After the Media Storm: Country Singer Chely Wright on What Happened after her Very Public Coming Out as a Lesbian, How Nashville Still Won't Talk about It, and Why k.d. lang Doesn't Count as Country
Photo by Laura Crosta
Chely Wright is a gay country singer, which for some feels like calling someone a clumsy heart surgeon or a nymphomaniac nun. You just can't be both. It's partly this prevailing idea that somehow "gay" and "country star" is an oxymoron that kept Wright in the closet for so long. But in early May, amid a fury of media buzz and speculation, Wright came out, and like the proverbial toothpaste, there's no going back in. West Coast Sound chatted with her on the phone yesterday to find out how her life has changed since her big reveal, and how she handles being the apparent lone homosexual in Nashville.
LA Weekly: How has this summer been different for you?
Chely Wright: This summer has been the most remarkable, dynamic, emotional, gratifying, bewildering experience of my life. I recently came out of the closet so, for anyone, even if you're a schoolteacher in a small town, it's a really significant, pivotal time in anyone's life. But to do it publicly, and to try to take on a public platform, it's a remarkable experience, and I'm so thankful. It's gone beautifully. I feel so good about it.
How did you feel about the process you went through? There was a lot of build up to the announcement, and even a guessing game surrounding what major star was coming out. How did that work for you?
I didn't know about any of that. I got off the grid like 6 weeks before I came out. I just kind of went offline. Howard Bragman is my publicist, and obviously there's a strategy to what he does. Obviously when I decided to write a book and to come out publicly, my objective was to use my public capital...I was going to use my voice, whether it was going to be 15 minutes of fame in the media or 15 years of cashing in my public capital, I wanted to use it effectively, and initiate a dialogue in my community of country music that had never happened.
He didn't talk to me about his strategy. His doing that would be like me telling my cardiologist what to do during my heart surgery. That would be silly. But I didn't know there was a big build up and a guessing game until my manager called me like three days before. I guess it had leaked. I was in New York having dinner with my sister and some friends and my manager called and said, 'Ok, just so you know, you're kind of out now. It's out there.' And I said, 'Oooh, I feel like I'm running down Broadway naked!' And he said, 'You kind of are. You're out. Go have fun tonight; you're out of the closet. Enjoy it.'
And it's been incredibly...it's as amazing as... I don't want to say 'Coming out has been rainbows and daises.' There is a downside to being on a public platform, of standing up and saying 'I'm gay. This is the way God made me.' I've had churches invite me to stop using the Lord's name, and to stop saying that God made me this way. As if they own God. There are entire websites dedicated to saying that I am the problem with society.
So I don't want to say, 'Oh gosh, everyone should run right out of the closet.' I realize not everyone is safe to do that. But for me, personally, my insides are just really calm.
How has the country music industry reacted?
I would say the country music industry is very broad. We have radio programmers and audio personalities, record producers, other artists, publicists. I've received hundreds of emails of support. By and large it's a pretty progressive, very forward-thinking group of people.
On the other hand, there are some holdouts. I was berated on a live Birmingham morning show where the guy said live on the radio, 'Why do people like you want to forward your agenda? Why do you want us to say it's ok? Why can't you just shut up and sing?' You know, these things still happen.
I will say this, I've heard from several of my friends who are artists privately, but none of them will publicly support me.
In fact, we were going to ask if any other artists have reached out to you.
They have, but they do it quietly. Mary Chapin Carpenter did twitter 'Chely Wright should be applauded for her courage.' She and I weren't really friends, I mean, I didn't even really know her, and some really nice emails have happened between us since then.
Trisha Yearwood and I are very good friends. Of course she emailed me immediately and supported me - she came out and did my charity event in June. But no one's willing, other than Chapin, to address the fact that I came out, and applaud me. No one will say it. No one will say, 'Good for Chely Wright for coming out of the closet.' They will email me and say, 'Good for you, girl. I'm proud of you. I love you.' But no one will say it.
Is country the genre you identify with? Some people have put you in the folk music category. Do you consider yourself a pure country artist?
