IBrooke Eden (lllustration: Joamir Salcedo / Photo: Getty Images)
When rising country singer-songwriter Brooke Eden met her future wife, radio promoter Hilary Hoover, in December 2015, it was love at first sight. But it took her five years to finally go public with their love, because supposedly well-meaning people in the music industry kept warning her that she would be “Chely Wrighted” if she came out as gay — a reference to cautionary-tale country star Chely Wright, whose career was derailed when she came out in 2010.
“People were saying to me, ‘So, you wanna be excommunicated from the country music family if you come out, like Chely Wright?’” Eden recalls of those multiple heartbreaking conversations, admitting that for a long time, she believed these “horror stories” she was told.
Hoover was already out in 2015, so for all intents and purpose Hoover had to go back in the closet in order to be with Eden. “That was the only thing we ever fought about,” Eden laments. “We fought a lot, just because I literally said to her at one point, ‘I don't know if I'll ever be able to come out.’” But as Eden chats with Yahoo Entertainment, she reflects on how much has changed — not just in her personal life, but in the increasingly accepting and diversifying country music community.
Eden is sitting backstage with Yahoo at Los Angeles’s Outloud @ WeHo Pride festival, rocking a rainbow-sequined “Love Is Love” bomber jacket gifted to her by supportive pal Trisha Yearwood — who, shortly after Eden came out in 2021, invited Eden to sing “‘She's in Love With the Girl” with her at the Grand Ole Opry. A year later, Yearwood actually officiated Eden and Hoover’s Nashville wedding ceremony, while Yearwood’s husband, Garth Brooks, serenaded the two brides as they walked down the aisle. There’s pretty much no bigger mainstream country endorsement than that. And now Eden, a recent GLAAD Media Awards Outstanding Breakthrough Artist nominee, is celebrating Pride Month and her newfound happiness, success, and authentic sense of self with her EP Outlaw Love, which chronicles her love story with Hoover.
Trisha Yearwood just joined Brooke Eden on the Opry stage and changed the words to “She’s In Love With The Boy” to fit Brooke’s love story with her fiancée after proclaiming “love is love.” This is country music. 🌈 pic.twitter.com/4MEK8zdq64
— Lorie Liebig (@lorieliebig) June 26, 2021
“The record goes from the beginning of mine and Hilary's relationship, when a lot of people knew about us but we weren't allowed to tell our own story because we were kept in the closet, to our first-dance song that I wrote for our wedding. This is definitely the deepest I've dug with my music, and the realest I've been about the real shit that went down. And I'm really, really proud of it,” Eden says.
Below, Eden opens up about how keeping her relationship secret was literally making her seriously physically sick; her decision to cast Hilary as her love interest in her PDA-filled music videos; how Yearwood and Brooks made her wedding day so special; how another good friend and ally in the country scene, Mickey Guyton, encouraged her to tell her truth; the touching conversation she recently had with Wright; and what it means to her to be an “outlaw” in the country music space.
Yahoo Entertainment: Your new EP is titled Outlaw Love. “Outlaw” is a classic country music trope, usually bringing to mind old-school male rebels like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard. How, and why, have you adopted and redefined the term to describe your place in the current country scene? What does being an “outlaw” mean to you?
Brooke Eden: Well, right before I came out publicly, I was met with a lot of naysayers. People in the business told me, “You can be in a [lesbian] relationship — but only in your own house.” And that was really hard for me. But I grew up super-religious, super-conservative, so I was just like, “OK, this is like the ‘right’ thing to do for me.” All I had ever wanted to be, my whole life, was a country singer. I never thought I would fall in love [with a woman]. And when I did, it was just this crazy conflict of my two lives that I never felt I could merge. They basically told me, “You can either be in love or you can be a country singer — but you can't be both.”
