EDGE EXCLUSIVE: Country superstar Chely Wright speaks about coming out

by Dr. William Kapfer

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 5, 2010

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.

Coming Out

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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Her Career, Her Fans

In an age where many in the music business still believe the coming out process is tantamount to career suicide, Chely Wright is certainly prepared to prove the pundits wrong; but she's also aware that she has statistics on her side. She might be the first major country artist to step out of the closet, but she joins a group of out women musicians that significantly outnumber their male counterparts.

"I think that might be true because females predominantly buy the records," she suggests of the imbalance. "I would think that it might make some women not buy the records of a gay male artist if they thought they'd lost a chance to have sex with him. When Ricky Martin came out I am sure some women stopped buying his records because they thought they'd lost their chance to be with him. That's not the case with women.

"I had a reporter interview me recently, and he said, 'It's cool if you are a lesbian. That is a total fantasy for me.' I thought to myself, 'You have the same shot with me as you had when you thought I was straight: none.'"

She's also aware that as a new gay icon, she'll enjoy a whole new audience in gay men who might not have a country music core - but who are likely to cross over after Wright's self-outing.

"I think if people want to fantasize about me - gay, straight, men, women - think about me in some girl on girl action that's cool - it's all fantasy," she laughs. "The reason I put my clothes on in videos and get vamped up is not because I am trying to communicate that a fan may have a shot at being with me - male or female. It is show business. Performers are part of an image driven business, if we weren't we'd run around on stage in our sweat pants and t-shirts."

And if those outfits happen to catch the eye of a cute girl?

"I'm fully open to a healthy love in my life," she says. "It will be such a weird and amazing feeling for me, but I want that in my life. I don't want to spend my life alone. It's not like I've never been in a relationship. I had a partner for a very long time. I had the home, pets, garden, girlfriends. But the dating, being asked out, I've never experienced that dynamic of the dating world.

"It should be interesting. I've got so many good friends in the gay and lesbian community, I am sure I will meet some very great people. Rosie O' Donnell said she'd throw me a party and introduce me to some lesbian friends."

After her interview with O'Donnell this week, Wright has nothing but fond words for the iconic comedienne.

"You just feel like you know her," Wright says. "She read the book and loved it. She said it made her cry, it moved her. She showed me her craft 'house,' an entire house devoted to crafts; and we shared a candid, 'microphones and cameras off' visit."

She and O'Donnell also share a new commitment: to set a healthy example for today's LGBT youth. "I do absolutely feel I have responsibility, a responsibility I welcome, a responsibility I've been waiting for," she explains. "There was a time when I thought I was afraid of that responsibility, but that very responsibility was one impetus for doing this.

"Kids with guns in their hands, kids with medications, parents saying kids need to get out of their homes. That is one of the reasons I moved to NYC and started to get involved with great groups like GLAAD, GLSEN, and Faith in America. My schedule is already filled with events that include kids and public schools program. I will do my best to make sure that gay kids have safe homes and school environments. I don't want any kids bullied for any reason - gay, straight, transgender, short, tall or overweight. It will be a true gift in my life when I can watch one of the kids I'm working with who might feel different, stand up and say 'I'm like you - and you're like me, and that's OK.'"

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Courage, Hopes and Fears

"What if I was a 17-year-old girl and had to tell my fundamental Christian parents that I was gay?" Chely Wright questions. "I'd probably find myself on the streets of New York turning tricks for a hamburger."

Wright's not advocating a career choice; she's thanking God for her strength and her circumstances.

"The thing that fuels my courage is my faith," she says of the decision to come out after years of soul-searching. "I was giving myself way too much credit, and was in need of a huge dose of humility. I thought I was missing opportunities, thought I had control, thought I was running the show. When I got knocked down and realized I was not the boss of my world, a big dose of humility was a good thing for me.

"I had always done it my way, and it was finally time for me to say, 'Show me the way. Let's do it your way.' I am a strong person, I feel I know the power of truth. But I had to hit rock bottom. I've had a blessed life, I was a successful country music singer, and was able to get and do what I wanted, yet still found myself at rock bottom."

It may turn out that rock bottom was precisely where Wright needed to be; in a creative fury, she pumped out her new album and the autobiography.

"On this album there are no 'she loves he'," she remarks. "There are no 'hers and hims' - which I am very proud to say. That is why it was held back. In the song 'Like Me' on the new album, I'm very clearly talking about a female. I don't know if I will ever be singing, 'Girl I like your boobs,' but I'm also not going to go through life chasing my tail. And if anyone has a question, they can find the answers in my book.

"I feel like I wrote some great songs on this new album, and don't want to have to suffer that much again to continue to grow as artist. I hope that my new freedom will be as fulfilling as the freedom I've enjoyed over the last 24 hours. I don't feel like I am coming out as much as coming together. I feel my limbs attaching to my body. I hope to be a good steward of the gifts I've been given. For the first time in a while, I cannot think of any fears."

Currently, Wright is working on the creation of Tennessee's very first LGBT center - the "Tennessee Lighthouse." And for those who are interested in exploring Wright's long road to being out, a documentary called Wish me Away, based on Wright's video diary during the process, is en route. She's also understandably involved with recovery efforts in her hometown, parts of which remain underwater after a recent period of intense storms. And her non-profit organization, the Reading, Writing and Rhythm Foundation, will enjoy its 10th Annual fundraising concert on June 8th.

For all the frenetic activity, she's still made time to talk extensively about the pride she feels in "officially" joining the LGBT community.

"I am so excited to be a real member of the gay community," she says. "I have been secretly watching from the sidelines and always wanted to be an open part of it. I felt like I was on the bench, and now I feel like I am really involved. I hope that I am welcomed. I want to be welcomed. I know I will make mistakes, but my intentions are real and pure.

"I'm proud to be who I am, and know that it is who God intended me to be. I could not be happier."


On the web:

Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer

Lifted Off the Ground