When country singer Chely Wright revealed to her fanbase that she was a lesbian back in 2010, many of the magazine articles at the time referenced k.d. lang or Melissa Etheridge, to name two earlier gay performers who opted to be true to themselves in public, but very few mentioned an even earlier lesbian country music singer to come out of the closet.
Actually, Wilma Burgess, who had several hit singles in the mid-1960s was never in the closet to begin with. Burgess was a protege of the great country music producer Owen Bradley, one of the chief architects of the slick, string-laden “Nashville sound” of the 50s and 60s. Bradley, who had been Patsy Cline’s producer, heard in Burgess’ powerful voice a performer able to do something similar to the deceased singer and he signed her to Decca Records in June of 1964. Interestingly Burgess was reluctant to perform teary ballads where she was singing to a man, and preferred her material to be gender neutral and ambiguous. When she did agree to sing a song like “Ain’t Got No Man” it was something she negotiated with her powerful hit-maker mentor: One song she liked but that he didn’t have to, for every one of his choices that she went along with but wasn’t too fond of. Their partnership worked well and produced several hits, most notably the Grammy-nominated “Baby,” a 1965 hit Burgess was seen singing in the Jayne Mansfield B-movie The Las Vegas Hillbillys, and “Misty Blue” in 1967.
For obvious teasons, Wilma Burgess ultimately found herself frustrated by the strict and ostensibly pious Nashville scene and left the music business in 1978. She would go on to open The Hitching Post, the first lesbian bar in Nashville, in the late 80s with the money she made during her career. Wilma Burgess died at the age of 64 from a heart attack on August 26th, 2003.
More clips of Wilma Burgess after the jump…