And this was multiple people in the country music industry. Radio people, label people — I got it from all sides. Even people who loved us as a couple and wanted to be there for us were just like, “Yeeaaah, I don't really think this is the time to do that.” But I got to a point, five years into our relationship, where I knew that I wanted to marry this woman, and I was just like, “I can't do this anymore.” And I realized in that moment, I'm kind of the new outlaw. I've been told, “You're too outspoken. You are too authentic. Why do you have to tell so much truth?” Literally people were saying, “Why do you have to tell your truth so much?” I realized when you stand up for something that you believe in, it kind of makes you an outlaw.
Hilary Hoover and Brooke Eden attend the 34th Annual GLAAD Media Awards Los Angeles at the Beverly Hilton on March 30, 2023. (Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Was Hilary your first romantic relationship with a woman?
I’d had one girlfriend before I met my wife. But I knew pretty soon that it wasn't a forever thing, and it was a pretty toxic relationship. I actually was like, “Well, shit, if this is what it's like to be with a girl, then I guess I probably can cross this one off my list!” [laughs]. But then I met Hil and everything just was turned upside-down for me. I mean, love songs made sense. Rom-coms made sense. I could see birds and hearts in the clouds. Love completely encompassed my entire body. I had never written a love song, really, before I met Hilary. All of my songs were kind of bitter, more like old-school women-in-country songs with a Loretta Lynn kind of feel. But then I fell in love, and now all my freakin’ songs are love songs.
So, when these naysayers in the industry were telling you that you had to keep your relationship — who you were singing about, basically — a secret, did you think they were right at first? Did really you believe that if fans knew the truth, your career would be over?
Oh, yeah! At first I totally believed that, just because I hadn't seen it done before. I mean, look at Chely Wright and Ty Herndon. Chely’s career was practically over after she came out. And I met my wife in 2015, so that was only five years later. And that's what people were saying to me: “So, you wanna be excommunicated from the country music family if you come out, like Chely Wright?” There were these horror stories, and so, I believed it. I believed it for as long as I could. And then I just couldn't anymore. I got really sick. I had ulcers in my small intestine. I had to get off tour because I was so sick. I realized my life was being taken away. I also realized I was staying in the closet to make straight people feel comfortable, while I'm leaving out my entire [LGBTQ+] community — whereas, maybe I could help other people feel more comfortable with who they are, if I was comfortable with who I was.
But that's a long journey, after being raised in a conservative household. I went to a Christian school, and it's so funny, because I get a lot of religious people who maybe haven’t met a lot of people in the LGBTQ community, and they say, “Oh, I'm a Christian… but I support you!” And I'm like, “No, you're a Christian, and therefore you support love and people loving each other,” you know? I mean, 97% of the people that I know in the queer community were raised the same way I was. We all were raised in the church. We all started singing “Jesus Loves Me” at 5 years old — and then we were told by the church at age 17 that Jesus didn'tl ove us anymore. But that's just not true.
So, when you got sick, were those actual physical symptoms of your internalized stress or internalized homophobia?
Oh, yeah. I definitely think I had internalized homophobia. I was stuffing my whole entire life into the closet, and it caused me physical harm. I had mental harm too, of course — mental health goes out the window when you can't live your life authentically — but also it caused me physical harm, and that's usually the health that people pay attention to. Once that happened, I was just like, “I'm literally killing myself to stay in the closet,” and none of it added up. And I realized I needed to come out.
Brooke Eden and Hilary Hoover arrive for the CMT Artists of the Year 2021 award show at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville. (Photo: Reuters/Harrison McClary)
So, this took a toll on your mental health and physical health, but what kind of toll did this take on your relationship with Hilary? I know she's in the country music industry as well, so she might’ve understood your professional reasons for the secrecy better than some women would. But I can't imagine she was thrilled about having to keep your relationship under wraps for five years.
I mean, that was the only thing we ever fought about. She never gave me an ultimatum, but she saw how much this was affecting my life. At one point she was like, “Honey, I love you so much. I want to spend forever with you. But you either have to choose to come out and be a country singer, or leave me and be a country singer. This is not working. I'm watching your mental and physical pain, and it kills me to see this happening to you. I want to work with you and help you get to a point where you can be yourself.” So, yeah, that was really hard. We fought a lot, just because I literally said to her at one point, “I don't know if I'll ever be able to come out.” She was so patient and supportive, but how long can you really do that? Now we don't really fight at all anymore. We have married people's scuffles over like silly things like what we’re eating for dinner, stupid stuff like that, but before, the deep shit was all we ever fought about.
Was Hilary in the closet as well?
No! She was out when I met her, and she had to go back in the closet for me. That was really f***ing hard, because when you're in love with somebody, all you want is to make their life better. … I was more OK with being in the closet at first because it was “normal” to me; it was how I'd always been. But she knew herself so well, and I think that that's one of the reasons that I was so attracted to her — because I didn't know myself at all. I had just been playing a part for so long that it was normal to me. I think this is the first time in my life where I'm no longer playing a part. I'm just playing myself.
That’s awesome! It seems now that you’re able to be open about your love, you’re yelling it from the rooftops. Like, it is a bold and brave move to cast Hilary as your romantic interest in your music videos.
Well, our whole thing was we never wanted to sexualize anything. We just wanted to normalize same-sex love. So, we did a tiny internal study, like: “Let's watch like a Thomas Rhett video or a Taylor Swift video. How many times are [the heterosexual couples in those videos] kissing?” We just looked at straight kissing in country music videos and were like, “OK, if they can do it, we can do it.” But it was always about being careful to not sensationalize our love. … We kept checking ourselves and making sure that it was just a normalization, just representation and visibility.
You’ve been out for two and a half years now. Did something specific happen in 2021 that made you finally come out?
Yes, I know the exact moment. It was actually 2020. Obviously, none of us were on tour, and all the bullshit of the music industry had gone to the wayside. Everything that was important had risen to the top. I was in my backyard, reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle. This book is like my bible; I had so many epiphanies, so many mind-blowing moments throughout the whole thing. But the one that changed everything for me was a paragraph about integrity. She blatantly defined “integrity” as “you are to the world who you are in your house.” And I realized in that moment that I had been living my life according to other people's rules, and I had been living my life with nointegrity. And that's not who I am. I fight for the underdog, and I realized that I was the underdog and I wasn't fighting for myself. And I just was like, “I can't do this anymore. What if I need to be myself in order for someone else to feel like they can be themselves? I had always wanted someone like Chely Wright, to be able to have [queer] videos on CMT that I could watch, but she got shunned too quickly.
Have you ever spoken with Chely?
Yeah, I have. She reached out to me and was like, “Hey girl, I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. It's really cool to see the progression of country music. I just want you to know that I have your back. I'm always in your corner. If you're ever in New York [where Wright lives], I'd love to sit down and have lunch or dinner and just talk through things.”
That would be an amazing conversation. I am glad you didn’t get “Chely-Wrighted.” If anything, it seems your career has taken off since you came out.
Oh, yeah. I think the more that I was open about Hilary, the more people felt like they knew me, so they connected more to the music — because it wasn't just music anymore. It was the actual story behind the music.
And if were talking about mainstream country endorsements, it doesn’t get more mainstream than Garth Brooks performing at your wedding and Trisha Yearwood officiating your ceremony. Please tell me about this magical country superstar wedding you had.
My wife worked with Garth and Trisha for years, so we kind of became close with them throughout the years. And Trisha called me one day in June of 2021, and she's like, “Girl, it's the 30th anniversary of ‘She's in Love With the Boy.’” And she said that ever since she released that song, she’s had people come up to her and say, “Hey, don't tell anybody, but I sing it as ‘she's in love with the girl’ or ‘he's in love with the boy.’” And she's like, “I've always wanted to do something to support and give visibility to these [queer] fans, but I wanted to do it in the right way, and I feel like you would be the perfect way to do it.” Hilary and I had just gotten engaged, and it was Pride Month. She was like, “Would you sing ‘She's in Love With the Boy,’ but change the words to ‘she's in love with the girl’ on the Opry stage with me?” And I was just like, “Are you sure? I'm out and proud, but you have a conservative ‘90s country fanbase!” And she said, “I am an ally, and I want to stand behind the words I say. You can't just say ‘love is love’ — you gotta mean it.”
