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Red Bull SoundClash Showed Me Nashville’s Queer Side

Red Bull SoundClash Showed Me Nashville’s Queer Side

An L.A. girl discovers Music City’s gay bars, LGBTQ+ Red Bull slams, and a Big Drag Bus

Although I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 15 years where the power of positive thinking is ingrained, I’ve never been a big believer in the power of manifesting — until recently. During an interview with actress Lucy Hale, a Tennessee native, my mind wandered for a moment as I caught her familiar twang.

I want to go to Nashville, I thought, wistfully. A longtime fan of Americana music and country divas like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Nashville has been in my subconscious for some time. Last year, I interviewed gay artists Leslie Jordan, who recently played the Grand Ole Opry to support his gospel album, and Brandi Carlile, who often sings the city’s praises. I hadn’t visited Nashville since the early ’90s, but these conversations gave me the sense that the seat of country music was becoming increasingly queer-accepting.

The next day, I opened my email to find an invitation to attend Red Bull SoundClash in Nashville — an event featuring Nashville-based queer artists Jake Wesley Rogers and Bren Joy in a friendly music battle. How could I say no to an invite that I practically willed into existence?

An L.A. girl discovers Music City\u2019s gay bars, LGBTQ+ Red Bull slams, and a Big Drag Bus

Jake Wesley Rogers discusses his music

Three weeks later, I was headed to Music City — vaccinated, boosted, and with my KN95 mask firmly in place. It was my first flight out of L.A. since the pandemic began.

After arriving at the 121 Hotel , I went to check out Nashville’s Broadway , the famed strip that houses dozens of honky-tonks named for country music legends like icons Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, and Toby Keith. Broadway doesn’t scream gay, but between the beckoning neon and the live music emanating from venues around the clock, there’s a real queer celebratory feeling.

The next day, Red Bull pulled out the stops treating partygoers to a photoshoot in the style of Jake Wesley Rogers, the queer alt-glam rock siren whose look hearkens back to a mix of early David Bowie and Elton John. At the Taylor House Studio, local stylist Josh Owen adorned us in glimmering, glittery jackets and capes from local designer Any Old Iron for a shoot with celebrity photographer Robby Klein.  Rogers even popped in for a group shot. I’d just finished having my glam makeup done and returned to the studio to find Rogers cross-legged on the floor reading tarot cards. This was queer Nashville, indeed.

An L.A. girl discovers Music City\u2019s gay bars, LGBTQ+ Red Bull slams, and a Big Drag Bus

Jake Wesley Rogers (right) gets a hand from Joy Oladakun in a Red Bull SoundClash

We followed the shoot with downtime with Black queer R&B artist Bren Joy, who opened for Megan Thee Stallion and now is on tour with Pink Sweat$. At the Museum of African American Music , Joy also invited us to a group songwriting session. My big contribution to the song we wrote about a woman with a secret was a single word (“dalliance”), but it made the final cut.

That night, we attended Red Bull SoundClash’s event at Marathon Music Works where Rogers and Joy went head-to-head, song-for-song in a friendly rivalry meant to push artists to their innovative best.  They were singing their own songs, covers, and each other’s music with special guests including queer singer Joy Oladakun and icon Sheryl Crow. A highlight was Rogers and Crow putting a decidedly queer spin on her hit “Strong Enough.”

An L.A. girl discovers Music City\u2019s gay bars, LGBTQ+ Red Bull slams, and a Big Drag Bus

A suite at the Hyatt Centric Downtown Nashville

The next day I moved to the Hyatt Centric Downtown Nashville , a new hotel with a mid-century modern aesthetic and a seriously killer view, located just two blocks from Broadway, the famed Ryman Auditorium that once housed the Grand Ole Opry, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. While there’s plenty of great food a stone’s throw from the hotel, I never had to leave for delicious eats thanks to two terrific dining spots: Ella’s and the Pancake Pantry . A modern fitness center replete with Peloton bikes and a rooftop pool (in the middle of downtown Nashville!) and an ample bar were also part of the hotel’s appeal.

From there, and with information about LGBTQ + venues from the hotel staff, I took a $10 ride share to Church Street, home to several gay bars including Canvas , Tribe , and Play Dance Bar (where a drag show was in full swing). When I arrived, I was drawn to a magical bus painted with images of drag queens idling outside Tribe. I met Josh Cloud, the owner of The Big Drag Bus , a one-of-kind, tricked-out bus with beverage coolers behind each seat, a killer sound system, and metal bars for the queens like Obscenity and Carmen — who were on the trip I took — to hang off as they sashay down the aisle while passengers shower them with dollar bills.

An L.A. girl discovers Music City\u2019s gay bars, LGBTQ+ Red Bull slams, and a Big Drag Bus

The Big Drag Bus

True to form as a lesbian who’s always in primarily gay male spaces, I was slated to leave town before I could venture to the women-centered Lipstick Lounge (I’ll return for that one day, ladies). But happening upon Big Drag Bus was eye-opening and well worth the detour. As someone who has been called a “coastal elite,” I had a preconception about how folks in the South might treat a queer person like me. But there I was, seated on the bus next to a group of straight gals from Mississippi and they were hooting and hollering while Carmen did full splits to Kelly Clarkson’s “Whole Lotta Woman.”

An L.A. girl discovers Music City\u2019s gay bars, LGBTQ+ Red Bull slams, and a Big Drag Bus

The author

That delightful acceptance is something Cloud said surprises him in the best way. “It makes me so proud that this little bus is being used as a vehicle to bridge the gap with this talent and art form that thrives in the LGBTQ+ world with people that may never have been exposed to it in their lifetimes. I was unsure,” the gay entrepreneur adds, “how a bus with drag queens on it would do rolling up and down the streets of Nashville as it passed by all the honky-tonks, but from day one this city has embraced us with all smiles and love.”

This piece originally ran in Out Traveler print magazine. The Spring 2022 issue is now available on newsstands.

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Tracy E. Gilchrist