Steve Grand has never felt comfortable being labeled the “first openly gay country star,” yet that’s the description that stuck after he had a viral hit in the summer of 2013 with the song “All-American Boy.”
Grand never claimed to be a country artist, but it was easy to see the initial confusion. An unknown singer-songwriter from a small town in Illinois, he had written a familiar ode to unrequited love. Except it told Grand’s story of falling for another man who didn’t reciprocate his romantic feelings.
The lyrics had faint signifiers of what you might consider country (“ripped jeans, only drinks whiskey”) and some twang lurked in the music, but the video, which starred Grand, was more specifically in line with the genre. At one point an American flag gets hoisted from a car barreling down a country road, and handsome men cavort around a campfire. Oh, and they also go skinny-dipping.
It was instant click bait. The term is overused, but Grand, 25, really was an overnight sensation. Within a day of posting the video on his Facebook page, BuzzFeed caught wind of it and stoked the flames with the headline “Meet the First Openly Gay Male Country Star.”
Appearances on morning talk shows and CNN ensued, as did thinkpieces about the changing face of country music. With no record label or even a manager at the time, Grand had self-released the video using money he had scraped together playing in bars. He thought it would be special for some people, but he never expected the magnitude it took on.
“A moment like that is never sustainable,” Grand says on the phone from Lemont, the Chicago suburb where he lives. “I always knew that, and I’m proud of myself for anticipating that. A moment does not build a career, and now is the time I have to start doing the work. It’s the beginning, and I just got a little jump-start.”
More than a year and a half after the hype, Grand is finally taking his second step. With last Monday’s release of his debut album, he is staring down a tricky proposition: How do you build on what you became famous for, particularly when you don’t identify with it?
His new album is also called “All American Boy” (except the hyphen is mysteriously missing on the cover), and it moves well beyond his breakthrough hit. Even by commercial country’s standard of flirting with pop and rock influences, the album is not aimed at that market. Grand isn’t even sure if his team is servicing any singles to country radio.
Instead, “All American Boy” buzzes with big power chords, full-throttle choruses, and classic-rock bombast. By design, it’s all over the place, from heart-on-sleeve ballads (“Lovin’ Again”) to stadium anthems (“We Are the Night”) to roadhouse rockers (“Whiskey Crime”). “Red, White, and Blue” is the biggest hit Bon Jovi never recorded in the 1980s, and with enough radio play, the folk-pop earworm “Stay” could be a summer jam.
Grand chose Aaron Johnson, who had worked with the Fray and Eve 6, to produce the album. Johnson says it took them a few attempts to figure out the direction of the music, which in the end didn’t matter as much as they expected.
“The beauty of Steve is that he’s not tied down to anything,” Johnson says. “He’s Steve Grand, and that’s it. He’s not about genre. There might be people who want him to be a country artist, but ultimately people love Steve for Steve.”
So much so that more than 4,900 backers contributed to a Kickstarter campaign to fund his new album. It raised close to $327,000, well over his target goal of $81,000, which he achieved in less than a day.
“I’m still pinching myself,” Grand says. “It’s so affirming to see how many people believed in me. In my darker moments where I question whether I should be doing this, if I’m good enough, all I have to do is look back and see that nearly 5,000 contributed to this project. That gets me right back on track.”
Grand clearly has his fans, but he also has his detractors, and he’s disappointed that some of them have come from within his own community.
“How fast people want to turn on someone just amazes me,” he says of the inevitable backlash. “I hadn’t even done anything yet, and people were already trying to investigate my life and make me out to be some product or someone who’s not authentic. People were really eager to find fault in me.”
His voice rises.
“I still really struggle with that,” he adds. “I was bullied pretty bad growing up, but I’ve been treated far worse by some gay people since I released ‘All-American Boy.’ I think that’s sad. And people say, ‘Well, you asked for that,’ but no, actually, I didn’t ask for that.”
Grand bemoans the fact that a Google search for his name yields dozens of photos of him in various states of undress. He stresses those are from photo shoots he did six years ago, when he was 19. “I don’t shy away from them,” he says, “but that’s not what I’m about as an artist, and it has nothing to do with where I am now.”
(To be clear, Grand is not exactly modest about his Greek-god physique: When he did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last year, he posted a Facebook photo of himself afterward — nude, save for a strategically placed [hand?] towel.)
“I don’t care about being famous. I really just want my work to speak for itself,” he says. “Putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable definitely takes its toll on you. But it’s the best decision I’ve made, and I’m going with it.”James Reed can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.