And so, we performed “She's in Love With the Girl” on the Opry stage. We actually got an incredible response, which we were both kind of on-the-DL worried about. Afterwards we were both so giddy, and she's like, “OK, girls, what are we doing for this wedding? Am I gonna be a flower girl? Am I gonna officiate? What's going on?” And we were like, “Wait… would you officiate?” And she said, “I would be so honored!” So, she officiated our wedding. And while we were talking about the ceremony, Garth was there as well and we asked him, “Are you going to come?” And he said, “I would not miss it for the world!” And he ended up singing “To Make You Feel My Love” as we were walking down the aisle. … It literally blows my mind every day to think that this actually happened — and to think about what and how much we would've lost if we weren't fully ourselves.
Now that your life hasn’t been ruined at all by you coming out, is there any part of you that thinks with regret, “Damn, I should have done this sooner”?
No, because I knew that when I came out I had to be so sure of myself. I didn't want to waver at all. I felt, “If I'm going to be a voice for this, I have to be all-in.” Of course I wish that process for me could have gone faster. But I had a lot to unlearn — like, so much to unlearn. That being said, do I wish I could have unlearned that seven years earlier? Yeah, I do.
What did you need to unlearn, exactly?
Societal norms. You know, it's so funny, because the media talks about queer people being “groomers.” And I'm like, “If you could groom people, I would be straight as f***!” [laughs] Like, growing up, I did beauty pageants. My mom put me in pink every day. My hair was always in curls. I was the freakin’ homecoming queen. All of these quintessential “girly” things. … So, if I could have been “groomed” to be one thing, I would've been straight, for sure!
Brooke Eden attends Outloud @ WeHo Pride 2023 at West Hollywood Park on June 3, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
Your journey of initially making music to please otherpeople and fit into a country box, and now finally making music that expresses your true self, reminds me of Mickey Guyton’s own journey before “Black Like Me.” I’ve interviewed her about that.
Mickey's my girl! She and I auditioned for American Idol together when I was 18! … We met because my hair was, like, out to space. It was so humid — we tried out in Atlanta — and my mom was trying to fix my hair. Mickey overheard and walked up to me and said, “Hey girl, I don't know you, but I have a hair-straightener in my bag if you want me to straighten your hair for you.” And I was just like, “Angel! Who are you?” And that's how we met and became friends. … What's crazy is she came over right before the pandemic happened, like February of 2020. She said, “I'm coming over. I'm making chocolate chip cookies for you, and we're just going to chat. You have something to say, and I'm challenging you to say it. But I'm not going to do that without showing you what I'm up to.” She came over and played “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” for me that night. I told her, “Mickey, you're about to revolutionize country music.” And she said, “For all these years, people have told me to shut up and sing, so now I'm just singing about what I want to talk about. I tried so hard to vanilla-fy myself for so long and I'm not doing that anymore, and it feels so good. And I challenge you to do that.” That was everything. I think in that moment I was like, “Sure, sure — easier said than done!” But she planted a seed in my head. I was watching my friend be totally, authentically herself, and it definitely inspired me to want to do the same.
And now here you are, three years later, telling your own story on Outlaw Love.
Yeah, the record goes from the beginning of mine and Hilary's relationship, when a lot of people knew about us but we weren't allowed to tell our own story because we were kept in the closet, to our first-dance song that I wrote for our wedding. This is definitely the deepest I've dug with my music, and the realest I've been about the real shit that went down. And I'm really, really proud of it.