Photo: Eric England

The Invisible Women

They Refused To Play House

Sometimes a creative idea just shows up out of nowhere, unexpected and unbidden, maybe a little excited and tipsy, and decides to settle in an artist’s brain for however long it takes to find its realization. That’s what happened to Bill Brimm when he hit on an idea for a movie seven years ago. “I was sitting at my desk at my stained glass business, and it just came to me,” he says about the concept for Invisible, the independent documentary about gay women in the Nashville music scene. The film’s first theatrical screening sold out The Belcourt Theatre in February for a one-night fundraiser.

Early on, Invisible introduces us to a series of successful Nashville songwriters — Bonnie Baker, Jess Leary, Kye Fleming, Pam Rose, and Mary Ann Kennedy — reflecting on their long careers writing hits. As they talk, we see images of album covers, music video clips, and concert footage of other well-known artists (Pam Tillis, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Milsap, Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw) who performed those songs. “We were writing the songs, country radio songs,” Jess Leary says to the camera, following a clip of Tim McGraw singing “Where the Green Grass Grows,” a tune she penned. “There were a lot of us,” she adds, referring to the community of gay women who have been shaping the sound of popular country music for decades.

Producer Bill Brimm and Director T.J. Parsell in East Nashville. Photo by Travis Commeau
Producer Bill Brimm and Director T.J. Parsell in East Nashville. Photo by Travis Commeau

Directed by T.J. Parsell and produced by Brimm, Invisible considers the lives and work of these women, some of whom kept quiet about their sexual identities for fear of missing opportunities or losing their careers, others who came out regardless and, in some cases, faced negative consequences. Leary, for instance, talks about what it was like to face rejection just as she was breaking through as a performing artist in the 1990s because when she was asked, she was honest about being gay. Despite being a talented performer, she decided to focus on songwriting because she didn’t feel welcome as an artist in Nashville. Chely Wright, a successful performing artist who had initially denied being gay, recounts how the soul-crushing lie of that denial led to a suicide attempt, and ultimately to her coming out in a very public way on The Today Show in 2009. The film includes an audio clip of Wright contending with on-air harassment during an interview with a male country radio personality after her announcement. At some stations, her songs were dropped from country radio playlists. Though Wright had been a regular on The Opry stage in those days, it took ten years for her to be invited back. Other writers and artists, like Fleming, Kennedy, and Rose, were more private about their identities. “Hiding was a part of life,” Rose says. “Name the openly gay country singers in Nashville; ready, go,” she challenges the film audience, a beat of silence making the point for her.

Invisible features interviews with more than twenty participants — gay and trans artists, artist-allies, and other industry professionals, who describe what it was like to be LGBTQ, a woman, and a musician in Nashville in the days before anyone would put all those words together out loud or in print to describe an artist. It’s a story filmmaker Ken Burns didn’t even touch on in his PBS documentary Country Music.

“These women were so talented and actually had a lot of success from way back in the day,” Brimm says. “But many of them were very private about who they really were. I thought it was time [to tell their stories], and then after interviewing these women, I think they realized that it’s time. They’ve got the chance, now, to be more upfront about who they are.”

And upfront they are. In one of the film’s especially funny scenes, Rose, Kennedy, Cheryl Wheeler, and Virginia Team, an art director who’d been one of the few out gay successful music industry professionals, are having dinner together. There’s wine involved, and the filmmakers have stepped aside to just let the cameras roll. The conversation runs from the women discussing their first crushes on other women (high school teachers and classmates), to confessing occasional interest in men, to who used cocaine back in the old days, (“It was the gluten-free of the day!” one of them declares), and concludes with Cheryl Wheeler breaking out her guitar and the others harmonizing along as she sings one of her best known songs, “Driving Home.”

From the first, Brimm had a hunch that making a movie about these artists was a pretty good idea. There was one major problem; Brimm wasn’t a filmmaker. Yes, he was an accomplished artist working in a variety of media (stained glass, assemblage, photography, furniture), and he’d owned and operated Bryant Gallery on Woodland Street for a number of years, but he’d never been involved in a film project. He knew he needed some help.

“When I first conceived it,” Brimm explains, “I did ask a filmmaker I knew about it, who said ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. Don’t tell anyone,’ and then I never heard from him again.” But Brimm remained determined. Some of the women he had in mind as participants were people he knew from the Nashville community, and some, like Kennedy and Rose, who play music as the duo Kennedy Rose, were old friends. “I care about these women. Several of them I’ve known for decades, and they had good stories that I believed ought to be told,” he says. After the first filmmaker never got back to him, Brimm sat on the idea for four years, looking for the right partner.

