We meet Baylen Leonard, from Bristol, Tennessee, to discover how he is bringing country music to London’s gay scene
A gay bar in a wet mid-winter London may seem as far from Tennessee as you could get. But one proud Redneck is sparking a new trend in Britain’s LGBT scene by bringing country music and Southern hospitality to the UK capital.
The Tennessee many gay Brits imagine is the one that is currently debating a bill aimed at outing school kids and making it illegal for teachers to discuss LGBT issues. But that’s not what the South is really about – and Tennessee boy Baylen Leonard is determined to prove it.
Line dancing, meat raffles, hillbilly makeovers and – of course – Dolly Parton are all on offer at his Rednecks party every Sunday in Soho, the heart of London’s gay scene.
We met up with him to talk more about his home and how he’s bringing a taste of it to Britain.
Where are you from? What was it like growing up gay there?
I was born and bred in a town called Bristol actually! My Bristol is on the boarder of Tennessee and Virginia, and is a town of tobacco farms, NASCAR races, guns, God, and a whole heap of Southern hospitality. Growing up gay there was probably like growing up gay in most small towns in the western world, sometimes really hard and painful, sometimes just part of life.
There have been attempts in Tennessee to out gay school pupils and to make it illegal for teachers to discuss LGBT issues. How does that make you feel?
It feels like a step backwards. When I was in school in the 80s, yes there were homophobic teachers, like the one who taught us that you could catch AIDS from a water fountain, but there were also incredibly kind and open-minded teachers who did their best to make you feel comfortable being different and protected vulnerable students as best they could.
I still remember one teacher who had saved a poem by a student years before that was all about how much pain he had inside and his struggle with the cruelness of others. Before she read us the poem she told us he was gay so that we could try and understand what the words in that poem meant. I remember when she said the word gay with no spite or malice that it hit me like a lightening bolt. I knew instantly she was ok with it and that meant she was ok with me, and if she was ok with it then that meant there were others in the world who were ok with it as well. That was the beginning of me knowing that it was ok to be me.
To think that teachers might not be allowed to have that discussion is heartbreaking, but I also believe the bill is the attempt of a hateful minority desperately grasping at straws and won’t pass. There are too many good people in Tennessee to let something like that happen.
How important was country music to you and the community you grew up in?
Country music was the one thing everyone agreed on. Whether you were rich or poor, old or young, gay or straight, everyone could sing along or dance in the backyard to the music.
It holds a particularly special place in my hometown as Bristol, Tennessee is officially recognized as the ‘Birthplace of Country Music’.
In 1927 a New York record exec was looking for a new type of music to market and had heard about the ‘mountain music’ in the area so he flew down to Bristol and set up a temporary studio for a few weeks and paid people to come and sing the songs they had been singing in their families for generations. The recordings became known as The Bristol Sessions and are regarded as the Big Bang of country music and started off the whole genre we know today.
To celebrate this my hometown has a huge Mural with weekly live music sessions in front of it and massive yearly festivals that take over the whole town. If you talk to any country music star even today, Bristol holds a special place in their heart.
How long have you lived in London and do you ever get homesick for Tennessee?
I’ve been in London for 12 years and consider it my home now and I was in NYC for years before that. But every now and again I wish I was sitting on a swing on my front porch in Tennessee swatting the flies away.
I make it back about every two years and it’s always wonderful to see everyone and eat the food and just be reminded where I came from. Like most people who grew up in small towns and move to big cities, you have to be away for a bit before you appreciate what you left behind.
I suppose in some ways doing Rednecks is a way to have a little bit of my hometown in my adopted city, but mainly its about the love I have for the music and the culture and sharing that Southern hospitality, but mainly it’s just about fun!
Many Brits won’t know much about country music – what do you love about it?
I think people are always surprised they know more than they think they do. People find themselves singing along having had no idea that a particular song was a country song.
Some people assume that all country music is banjo pickin’ and fiddlin’ (and of course there is that element) but there are countless crossover artists that most people consider pop. If you think of Shania Twain, Leeann Rimes, Carrie Underwood, KD Lang, Taylor Swift, Glen Campbell, even Olivia Newton John, they are all country crossover.
Not to mention Dolly [Parton]. Everybody loves Dolly!
One of the things that country music does amazingly well is telling a story! Plus it has some of the best lyrics of any genre. My favorite line from any song ever is from a country song called Fancy: ‘I might have been born just plain white trash but Fancy was my name.’ Amazing!
Line dancing has always seemed popular with LGBT people. Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure, maybe it’s that sense of community, everyone in the room doing something together. I think mainly because it’s quite orderly and hugely fun at the same time. Plus everyone likes to dance and play dress up!
Is it hard to learn to line dance?
If you can stomp, kick and turn to the right then you can line dance. We have a fabulous dance teacher who is a West End dancer and she makes it really fun, even people who just watch the first one end up joining in by the end.
It’s not an audition and no one is going to kick you out if you miss a kick ball change, so there is no pressure. We have three short sessions of line dance instruction through the night, so there is plenty of opportunity to dance in your own style in between.
But your night seems to be about a lot more than just dancing, what else goes on?
Yeah, I wanted there to be different things going on so if line dancing wasn’t your thing then you could do something else. You can of course do none of them and just hang out drinking beer and singing along, or making out with a cowboy in the corner it’s up to you.
If you fancy, you can visit the Redneck makeover stall and get some tattoos or a moustache or have a hillbilly hairdo, you can have a go at coloring in a photo of Dolly to win prizes, or have your fortune told by a mountain witch woman using chicken bones! We might even be getting a mechanical bull soon!
There is also a meat raffle where for a £1 ticket you can win a whole load of chicken, ribs and ham! This is a staple of bars back home and you’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how excited people get over a big box of meat on a Sunday!
Is it proving a hit so far? What kind of people are coming?
Yeah it’s been great! The word is spreading and each week is bigger than the one before! There is a real mix of people as well, some show up in cowboy hats ready to roll and some come having no idea what to expect.
The great thing is everyone is equalized by country music. There will be some lesbians two-stepping on the dancefloor while some trendy guys in their 20s get a hillbilly makeover, and some guys in their 30s and 40s drink beer and line dance. Even straight couples have started coming which is great as I want everyone to feel welcome.
The best bit is when someone comes in off the street not knowing what’s going on and ends up learning a line dance and leaving with a tattoo, a hillbilly hairstyle, and a big box of meat on their arm, having been converted to the joys of country music and Rednecks! My friends back home would be so proud!
Rednecks is at Manbar Soho every Sunday from 5pm to 10.30pm with line dance instruction at 7pm and 9pm. Entry is free. 79 Charing Cross Road, Soho, London WC2H 0NE. Find out more here.
You can hear Baylen Leonard and his friends Lucio Buffone and Amy Lamé talk about everything exciting in LGBT life, culture and the latest Gay Star News every week on the HomoLab podcast here.
See the launch video for Rednecks here: