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Chely Wright: Queer Country Pioneer Looks Back

By James Barker, Staff Writer

Photo by Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage

Ten years ago, after a string of commercially and critically successful albums, Chely Wright came out as gay. The impact of this courageous gesture cannot be overstated: Wright was the first established country star to come out, putting her career on the line to make it easier for those who followed.

Wright will be celebrating her 50th birthday this month, so I took this opportunity to talk with her via Zoom about her 30-year career. I wanted to ask her about how things for LGBTQ+ people within country music have changed since she came out, the importance of maintaining a relationship with her fans, and what to expect from her music in the future.

JB Looking back on your 30-year career, what are your biggest highlights? What are the things you are most proud of?

CW: I’m most proud of my relationship with the fans. You learn very early on in country music that intimate exchange, that long conversation with fans, that’s the thing that gets you where you want to go. They’re not only the facilitators of your career, but they’re also exactly the people you want to be talking to about telling stories that matter and they are the first ones to let you know if what you’re doing is resonating. Back in the day we used to get fan mail, like physical pen and paper fan mail, and I made it a practice early on to read every piece of fan mail I got and I remember holidays, like Christmas time, I’d still be going through boxes and boxes of fan mail that had piled up over the year because I wanted to understand, really connect. I think the fact that I had a strong connection with my fanbase, and they with me, that’s something I’m really, really proud of. Perhaps the crowning achievement of anything I’d ever done.

Then when I came out of the closet, that is my other big tent pole, celebration. I’m most proud of that. That has a lot to do with the fanbase too, because what I was trying to do was leverage that decades-long relationship I’d been having with them. I wanted to leverage that into just putting a new piece of information on the table, trying to change hearts and minds that way. And so, I think those two things, a close connection with my fans and then using that close connection to facilitate growth, understanding, education and comfort through coming out. I think those are my two shining achievements.

JB: You mentioned the conversation with your fans in relation to coming out. In your autobiography, [“Like Me,” 2010] you talked about country music’s storytelling and how people gravitate towards country artists because they’re real and authentic. Do you feel that coming out is part of your story that you can share with fans and they can relate to, through a kind of dialogue? Is that something you tried to encapsulate in your music?

CW: I think I gave it the best attempt I could in my closeted years. Being authentic is incredibly important in country music for me, my peers that preceded me and my peers, with whom I came up in the ranks and then the newer younger country artists that are making records today. I think that we all understand that authenticity is the cornerstone of country music. As best I could, while I was closeted, I feel like I did that, I feel like I told authentic stories. Storytelling through music was perhaps the only place where I didn’t feel like I was a fraud.

I felt like a fraud in like what we’re doing today. You and I are sitting down, having an interview. I always felt like a fraud in that I was continually on guard trying to figure out how do I hide my secret? How do I keep my secret? How do I answer these questions in meaningful ways without letting on to who I really am as a person? Who as a human who loves other humans, I just happened to love women. I always felt like a fraud in those terms, but when it came to the music and the song writing, recording and performing that was like my safe bubble where I felt like a truth teller. So now obviously being able to be completely authentic and as an out woman for 10 plus years, I feel like that missing puzzle piece that I dare not ever place down in the puzzle has now been securely snapped into place.

JB: That’s fantastic that you’ve been able to have that growth. The first album I heard of yours was 2010’s Lifted Off The Ground and so I’ve been discovering previous albums almost looking back from that point, and you mentioned how during your closeted years in the music, you were still able to be authentic. I was curious to ask: how do you look back on those previous albums and what’s it like singing them now?

CW: I can honestly say there’s not a single song in my catalog of anything I recorded, from the early 90s to now, there’s not a song that makes me kind of cringe, like, “Oh boy, was that a mess,” or that it doesn’t feel like it still fits me. But then on the other hand, there are songs that I think, “Wow, that was a coming out song if I’ve ever heard one”. I just didn’t know it. For instance, a song on the Single White Female album called “Picket Fences”.

Obviously ‘Picket Fences’ was my kind of exploration of how I was talking myself into why I would probably never come out. Why I probably didn’t want these traditional family kind of experiences that other people were having and when you think you can’t have something long enough, you start to tell yourself, “Well, I don’t want that. Who wants that?” And that was the question that “Picket Fences” was asking: “What’s so great about picket fences? / Painting them is such a mess / In a big backyard where kids can play and probably never get a moment’s rest / And setting the table for five at five only means more dishes to load / What’s so great about picket fences? / I guess I’ll never know.” And look at me now – I’ve got two kids: two seven-year-olds in the other room. You know, I have the picket fence and as it turns out, it’s what I always wanted.

