Nashville star Chely Wright says that country music fans will forgive a lot — forlorn tales of failure and redemption are as essential to the music as steel pedal guitar — but there is one thing that the boots and pickup truck constituency cannot abide when it looks up at its stars in the spotlight.
A country music star cannot be gay.
"It's the unforgivable," says Wright, who this week announced to the world that she is a lesbian. "Historically, country music would rather an artist be a drunk — they even encourage and endorse that one. You get good money from Jim Beam to put that emblem on the side of your bus. I was on the Crown Royal tour, and I have to say it was one of my favorite tours. They would rather you were a drug addict than be gay. They will forgive you if you beat your wife, lose your kids to state, get six divorces, make a sex tape, get labeled as a tramp — any and all of it is better than being gay."
Wright said all of this a few weeks ago as she sat on a couch at the Hollywood Hills home of her publicist, Howard Bragman. Her voice was clear and steady but her eyes were moist and at times there was a tremble in her hand, which held a folded tissue ready for the tears. A photo crew from People magazine was in the other room, they had just finished the session for the issue that has just hit newsstands. The cover story announced to the world a secret that Wright has guarded since her childhood in Kansas.
Few of her friends and most of her family didn't know that Wright was a lesbian, nor did her former boyfriend Brad Paisley, who Wright says was cruelly confused by her actions and secrets during their well-publicized romance. That sort of wrenching disconnect between the truth and the lie is why Wright says that she put a 9-mm gun in her mouth at one point and tried to find the terrible courage needed to pull the trigger. She didn't, thankfully, and instead found a purer bravery required to face the world — even if it means career suicide.
"I'm sleeping better at night, and that's been a long time. I thought I would be ramping up in my anxiety but I'm sleeping well these days. There's comfort in seeing the finish line. My emotions are a swinging pendulum but here I am — what, 16 or 18 days before my coming out? — and I have a growing sense of calm." I have a public capital that I have paid into throughout my career. I have been a good steward of my life. And this is how I am going to play my chips. I feel like I have and I want to. I may very well lose my career. I fully expect to lose my country music career."
Wright was named best new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in 1994 and scored a No. 1 country hit in 1999 with "Single White Female." Her new single, the aptly named "Broken," was released last month, taken off of her eighth album, "Lifted Off the Ground," which was released Tuesday. .
"I feel like I'm floating," she said. "It's like my friends who are in the know, which are not many, and my family members who know, which isn't all of them, are lifting me up to get through this."
Wright has penned a memoir too, called "Like Me," which hit bookstores on Tuesday.
"There is so much of country music that is genuinely me," Wright said. "It's not like I don't fit in — I do and in so many ways. As a little kid growing up I sat there and read all the liner notes. They were the margins for imagination. Nobody knows what country music fans expect a country star to be more than me because I am a country music fan and always have been. I felt like the people on the album were telling me their story and they were looking right back at me. Loretta Lynn was looking into my eyes and saying, 'I'm singing this song for you.' Those artists were welded into my mind. Those artists were about God, family and faith. And, you know? I am too."
Wright said that when she studied the pantheon of country music as a child she felt further isolated. "I just didn't see anybody like me. And I knew I wasn't going to be the first. I knew I was never going to make it on the Opry stage or be able to record an album. I knew I would never get a record deal."
Wright says she doesn't expect public rebukes from peers. "I don't think a lot of people will come forward and condemn me. Some might but there won't be many. It's the quiet haters that do a lot of damage in the world."
The Nashville response has been largely mute, with one exception. Wright reveals in the book that it was this exchange with John Rich of country duo Big & Rich that pushed her over the edge: " 'You're not gay, are you?!' I said, 'No, John, I'm not.' He said, 'Good, thank God.' And that began a spiral for me. I had a meltdown shortly after that."
Rich has responded in a statement "I would never pass judgment on any friend of mine. I feel awful that, at this time in Chely's life, my decade-old comment — 'Good, thank God' — was taken the wrong way."
Wright said it was a confluence of conscience and circumstance that put her in a position to detonate this career bombshell at this time. For one thing, she feels the tug of a career desire to make music that is less beholden to radio airplay and more defined by the album statements of a veteran song crafter.
"Look, I'm not 19 years old. I'm getting older. I want to be an artist who can be relevant at 60 and still getting better. You look at people like Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris and they're still getting better and challenging themselves. I'm about to turn 40 and I don't want to be trying to figure out a way to rewrite 'Single White Female' and 'Shut Up and Drive.' There's nothing sadder than trying to redo that."
In 2005, Wright released "Metropolitan Hotel," a collection that revealed an artist who wanted to move toward an alt-country sound, but instead of taking a leap, it was more of a tentative half-step, she admits now.
"I panicked. I got insecure about my abilities to grow artistically and then I got a little seduced by what I knew — you dance with the one that brung you and commercial country music has been so good to me. So I made half of the record in an artistic fashion looking toward a Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams vein and then the other half I made with country radio in mind."
It was while working on the new album that Wright decided her old choices and concessions were no longer manageable in her life.
"I had my breakdown — which some of my friends called breakthrough, which is a nice way to say it — and I was halfway through the recording process of this new record when I decided to come out. I was already set on course to make this record with [producer] Rodney Crowell and it was not going to be defined by a country radio sound. I didn't decide to come out and then make an alt-country album to go with it."
The alt-country path may lead to good reviews but Wright says there is a major trade-off at the concert box-office.
"When you have a big hit in country music or a couple of them, as I have had, you can fully expect to enjoy a career in touring for the rest of your life. You can pay your bills through live music in some capacity, in some way, shape or form. There is no greater fan in music than a country music fan and once they sign up, they love you for the rest of your life. I am prepared to lose that and I expect I will lose that. This is the right thing to do."