We chat with Australia’s gay country music singer Michael Waugh about his music, coming out and finding love.
There are a few stereotypes that surround country music. Redneck songs about trucks, whiskey and crying into your beer.
However, there’s a lot more to it under the surface which is not unlike Australian country music artist Michael Waugh.
He doesn’t really fit the country music cliche, but it’s a world he seemed destined to be a part of.
Growing up in country Victoria
Michael grew up in Maffra, rural Victoria during the 1970s as the son of a dairy farmer.
When I ask him what drew him to country music, it appears that he didn’t have much choice in the matter.
“It was the case of learning to love country music or jump out of a moving vehicle because everywhere that we went, my parents would play Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Jim Reeves,” he says.
However, it was more than just circumstance that saw him fall in love with the genre. The storytelling of country artists had a strong influence during his childhood.
“I think as a queer kid growing up in country Victoria, there was something about storytelling [that I was drawn to] especially like Coat of Many Colors where it was like, she [Dolly Parton] was telling my story,” he says.
But before music was the centrepiece of his life, teaching was where he first found his calling.
Michael is a drama teacher at a Melbourne high school and is something he continues to do alongside his music career.
“I get to journey with families and kids through tough times sometimes and I love that because the thing that literally saved my life when I was a kid was a caring teacher in the performing arts,” he says.
When Michael released his first few albums some of the tough experiences he had growing up came out in his music.
“The stories are kind of mined from my childhood. So there’s a lot that I’ve written about growing up in country Victoria, which is in part about finding peace with those spaces because they weren’t always safe for me,” he says.
“Often there’s an air of nostalgia about them and love for those spaces, but it’s a warts and all approach.”
Queer stories in his music
That truth of his experience, particularly as a young queer kid growing up, featured in much of his early music.
In the song Paul, he sings about a bullied kid that resembled his own experiences, while in the track Mary Lou he recalls being shamed by family friends as a young child for dancing to ABBA and Humphrey B. Bear.
The songs were at a time when Michael was still closeted and dealing with his demons.
The 2018 track Asphalt & the Oval, has a special significance for Michael.
In the song, he recounts the experience of a school-yard nemesis but also the peace he found later in life.
He sings in the song that “Joe Gray used to say that I was queer” and “I wanted you to know that I forgive you.”
“The first time I wrote that, I blushed because I was just hit by that same emotional impact that had on me when I was a kid,” he explained.
Recently the family of “Joe Gray” attended and met with Michael at one of his shows.
“They told me about what a good person that he grew into, and how he’d voted ‘Yes’ in the marriage equality referendum, and how he was a dad and all of the things that he’d grown up to be. It was this lovely kind of sense of full circle with that song about that I was able to stand in my power and say this stuff,” he says.
Journey to coming out
For Michael’s new music, he is embracing a more positive approach rather than “sad ass songs” he said he started his career with.
“There’s a song that will be released at some point soon and the chorus is ‘you can’t fix me, I’m not broken’ and there’s kind of like an affirmation of self-belief that I don’t know that I’ve ever allowed myself to express before.”
The change in his music has mirrored the change in his own life.
Michael tragically lost both his parents in 2020 and his brother a year later.
These losses brought the realisation that he needed to live his own truth and embrace who he was publicly.
“There was a lot of a fear that if I gave voice to who I was in a public way, that it would be that I’d be hated or hurt,” he says.
But a big change for Michael was finding love with his partner TJ and when speaking about how they first met, his face lights up.
“It was one of those moments of deep chemistry and deep kind of connection intellectually and emotionally. Just kind of a fireworks moment when we first met,” he says smiling.
“I found that special person who I love, and it was like, well, I don’t want to hide him away.”
Michael came out during country music’s night of nights – the Golden Guitar Awards in 2022 – where he was nominated for Heritage Song of the Year and Alt Country Album of the Year
The plan was to walk the red carpet in Tamworth, hand-in-hand with TJ in front of the world.
Unfortunately, like many things, COVID scuppered their plans and they had to show their visibility virtually from a house in Bundaberg when Michael took out one of the awards.
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The couple is still going strong and recently bought a new house together and got engaged.
Michael’s recent single Playlist is dedicated to the early stages of their relationship.
Michael sent a strong message to the country music industry and the LGBTQIA+ community this year with his single We Are Here.
The song was an anthem to celebrate LGBTQIA+ figures and events through history including Allen Ginsberg, Alan Turing and Harvey Milk to name just a few.
The song was a milestone of Michael’s own journey.
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“I think that part of the process of coming out for me was finding self-love and a lot of which came from finding love with somebody else. So it’s also maybe a conscious choice to try to manifest something positive in the world and also wanting to step into a space where I can be a leader in the community,” he says proudly.
Michael produced the song with long-time collaborator Shane Nicholson. Shane is a legend of the Australian country music industry and to have a notable straight man involved in such an overtly queer song was a strong message in itself.
Michael’s mantra he repeats throughout our chat is “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
For many young and old LGBTQIA+ people, they will now be seeing someone they thought they could never be.
As the only major openly out male country artist in Australia, Michael has become the community leader he has set out to be.
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