Once upon a time, the name Grady Milligan was a familiar one around Blount County’s contemporary Christian music scene.
A 2010 graduate of Karns High School in Knoxville, Milligan arrived that fall at Maryville College, where he did all of the things expected of a young man raised in faith and beholden to a preordained path for his future. He did the whole edgy Christian metal thing as part of the faith-centric punk and heavy rock scene, and then he pivoted to the ruminative sensitive singer-songwriter dude whose intricate chords and gentle melodies explored the world through the lens of Christianity.
He dabbled in spoken word. He made records. He got married. He became a worship pastor for various Blount County congregations. He seemed, by all outward appearances, like a guy who meant well, wanted to do good and dedicated to the soft evangelism of Christian indie folk.
Internally, however, the tightly wound cords of his worldview were starting to unravel, he told The Daily Times recently, and by 2017, the refrain of that old Wilco song was clanging around in his head: “What you once were isn’t what you want to be anymore.”
“I think over the last four or five years, I’ve had to go on a really big journey of deconstruction, because I had spent my life, both willfully and letting other people do it for me, constructing a worldview that was very black and white, and ultimately became very unhealthy,” Milligan said. “I don’t think all expressions of faith are toxic or bad, but ... I had essentially picked up the worst in a lot of unhealthy Christian worldviews. And in the last couple of years, I think what happened is that my love for people, and the desire in me to love people well and maybe be a part of making the world a better place for people, never got smashed so badly by those beliefs that it went away.
“I think that those really good things inside of all that B.S. finally started winning out and making me question some of the stuff I had just accepted as a rule because I didn’t want to question anything. I let worship of certainty allow me to believe things because it made me feel good and not bad and not terrible to believe I was on the good side of something.”
And so Milligan began to feel the opening of a new set of eyes, one that began to see the world outside of the Judeo-Christian paradigm that had so long informed his life and his art. As a singer-songwriter whose work was driven by those beliefs, it became abundantly clear to Milligan that the music career on which he had embarked was ultimately a hollow one, despite the fact that it came with a ready-made audience. Continuing on that path would have been easy, he said, but it would have also been inauthentic … and that, he added, he couldn’t abide.
“I was a privileged middle class white kid who sang in church, so I had a free pass that would have made it smooth sailing and beloved by all, if I wanted to, for the rest of my life,” he said. “But as love was growing inside me, I had to start reckoning with issues of race in America and the damage done by Christian nationalism and colonialism and so many other things. But the first thing I started diving deep into — sort of the thread of everything else — was that I had to reckon what these prejudices and beliefs around me said about queerness and queer people.
“I started pulling at threads of things in my brain that I really had not paid attention to in my own self, and I started learning about how I was conflicted about the suffering of this group of people — and then realizing, I’m part of this group of people! That’s not to say you need a personal stake to do something good, but I wasn’t even able to discover my own queerness until I stopped believing in things that were actively harming queer people.
“So much of it was just internalized homophobia, and it’s all been a part of a journey,” he added. “And coming off of that journey, you don’t make a post on Facebook or write a status about it and all of your internalized status and homophobia and xenophobia suddenly goes away.”
It’s difficult, Milligan admitted, to sum up several years worth of self-reflection in the span of a single conversation, especially when that reflection involved tearing his spiritual house down to the metaphorical studs. Before he could even begin to explore who he was, he had to recognized that his long-held beliefs were harmful to particular group of people, and as an artist and a human being wanting to celebrate love, he had to acknowledge that those beliefs were the antithesis of love.
“Everything about it was so down to the roots that basically the floor of my worldview had to completely fall out from under me, and that was scary, man,” he said. “When certainty is what you worship, and all the sudden you don’t know anything about anything for sure, it’s a very horrifying place to be for a while. I still think it’s intimidating, but I finally think I’m coming to terms with the fact that life is intimidating, but it’s also beautiful.
“In my pursuit of certainty for the hope of feeling good and the hope of life being OK, it was only in the letting go of my grip on certainty that I actually felt good about my inherent humanness, and I didn’t feel totally overwhelmed by shame for the first time in my whole life.”
That freedom, of course, led to a number of life changes. He stepped away from active involvement in the church, and from Christianity as an institution. He’s not bitter or resentful — many of the friends he made prior to his personal transformation are still friends, and he expresses admiration and respect for those who “practice faith and a version of Christianity that’s very progressive and healthy.” After the end of his church career and his marriage, he left Blount County in 2020 after living here for 10 years, settling back in Knoxville and finding a progressive community of fellow artists and agents of change who welcomed him with open arms.
