Chely Wright is nervous and she has good reason to be. Sitting down for lunch at a West Village café in NYC, Wright—who is here to give her first interview to a major gay publication—begins by saying,” I’m not sure I’ve ever been this anxious about talking to someone before.” As a seasoned veteran of music industry whose seven studio albums have sold over a million copies, it’s not the prospect of a sit down interview that’s giving Wright the jitters. This is Wright’s first ever interview with a major gay publication, and the first in which she will discuss her decision to come out of the closet.
“This is a conversation basically 40 years in the making,” she says with a laugh, “We might as well get comfortable.”
Even in a year already full of celebrity outings, Wright’s emergence as an out lesbian is truly something of a big deal, especially considering the world from which she is emerging. Not only is she arguably the first big name in contemporary country music to come out of the closet, she also happens to be doing so in a very big way. This month Wright will release, Lifted off the Ground, her first new album in five years and the most nakedly heartfelt piece of music she has ever created. Even more surprisingly, she is releasing a tell-all memoir—Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer—which chronicles her rise to fame in country music and a candidly details of her lifelong struggle to come to terms with her identity as a gay woman. The book will undoubtedly be a polarizing topic for fans of country music and, even more tellingly, Wright’s own fan base.
Raised in the small town of Wellsville, Kansas by conservative Christian parents, Wright’s story of self-discovery and self-acceptance is, for many a gay person, also a very familiar one. As she explains it in Like Me, Wright knew from an early age that she was different and soon came to realize why, but she would spend the next four decades years trying desperately to hide her attraction to other women and praying for god to change her. As her career began to take off, so did the constant, paralyzing anxiety about being found out. Her tenacity and single-mindedness about making it as a country singer seemed to spring, at least in part, from a need to escape an identity she could not accept. The book offers a fascinating glimpse into the mechanics of the music industry, as well as providing a kind of cautionary tale on the debilitating nature of keeping secrets. For Wright, eventually the strain from years of practiced hiding—along with failed attempts at dating men and romantic relationships with women that were ultimately crushed under the weight of secrecy—left her feeling isolated and abjectly suicidal.
The turning point came in 2006, when the devastation of a bad breakup caused Wright to consider ending her own life. “I had a gun in my mouth,“ recalls Wright. “That’s a hard thing to come back from. It was really songs that saved my life. The process of writing songs—and the experience of writing down my story—that really carried me through it. When I finally knew that I could no longer go on living a lie anymore, it was over. Everything had to change. The experience of writing a book…this record, coming out I doubt I’ll ever have another experience in my life that is so dramatic and intense. It’s just been this incredible, dynamic journey for me. I’m thankful for it, but I’d never want to go through it again.”
It will be interesting to see what path Wright’s career will take in the wake of her coming out. One need only revisit the almost career-ending experience of the Dixie Chicks (for bad-mouthing George W. Bush) to understand the rallying power and intense conservatism of country music’s core audience. Being gay (or a political lefty) might fly in pop music, but not so much in country world, which still clings to traditionalism, patriotism, and religion as it’s grounding principles. Given her experiences in the country music industry—perhaps the most unaccepting and resolutely conservative musical universe—Wright has very realistic expectations for what may or may not happen next. “It would break my heart if I were to lose my career in country music because of being gay,” she says, “but I fully expect to. I had to finally come to realize that there was more to me than just country music. I had to figure out a way to become a fully-realized human being, or I wasn’t gonna last.”
One of Wright’s biggest anxieties about coming out is not only the reaction of gay people (“I think a lot of people don’t understand why I didn’t do this a long time ago” she says), but also the reaction of fans and fellow musicians who have so ardently supported her all of these years. “Country music fans will always say that they love you because you are honest,” says Wright, “They feel like they know you, like you are their friend and they can relate to you. People would often tell me that—I just feel like I know you—and it was like a knife in the heart, because I knew that there was this part of me that they didn’t know at all and I couldn’t share with them. And my love for my fans was mutual—it is mutual—but I agonized over it, knowing that if they really knew the truth about my personal life, they might not feel the same way. So…I know there are those people who might feel like I’ve tricked them in some way, that I was pretending to be something that I really wasn’t. But, you know, I am the girl in my songs. I’m still that same girl. I’m the same girl who plays military hospitals and supports the troops. All I ever wanted to do since I was nine years was sing country music and play at the Grand Ole Opry. I’m still that girl. “
Not only is Wright is also still getting her bearings in regards to what being an openly out entertainer will actually mean, but she’s still trying to picture what her life as a openly gay woman is going to feel like. “I’ve never asked a woman out on a date,” she laughs. “So, it’s a bit like being a teenager again or something. I have no idea what it’s going to be like.”
Despite the expected backlash and the still fraught relationship she has with certain family members, Wright says that the benefits of honesty—and the hope that her own admission might ultimately help others—is helping assuage the fear of what her new future might hold.
“I grew up feeling like there was no one else, no one that I could relate to,” says Wright. “I felt like there was no one else like me, which is why I called the book Like Me. Even though this process has been incredibly difficult, I’ve still enjoyed a very fortunate life. Even if my career in country music ends, I know I will be OK. But I think about that girl in a small town in Louisiana who is too afraid to come out because she knows she won’t be safe. I think about that 15 year old boy living somewhere in Kansas, feeling scared and alone. If a country singer that he knows comes out of the closet, maybe that makes him feel a little less alone. And what about his parents? Maybe his mom knows my songs, or maybe his dad saw me perform for the troops in Iraq. If my coming out of the closet makes them rethink their ideas about gay people, then I’ve done something good. After finally coming to terms with my own life, I just felt like it would be irresponsible for me not to be honest about it.”
If there is any justice in the world, Chely Wright will enjoy an even more fulfilling career now that she no longer has to hide her true identity. The songs on her new album are the best and most beautiful things she has ever written and her book very lovingly illuminates what is still a very painful and complicated process for many gay people. While there will certainly be those who are less than thrilled by her newfound honestly, one imagines that a new and unexpected fan base will hopefully open up for her.
“I’m still figuring out who I am as a gay woman, “ she says, “but I am so excited about finally finding a place where I belong. I’m excited about being part of the gay community. I’ve never really felt that before.”