Brian Kennedy explores Queer romance and country music in debut novel

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Brian Kennedy — Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff
Brian Kennedy — Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff

Music shapes the world we live in, it often defines culture. Now, in a time when culture is Queerer than ever, there isn't a single genre off-limits to Queer people.

It was this shift in culture that inspired debut author Brian Kennedy to craft his young adult novel A Little Bit Country. It follows the romance of two Gay teens working at a Dollywood-inspired theme park and explores both country music's appeal to Queer people and the gatekeeping that has kept so many members of the LGBTQ+ community out of the genre for decades.

Queering up country music
While the finished book is unapologetically Queer, when Kennedy first came up with the idea to write a YA book about country music, he assumed the romance would have to be straight. "When I first thought I should do a country music book someday, I was like, 'Well, I guess it has to be a straight story about a boy who works at a theme park and the girl he meets there,' and my friend was like, 'Why does it have to be straight?' I was like, 'It's country music. It's not going to be believable if I write he's a Queer country artist,' and she was like, 'Well, you're the author — you can do what you want.'"

Kennedy took his friend's advice to heart and began exploring the nuances of telling a Queer country love story. "Looking back on it now, I feel kind of silly about it, but at the time, I didn't open my eyes and think, 'Yeah, of course, if I want things to change, I should write the story I want to see.' So, no, I did not know right away that it was going to be Queer, but once I decided that, it made a lot of sense."

Image courtesy of Balzer + Bray  

Initially, Kennedy was inspired to write A Little Bit Country by his admiration for country superstar Dolly Parton. "I love Dolly Parton, I love what she stands for. She's very inclusive, and she owns a theme park in Tennessee called Dollywood. I always thought a theme park would be a fun setting for a book," Kennedy said. "I didn't write Dolly Parton in my book. I have a stand-in for her. It's a country singer named Wanda Jean, so I knew my character was going to love Wanda Jean and her theme park, and then I thought, if it's going to be a romantic comedy, I could play on the trope of 'opposites attract,' so if he loves country music, then I needed a boy who hated country music."

Writing a story set in a fictional version of Dollywood was a fun way for Kennedy to explore and connect with the music he has come to love so much. "It just celebrates country music. I love country music, but I think it does have some issues," he said. "It's a very white industry, a very male industry, a very straight industry. This is sort of my love letter to it — not ignoring the problems, but saying this is a genre that people who aren't those things also love, and we can make space for them in that genre. My book is also showing how I see that playing out with Queer artists specifically."

Coming out as a country music fan
Kennedy has a unique perspective on the music genre. Unlike a lot of country music fans, his love for it isn't entirely fueled by nostalgia. He became a fan as an adult.

"I grew up in the Midwest, in Minnesota," he said. "This was in the '90s when I was in high school, sort of in the suburbs, and my friends didn't listen to country music. It wasn't a genre I listened to at all. I couldn't relate to any of the songs. But once I got older and I came out... in my early twenties, that's when I felt like I could listen to whatever music I wanted to and not be judged."

Coming out in his twenties gave Kennedy the chance to explore a "delayed adolescence." No longer afraid to embrace the things he liked, he was able to explore the pieces of culture, like fashion and music, that he had denied himself while in the closet.

"When I was growing up, I wanted to be careful of what artists I liked. I wanted to like male artists because I was deeply in the closet and didn't want it to seem suspicious that I liked all these female singers. But once I came out, I was free to listen to what I wanted."

Kennedy was first drawn to Dolly Parton, not for her music but because of her fun, feminine persona. "I was sort of like, 'Okay, I know who Dolly Parton is. Obviously she's this fun, campy character.' I think that's what initially drew me to her, so I started listening to her well-known songs. Once I got into her music and started listening to some of her earlier songs — and she did some bluegrass albums at that time — I was like, 'Okay, she's a real artist, and these songs have stories and meanings,' and that's when I started to fall in love with the genre as a whole."

Like any great affair, Kennedy recognizes that country music isn't perfect, but watching it evolve over recent years has given him new reasons to fall in love with the genre.

"It's a very straight genre, [but] I think in recent years it's opened up a little more," he said. "There have been some great artists like Lil Nas X and Brandi Carlile, who sort of made some headway. There's still a lot of ground to go, especially since Lil Nas X put his music on Spotify and that's how he became popular. He didn't have a recording contract, but it became so popular that it showed there's this hunger for other people who don't identify as straight. I just hope that continues to grow. There are a lot of Queer indie artists, which is great. I just hope they get the chance to be covered as other artists do."