“I think it’s something my soul needed that I didn’t know,” he said. “Being in the city, skateboarding in town, adventuring in awesome places, discovering food and beer and supporting the city … being a part of Black Lives Matter marches, voting in local elections when I never had before, meeting wonderful friends, meeting my new partner … it’s meant everything.”
And it’s allowed him to find his voice again and begin to use it as an agent of love and change rather than as a cudgel. Before, he added, shame informed his songs as much as it did his religion, which was one reason he never explored his sexual identity. When he did embark on that journey, it took some measure of reflection before he decided that the label that best describes him is pansexual — “of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation,” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It feels the most right, but describing himself as queer feels the most all-encompassing, he said.
“I just think it’s interesting that I spent my whole other life making music about love and joy and freedom from shame, but it was only in leaving it that I wanted to write songs that feel like they’re truly about that,” he said. “In the last couple of years, the things I’ve always felt in my guts about the world are actually matching up with the things I say or support or act on in that world, and it hasn’t been what I expected. When life changes, and everything you held as a worldview is going away, it feels like a little death for a while.”
Part of that reckoning involved the parting of ways with folks from his past who saw his change as a betrayal of the faith that they shared. He hasn’t received a great deal of pushback in comparison to his brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community, apart from occasional loaded “I’m praying for you” messages or missives from individuals who want to argue, he said. If anything, those missives make him cringe, because they remind him of himself.
“They’re defending the faith, and man, I used to do that!” he said.
“I’ll tell you what, the hardest stuff has actually been some of the really hard conversations that I had to have with people to whom my past self had caused damage. I got messages from folks who were, on one hand glad I was progressing in my life and able to share things and be myself, but also wondered, ‘Where was all this when I was going through it and you weren’t there for me, or were even against me?’”
“That is 100% the hardest stuff, and that’s not persecution. That’s me experiencing the consequences of my former hateful actions and words. It’s hard to take when someone’s being a jerk to you and you’re just being a nice guy, but it’s much harder when you’re reckoning with the past harm you’ve caused people, and how they feel or what they say is totally fair.”
There’s a level of contrition, he said, that will be a part of his journey for a while to come, as well as fear. It’s a natural emotion, but as he navigates these new metaphysical lines that are drawing him toward the person he’s meant to be, the things he’s left behind matter less and less, he said.
“The hardest thing in this new chapter of life is the fear of not being welcomed into new communities, or past actions disqualifying me from those communities, which I’m so thankful I’ve not experienced,” he said. “There’s a certain degree of good riddance to the old door, but there is the fear of being trapped in limbo — of not wanting to be what you were, but not being allowed to be what you are becoming because of the things you did.”
He’s even writing a song about it — “The Second Door” — as he slowly builds a catalog of new material built on the foundation of his new life. Real thoughts, real experiences, real pain — these are the denominations of his sonic currency, he said, and he wants to spend them wisely.
“I want to write about something that makes people understand something, or that makes the world a safer, more loving, more free place for everybody,” he said. “That’s what I always wanted to do, and I was doing it the best I could at the time — I was just misguided. I’m working on new stuff, but from the paradigm I came from, I had to do a lot of soul-searching to figure out how I write songs now. It was much easier to write with very specific prompts, and before, I think there was a little bit of that in a big, existential way. Writing worship music made sense — it was a part of my job, and it was very much a safety net for me.
“I didn’t have to push myself creatively. It was like, this is what I do and what I have time for, but now, I’m literally allowed to say anything. So what do you do with that?”
For Milligan, the answer is a simple one: Speak truth. To power, to love, to his authentic self, and to do so in a way that repairs the harm of the past and builds bridges toward an all-inclusive future. It’s not always easy — right now, he’s sidelined by a broken ankle from a skateboarding accident that’s led to some astronomical medical bills, but even out of that, he’s experienced love: The Knoxville songwriting community, led by pals like Kelsi Walker and Zack Miles, organized a benefit that helped out, and he’s both humbled and awed by the support of so many friends, old and new, who have stepped in to offer an assist.
It is, he pointed out, a form of grace — not in the religious sense of his life of old, but grace nevertheless.
“From singing songs about grace that really promoted xenophobia, then experiencing being welcomed and forgiven by people I know I harmed with my words who said, ‘I’m so glad you’re finally here’ — that’s actual grace, and that’s the stuff I want to keep writing about,” he said. “That’s what I want my music to be about. That was always the stuff I wanted my music to be about. I just got misdirected, misled and indoctrinated into some dangerous thoughts.”