Chely Wright: Country Singer Comes Out and Comes Clean
BY T. Cole Rachel
May 02 2010 6:35 AM ET
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.”