mass taste takes place. DJs, financed heavily by record companies and political interests, set the standards for and strictly monitor what is acceptable. If you don’t meet their rigid ideas of what an artist should be or sing about, you have no chance of access.
As Invisible makes frustratingly clear, country radio plays stands almost unparalleled among the country music industry’s gatekeepers.
Times are changing, though. The independent music movement and digital recording have allowed these women to finally get their work out there on their own terms. Most of these women have spent their entire careers writing truths for other people. Now, at last, they can tell their own.
And with all these remarkable women, there’s a lot of truth to cover. At times Invisible’skaleidoscopic subject matter starts to all blend together. Every woman is given their due, their moment to shine, but the sheer scope of the project adds up, especially when some of the tales told could be better differentiated from each other.
But then, giving everyone a chance to tell their story is the raison d’etre of Invisible, so one can’t fault it too much for sticking true to that principle. And the repetition, frustrating though it can be, is also part of what makes Invisible remarkable. The women express their feelings of ostracization similarly. Many of them hail from similar conservative Christian backgrounds with parents who rejected them, and sadly many of them have also experienced sexual harassment. But to the last, they are committed to the belief that telling your truth is liberatory.
It’s freeing for the artist and it’s freeing for those who need to hear it. Music is therapy. Through depression, addiction, suicide attempts, isolation, it’s been creating music that helps them through. While hearing the stories of these women is inspiring, it’s the present-day footage that gives the most hope.
These women are reuniting, seeking each other out, and welcoming new members. They’re keeping the central tenet of Nashville, that community matters, alive. As these queer elders continue to lift themselves and others, their rising force will no longer be able to be denied. Those who were made invisible will make themselves seen.