Enter Parsell, a former software sales-executive-turned-filmmaker. Brimm and Parsell met almost by accident in 2016 when they sat down to dinner at Margot with their husbands Andrew Krichels and Tom Wasik (respectively), who were colleagues at Onsite, a therapeutic retreat center in Nashville. The four became fast friends, and Brimm and Krichels were instrumental in convincing Parsell and Wasik to settle in East Nashville late in 2016.

Artist/Producer Bill Brimm at his home in East Nashville. Photo by Travis Commeau
Artist/Producer Bill Brimm at his home in East Nashville. Photo by Travis Commeau
Director T.J. Parsell in East Nashville. Photo by Travis Commeau
Director T.J. Parsell in East Nashville. Photo by Travis Commeau

“When I first conceived it,” Brimm explains, “I did ask a filmmaker I knew about it, who said ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. Don’t tell anyone,’ and then I never heard from him again.” But Brimm remained determined. Some of the women he had in mind as participants were people he knew from the Nashville community, and some, like Kennedy and Rose, who play music as the duo Kennedy Rose, were old friends. “I care about these women. Several of them I’ve known for decades, and they had good stories that I believed ought to be told,” he says. After the first filmmaker never got back to him, Brimm sat on the idea for four years, looking for the right partner.​

Enter Parsell, a former software sales-executive-turned-filmmaker. Brimm and Parsell met almost by accident in 2016 when they sat down to dinner at Margot with their husbands Andrew Krichels and Tom Wasik (respectively), who were colleagues at Onsite, a therapeutic retreat center in Nashville. The four became fast friends, and Brimm and Krichels were instrumental in convincing Parsell and Wasik to settle in East Nashville late in 2016.​

“Then Bill called me up one day and he said, ‘I’ve got this idea for a movie.’ It was a brilliant idea, right? I sat up and had my little RCA dog ear perked up,” Parsell recalls.

“Yes, that was right before you turned into a pit bull,” Brimm says, teasing Parsell about his impressive tenacity in keeping hold of a film project that has so many moving parts.

“I mean it was so right,” Parsell continues, “that three weeks later we were shooting our first interview. Mary Gauthier was the first one. And after Mary said yes, then we got Jess [Leary] and the next and the next and it just started falling into place.”

Yes, that was right before you turned into a pit bull,” Brimm says, teasing Parsell about his impressive tenacity in keeping hold of a film project that has so many moving parts.

That was in 2017. It took the next three years to complete the film, and the team is still working to fund a marketing campaign and copyright permissions for all the music and archival materials, which they’ll need before the film’s official release. While working on Invisible, Brimm and Parsell found they were able to shape one of the segments about transgender musician Cid Bullens, formerly Cindy Bullens, into a short documentary film called The Gender Line. (Check out theeastnashvillian.com or our November-December 2019 print issue for that story.) That short has made its way to a number of festivals in the past year, garnering critical praise and several awards.

Film is a highly collaborative artform, and one might say that Brimm’s and Parsell’s partnership is an example of the universe working in favor of the creative process by putting two artists with complementary skill sets and temperaments in each other’s paths. “We’re kind of opposites is what I think,” Brimm observes. “It’s a nice balance in a way; well, I’m more meek …”

“Bill is a Southern gentleman,” Parsell interrupts, “he’s got a certain gentility about him. And I’m a little more brash, more, well, New York. I lived in New York for 30 years. When he says I’m a pit bull, I say ‘It’s true, but I’m your pit bull,’” he adds with a laugh.

“They’re two sides of the same coin,” Bonnie Baker says. “But the focus in their core is they just want to tell the story. T.J. is going to push every boundary, and Bill’s going to come along and build the foundation. I find a lot of collaborations need that – you need both.”

While Brimm comes off as more mild-mannered than Parsell, his artist’s determination to see a project through is just as fierce as his collaborator’s. That determination also took him from filmmaking naïf to film producer in a matter of weeks. “If I had really known what was involved before we started, I might have thought twice,” he observes with a laugh. “I didn’t ever really stop and think ‘Well, oh yeah, we need a lot of money for that.’ I’ve done everything. I’ve carried lights, I’ve carried cameras. I’m the bookkeeper, graphic artist, caterer, production assistant, whatever to save money, because it’s basically a two-man show.”

Or rather a two-man and a whole bunch of women show, including the interviewees, Director of Photography, Sandra Chandler, the editor, Emily Gumpel Clifton, and consulting editor Carol Dysinger, who just won an Oscar for her work on Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl). Which of course raises the question: What do two gay men think they are doing making a movie about this particular group of women? Part of it, both Brimm and Parsell say, is they feel a kinship with the women, having themselves come of age at a time and in places where being gay and out was difficult, if not impossible. That and determined pursuit of the artistic life are the commonalities that made it possible for the filmmakers to connect with their interviewees.

“He [Parsell] has just been the most patient creator I have worked with,” Baker says. “This is a very personal film to him; even though it’s about females, he has a very kindred spirit, and you can feel that.”

