One of the greatest country music singers of the 1960s, Wilma Burgess had a voice that paired well with the instrumental tracks that built the Nashville Sound, making for a handful of great singles seemingly lost to time. As Country’s first openly lesbian singer, she is also finally getting her due as an overlooked trailblazer for LGBTQ artists in country music.
By 1962, United Artists issued her first single, “Something Tells Me” b/w “Confused.” Those early recordings caught the attention of Owen Bradley. The influential country music producer and Nashville Sound architect perhaps saw Burgess as a potential mainstream replacement for Patsy Cline. The Bradley and Burgess partnership led to her best-known recordings for Decca Records, including charting singles “Baby” (1965), “Don’t Touch Me” (1966), “Tear Time” (1967) and the first major recording of the soulful and often-covered Bob Montgomery composition “Misty Blue” (1966).
Another big purchase by Burgess in the mid-1960’s was her friend’s Patsy Cline’s “dream home.” By the late 1980’s, she owned, ran and performed at Nashville’s first “women-only” bar, the Hitchin’ Post.
Burgess was openly gay within the country music business. While fans weren’t told the truth, her colleagues allegedly knew all along. Indeed, a 2016 article by Dangerous Minds revisited claims that Burgess haggled with Bradley to counter his love song suggestions with more gender-neutral selections. She did sometimes agree to record songs such as “Ain’t Got No Man”, on condition that her producer Owen Bradley let her record a song she liked but he did not.
Burgess was professionally out of the closet all of those years before Chely Wright’s big reveal made headlines, and it didn’t stop record labels from promoting her music. National television appearances by Burgess are a click away, so she wasn’t exactly hidden away from the masses. She also appeared alongside other country singers in the infamous Jayne Mansfield b-movie The Las Vegas Hillbillies.
Burgess died from a heart attack on Aug. 26, 2003. She never came out to fans, which is why all talk of her private life is treated as speculation.