EDGE EXCLUSIVE: Country superstar Chely Wright speaks about coming out
Country music star Chely Wright is now an out lesbian - and her announcement, kept (mostly) hush-hush until earlier this week, has sent people on a tweeting and googling frenzy to find out more about her. Wright gave an exclusive, one-on-one interview to EDGE’s William Kapfer in New York on the eve of publicizing her big news, telling why she’s coming out now, how she thinks country music fans will handle the news, and if she would ever sing about liking a girl.
Of course, for those in the know, Wright’s decision to go public with her sexuality was actually made some time ago.
"[That] was made in the summer of 2007," Wright explains. "I felt like God had been on my shoulder whispering to me, saying, ’Stand up.’ The fear hushed those whispers. I found myself with a gun in my mouth. It was life or death."
Wright was born in Kansas City in 1970 to a family of four musical generations, and grew up in Wellsville, Kansas. She was vocalizing at age 11, and went to Branson, Mo., in her senior year of High School. It didn’t take long for the talented songstress to find work, and shortly after her stint in Branson, she moved to Nashville.
Wright released her first solo album in 1994, but it wasn’t until her fourth album, Single White Female found a hit: "Shut Up and Drive" shot to No. 1 in 1997.
A number of accolades have followed her subsequent popularity, including People Magazine’s "50 Most Beautiful People" in 2001 and a handful of awards for both her music and her personal support both of the U.S. armed forces and her work championing music education in schools across the country.
But the artist, struggling with her sexuality, says that despite her commercial success she just couldn’t bear with the silence - nor the emotional heartbreak that resulted from a lesbian relationship. Upon reflection of her life, she finally received a break from her pain during prayer; at that time she knew she had to go public with her sexuality.
"I found myself at rock bottom," she recounts of that period in her life. "I felt broken and couldn’t imagine how I was going to get the pieces of my life to fit together, to intersect. In the dark and lonely night, I could not muster up any hope. Then, after a series of weeks and months I found myself on my knees praying. I said, ’God, I’ve been doing it my way, now I’m going to do it your way.’"
As the first major country artist in history coming out publicly, however, a simple admission of her sexuality would not suffice for both a media-hungry world and an LGBT community that would, inevitably, clamor for her story. And now, just shy of turning 40 and having reflected on her journey thus far in both musical and written form, she’s willing to tell it.
"I remember, I was on my front porch with my producer Rodney Crowell," she says. "I’d called him back over to my house after a conversation I had with him earlier where he had admitted he betrayed me and gossiped about me. I told him ’I’m gay.’
"After our conversation that night about my being gay and coming out - what I like about Rodney is that he is like a girl, he likes to talk about things - he said he had one question of me. He asked me, ’How are you going to do it.’ I replied, ’Not sure, but I know that I will do it right.’ As he was leaving I told him I was going to be emailing him a song I had been holding back, ’Like Me,’ which would speak to the musical heart of all the other songs I wrote.
"I sat down and wrote the title page to my book, Like Me, that day."
The book - and her new album Lifted Off the Ground - have just been released, and via their unique forms of expression document Wright’s emotional progression through the last few years.
"I needed my story fully recorded, I needed my story of spirituality, I needed my story of patriotism, my relationship with God, my relationship with friends," she explains of the process of writing her story. "Hiding was a spiritual and emotional cancer. I am thankful to God for giving me the gift of language, the ability to know how to communicate. I thought I’d only be able to communicate in song, but as my sister Jenny said to me, ’The best communication you will ever be able to do will be this book.’"
For all of her well-respected confidence, however, Wright admits she cannot know how her fans will react to the news that she is a lesbian.
"I have spent my entire life imaging what my Country-Western fans will think about this," she admits. "I’m relieved of the duty of having to spend time worrying about what people will say."
In fact, since the story broke this past weekend, the social networking world has erupted with comments, both good and bad.
"My friend Chuck has been reading my Fan Page, Facebook and Twitter," she reports, "and I know from what he has shared. He said he can not get through reading all the positive comments without crying. There are some negative comments, but largely they are supportive.
"One Facebook comment that really touched me came from a guy who attended my high school in Kansas: ’Chely, never be afraid to be yourself. Life is too short for that, trust me it wasn’t easy being gay in Wellville. I graduated from Wellville High School back in 2007 and going down those halls was not easy ... Your coming out is not only an inspiration to me but to everyone!’"
She pauses to smile.
"You know, Kansas exists everywhere," she muses. "The industry has always rumored - whispered speculations, nudges and jokes over a beer - but no longer can anybody use the word ’lesbian’ to insult me. Oh sure, they can say I’m ugly, I have big feet, whatever. But no longer is ’lesbian’ a term of insult to me."
Moreover, she feels that despite the perceived conservative leanings of the Country-Western fans, she’s convinced that they will accept her for who she is - and in the process, that she can help break down barriers of intolerance.
"I believe I can change hearts and minds," she says firmly. "From what I’ve learned and what I think we all know, it’s easier to hate someone, to take away their rights if you don’t know them, and if they don’t have a face or name."
She points to her success with the American military as evidence of the power of music’s influence.
"The members of the military already know me," she says. "I did not go to the Middle East to entertain the troops post-911 to become a trendy patriot. Everyone in my family is patriotic. Everyone in my family stands up when the national anthem is played. My grandfather always took his hat off; he was a war vet, as was my brother. It is just part of who we are. I’ve been playing for troops since I was a kid.
"I recently got a message from one of the soldiers I played to while overseas. These guys don’t drink while they’re working, so I always made sure to say to them that when they get home, look me up at a show, come back stage, ask for my tour manager, and I will have one of my runners go get us some beer and we can sit on my bus and drink a six-pack.
"Unfortunately, many of them do not make it home. Well, this one soldier said that he had met me in the Green Zone in Iraq, and that he read about my coming out. He wrote, ’I am still proud to know you Chely, you are still my girl and you owe me a beer.’ I re-read that message several times. It just tears me up."
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