Singer and songwriter Dianne Davidson, whose story forms an important narrative thread in the movie, describes Parsell’s gift similarly. “He finds a way, respectfully, to get you to bare your soul. I think because we have all come from a background of being varying degrees of cautious with people about our stories and about our lives, when you find somebody that you feel you can have that kinship and understanding with it’s amazing the depths that you can go in uncovering things that you’ve kept suppressed over the years. In creating the relationships with each of us the way he did, it allowed that to surface very naturally.”

Davidson’s story, like Leary’s, demonstrates what happens when a talented artist refuses to fit the mainstream music industry mold, especially back in the day when making records required the substantial financial support of a major label. The story begins with Davidson at age 11 forming her first band, The Mad Martians, in Camden, Tennessee, and charts her early successes — a Nashville recording contract at age 17, a first album release, collaborations and touring with many artists, including The Moody Blues and Linda Ronstadt, all by the time she was 21. The film also reveals what her life was like as doors began to close when she wanted to include songs about her first serious relationship with a woman on an album in the early 1970s. No label was interested. “It would be really nice if you would lose some weight, put on some make-up, and be a heterosexual,” Davidson says in the movie, joking about how the industry pressured her to fit the girl-singer mold. Frustrated and disappointed, she stopped performing, stopped writing, and didn’t pick up a guitar for years. She worked as a legal editor in a corporate setting, and her co-workers didn’t even know she was a musician.

“Back then it was either/or. You could have one [a career in music] or the other [a relationship with a woman], but you couldn’t have both,” Davidson says. “You could be out there, and you could tell the world, but they certainly were not going to help you have a career. Now you don’t need a record deal to make an album; technology allows you to be an independent artist. You can go and make a record on your own.”

“Back then it was either/or. You could have one [a career in music] or the other [a relationship with a woman], but you couldn’t have both…”

—Diane Davidson

While the storytelling in Invisible may have been painful at times for some of the artists, working with Parsell and Brimm also turned out to be a creative prompt that took them deeper into their music. That’s been true for both Baker and Davidson. Baker says the film work led her to uncover, with the help of therapy, some of her own childhood trauma related to growing up as a conservative preacher’s daughter in an abusive environment. The trauma, she learned, had actually affected her music. “I’ve always had a hard time staying in time,” she confesses. “[As a result of trauma] you don’t feel connected to your physical body. The more that we explored that and the deeper in therapy I went and started to let myself tell the stories … I literally felt myself moving into my body more, and I don’t have [problems with tempo] anymore. I play in time so much better, my fingers and my body feel connected to me. After two-and-half years of therapy,”
she says, laughing.

As a professional, Baker is accustomed to writing songs for other people, but her work on the film inspired a new song she wrote for herself. She performs the haunting “Dry County” toward the end of Invisible with cello accompaniment from Larissa Maestro and backing vocals from her idols, Kennedy Rose. The scene is shot at Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios, in a converted church near Music Row. “The building itself was a huge part of the healing. It’s easy to feel that faith is our enemy, but it’s not. It’s people that abuse it. The building itself is on your side.” She released “Dry County” online February 25, the night the movie screened at The Belcourt.

Davidson was inspired to go back into the studio and record a whole new album after her decades-long hiatus from the music business. One source for that inspiration is her friend Linda Ronstadt, with whom she reconnected during work on the film. In fact, Davidson helped arrange a shoot at Ronstadt’s San Francisco home. In the film, the two reminisce about touring together. Though Ronstadt suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, which has made it nearly impossible for her to sing, when Davidson takes up her guitar and plays some of their old repertoire, Ronstadt can’t resist harmonizing to the R&B classic “Sixty-Minute Man” and Davidson’s song “Tonight I’ll Dream That You Care.” “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Parsell says about that moment. “The entire crew was in tears.”

Davidson had planned to write a few songs just for the movie, but once she got back in the studio, she didn’t want to stop. She’s releasing her new album, Perigon, this year, along with her previously unreleased album from the ’70s, 1974. The new album gets its title from geometry and refers to an angle that can become a full circle. “That for me is what it really is truly about,” Davidson says. “I think for anybody who has been through a very difficult time and come out on the other side, it’s triumphant in a way. It’s quietly triumphant; I’m not storming through any gates. It’s a way to say I’m here and I’ve made it through, and I’m satisfied with my life. And I’ve not sold out to anybody.”

Brimm and Parsell are thrilled about the new work the women of Invisible are doing, and both pleased and humbled to know their project gave the artists a creative bump. “We’re just honored and grateful to these women that they trusted us with their stories,” Brimm says. “The stories are everything.”

The Editor’s Statement Regarding the March|April 2020 Issue has information about where to find the print edition of this article.