Writing Queer YA in the age of book bans
Writing a Queer book set in a world of "traditional values" and conservative communities provided some real-life challenges for Kennedy. He had to determine just how "Queer" he wanted his book to be, a discussion that only got more difficult after political attacks on LGBTQ+ literature led many authors to stumble.
"
Luckily my publisher publishes a lot of Queer novels," he said, "so there wasn't any pushback about what I could add. Just in my mindset, it was less about what I had to add and being more careful about what I could add."

With conservative politicians often accusing LGBTQ+ people of trying to "groom" children by discussing their identities, Kennedy had to decide whether or not he was going to include mature discussions of sex and sexuality in his novel.

"Unfortunately, with a lot of book banning, especially with Queer books, I was like, 'Well, how Queer do I want this book to be?' Do I worry about that? And I just decided that's something I can't worry about. I want to write the book I want to write, and I wanted to talk about sex a little. Young adult books can have sex in them. I don't think they should be very explicit necessarily, but I do think it's something teenagers talk about and think about, so I just wanted to normalize, yeah, two boys ...talking about sex.

"Just to have that conversation on the page, for me, felt very important, as an author, to show that yeah, it's okay to think about this and not have all the answers. It's just natural. Straight people talk about it, so let's have Queer kids talk about it too."

While Kennedy's Queer country love story is a first for the music genre, it joins a well-established list of LGBTQ+ YA rom-coms, which have gotten more and more popular over the last few years. Like many Queer rom-com authors, Kennedy enjoys playing around with tropes that were originally designed for heterosexual couples.

"I think any trope can work for a Queer romance, and I always think it's exciting to see some that maybe aren't used as often getting used more now," he said. "I think as an author, the one I tend to stick to is 'opposites attract.' There's so much built-in conflict [that] I feel like it's easier to write, because it's already baked in there, so it just gives me a lot to play with.

"As far as tropes I like to read, I know there's one called 'forced proximity,' where people run into each other. I always think that's fun to read."

Brian Kennedy — Photo courtesy of the author  

Inspiring the future
Not only are Queer YA rom-coms like A Little Bit Country fun outlets for readers to escape into, but they are also packed full of valuable messages for young adults.

"I hope that any reader, but especially Queer readers, can see that there's no right way to be Queer in regards to coming out. There's no right way to do it. There's no shame in not being out," Kennedy said.

Understanding the struggles that Queer young people go through is important for writing books they'll relate to. For Kennedy, who spent his teenage years closeted, the idea of struggling to come out was an issue close to his heart.

"Of my two characters, Emmitt, the country singer, is from the Chicago suburbs and is in a very safe environment, where he's very proudly out and very proudly Gay and doesn't feel the need to hide it," Kennedy explained. "My other character, Luke, who is from the South, from this fictional small town I created, is not in this safe space, and he feels a lot of guilt about that. Through the book, he works through his guilt and sees that he has to do what's best for him, and just because he can't be out to everyone doesn't make him any less valid than any other Queer kid. That's just a message I felt was important to get out there."

Kennedy, who also works part-time at the LGBTQ+ center in Manhattan, values the connections he can form with readers, and the enthusiasm teenagers have for young adult books. After the success of his first novel, he is very ready to get back to the writing room and work on his second.

"As long as they will let me keep writing them and keep publishing them, all my books will be Queer. They're the books I wanted when I was growing up that weren't available, and when they were available, I was too timid and ashamed to check them out. So now to be able to write them and have readers who are Queer, it's the coolest thing in the world. I'm not getting over that anytime soon."

His next book is still in the early stages of production, but by next year Kennedy is hoping to see it on shelves.

"I have another book with the same publisher, another YA book. I don't have a release date yet. We're aiming for early 2024. I don't think I'm supposed to say much about it yet, but I will say it's another rom-com. It's two boys again, it's 'opposites attract,' and the one hint I've been giving is that it's not set in the country music world. It's about a different kind of music I like, and that's all I can say now."

In the meantime, readers can grab a copy of A Little Bit Country, stalk Kennedy's Spotify for clues to what his next book may be, and also, he said, "I would love to see some fan art. That would be cool."

A Little Bit Country is our next read for the SGN Book Club. Grab a copy from an indie bookstore near you, and read along with us on This text will be the link!