This is my seventh studio record, and my first five albums were strictly commercial country. Just mainstream, commercial country. And then my last record was more of a singer/songwriter - I'm trying to evolve and grow, as we all need to, and should. Because if I'm continually trying to redo 'Single White Female' and 'Shut Up and Drive,' then I'm going to be 50 years old trying to sing my hits from the '90s, and there's nothing more tragic than that. [Laughs] Because we see it all the time in music when people just can't grow.
I admire artists who are in their 50s and 60s and still relevant: the Roseanne Cashes, the Rodney Crowells, the Lucinda Williams, the Emmylou Harris-type artists. My last record, Metropolitan Hotel, was a step towards that, which kind of got categorized into folk a little bit. And this record, I think because Rodney Crowell produced it, and because I wrote every song on the album myself, save one, (Rodney and I did co-write one) it does kind of have a wilt of folk to it.
I think it's going to be really hard for anyone to call me a commercial country artist anymore because I think...I just think that they won't allow it. I don't think the songs sound that much different than anything I've done in the past three albums. You can listen to my first MCA album and it sounds like this record in many, many ways. But I'm openly gay, and I just think they don't know where to put me.
But it's fine; a rose is a rose is a rose. I don't care what they call it.
But do you have any sort of impression that you may be getting pushed out of the country genre a little bit?
Sure. They're not that excited that I came out in Nashville. It's a head-scratcher. My industry is - again, I've received so many private emails and phone calls and texts, but as a collective community, they don't know how to endorse this. I'm guessing I'm not the only gay artist that's ever sung a country song. If I were a betting woman.
What about k.d. lang?
If you ask k.d. lang when she came out, 'What would you call yourself?' She would never have said 'I'm a country singer.' I was. That's who I was. I was a pinup girl, country-singin', CMT video-makin' country girl. I was a country girl. I wasn't an American music singer; I wasn't a crooner - that's all I was.
I mean, how lucky is Nashville to have any connection to k.d. lang? My God. She made her first record in Nashville. Owen Bradley of Patsy Cline fame made her first record. I see the association - people want to say she's country. And then some people that aren't that in the know about Nashville and country will say, 'Well, Melissa Ethridge is country!' No she's not. She's not, k.d. lang's not - there's a difference. But I do believe that Nashville just doesn't know what to make of someone saying, 'Oh yeah, I'm gay.'
But I've been gay the whole time, and maybe someone should explore the notion that Nashville has some homophobic tendencies.
Do you feel an obligation as a gay person in the country music industry to be that poster child for change?
My number one reason for coming out was me. Because I was surely going to find myself trapped in a corner again. I was miserable, and dying a slow spiritual, physical and emotional death. The second most compelling reason for coming out was I think it's incumbent upon those of us who can facilitate change to do so. And I know that if I can end up with a 9 millimeter gun in my mouth - I'm a pretty evolved, emotionally successful person - if I can end up there, I know a 15-year-old kid in Phoenix or Scottsdale or Des Moines or Topeka can easily get there.
And when young people are being told to try not to be gay, when young people wake up every morning knowing that half of the world hates them just because of who they are naturally, it's a really hard place to be. And I couldn't stand one more day of allowing the fans that I've had in the past, or the fans that I may have now, to let them think for one more day, 'Yeah she's straight.'
How has coming out changed your music?
I can tell you this - You know how you hear about a grandpa who retires from General Motors after 50 years? He retires for a month and then they say, 'He went back to work!' He gets a part-time job - he couldn't stand being off because he's so used to work.
I wake up everyday now and still feel something pulling me, like 'What am I supposed to be doing right now?' And that was that full-time job of hiding. I still feel every day something nagging at me until I realize, 'Oh, I don't have that job anymore.'
I have so much more emotional free time and creative free time that I have more time to write. I have more emotional space to write songs and be creative, go to movies with my friends, get on my bike. My heart space and my brain space has cleared up, so I think that will augment my writing process.
Chely Wright will be appearing at Borders in Hollywood at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday to perform tracks from her new album, Lifted Off The Ground, answer questions and sign her new book, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.