JB: When I listen to “Picket Fences,” it reminds me of other 90s country songs, particularly by women, where country music’s expanding and is more outward looking, but there’s a sense of feeling constrained by the picket fences or those kind of conditions. But I suppose it’s a lot more nuanced for LGBTQ+ people.

CW: Yeah, I mean when I think about who told those stories in the 90s of how being a woman was so limiting. We were expected, women at large, I don’t count myself among that group at that time because I wasn’t locked into that marriage expectation for myself, because I never thought I was going to have it. But I’m thinking about who did it the best back then and I can’t help but think about Pam Tillis’ “Let That Pony Run.” About what it’s like to break out of those expectations, and there was an overlay of expectation and a template that women, not just artists, but women, any woman who was chasing her career, whether it be in banking or law or politics, she was seen as, “Wow, she made a choice of herself over her family.” And that was a much-maligned choice to make.

But when you were a person like me who was gay and thought she’d never have all of that, my sensibilities were to claw my way into that. I wanted that. But because I thought I would never get to have it, I pushed it away.

JB: How do you feel the culture within country music around LGBTQ+ artists has changed in the 10 years since you publicly came out?

CW: No matter what you’re talking about, everything has changed in 10 years, everything. And that’s because people are telling their stories, there are organizations that support diversity and inclusion. There are public people who are coming out, there are everyday people who are coming out and the aggregate of storytelling is that the needle has moved, and country music is part of that. It may not be moving at the pace and with the propulsion that I would like, but one thing’s for sure: we are not where we were 10 years ago. There were no real discussions about LGBTQ+ issues being had on morning shows on the radio, other than a joke, other than making fun or making a joke or getting a laugh at the expense of an LGBTQ+ person.

When I came out, it was my goal to initiate discussion about LGBTQ+ issues that wasn’t a punch line, and things are definitely different. And the needle has moved toward equality in the past 10-plus years. Obviously, we have a long way to go. Change happens slowly: a watched pot seldom boils, but 10 years later, you look at the pot and it’s there, it’s simmering. There are some bubbles happening and I’m excited to be one of the many bubbles.

JB: I suppose there’s been a wider cultural change that country music has been a part of. It’s potentially a bit slower than in other places, but that change is still very much there.

CW: You can’t undo that. The fact there is more inclination for artists to post “Happy Pride Day.” People weren’t doing that 10 years ago. Not everyone is doing it now, let’s be clear about that. There are some artists who don’t want to have the discussion about race or racial injustice equality, not just tolerance. I’ve long said: “I don’t want to be tolerated, one tolerates a toothache, one tolerates rush hour traffic, one tolerates a neighbor with a cluttered yard. I do not want to be tolerated. I want to be celebrated.” I’ve never really loved that term tolerance. Despite the fact that there are some artists and people in the industry who are not into Pride events or celebrating people like me, there are a significant number of marquee hitmakers right now who are willing during Pride month or coming out month to tweet or put an Instagram post up about LGBTQ+ issues, and that is huge progress.

JB: What impact do you think your coming out had, both on country music and your career?

CW: Well, without sounding self-serving or egotistical, I think my coming out was huge. It was with a full understanding and grasp of the history, in the present and the hopeful future of country music that I made the decision to come out and not just say, “Hey, you guys. I’m gay”, but to lead every conversation for the rest of my career if need be with: “I am a lesbian, who is also a country music singer”. I think it was a really important moment in the history of country music.

I knew there was a particular power in my gathering my fans together, if you will, and saying, “You’ve loved me. You’ve come to my shows, you’ve stood in lines to get my autograph, you bought my records, you’ve sung along with me on the radio. And I appreciate that. I want to now put this other fact on the table. I’m gay.” I was fully 100% a product of Nashville and no one, no artist who has ever been created by Nashville had ever put this information on the table in a public way. In stepping into the light and into my truth, I know it was a big moment, and maybe history will record it as such.

JB: Where would you say the barriers facing LGBTQ+ people in country music have come from? Often in discussions about country radio, it’s said that airplay reflects the attitudes of their audiences. People in the industry are generally quite liberal, but when you get out into regional radio, that is where the issues are. How do you see this issue?

CW: It’s very nuanced. Can I say that that country music is homophobic? I can until it proves me otherwise. I can also say that our nation is homophobic. I can also say that our world at large is homophobic. It doesn’t mean everyone’s homophobic. And when you think of who comprises the country music industry, there are so many liberal people that work on Music Row: publicists, songwriters, marketing people. Now I will tell you there are plenty of homophobic people in the industry, too. But, here’s the rub: we all know to whom we are packaging the product. We’re making records, trying to get them on radio and trying to sell them in Walmart in Ottawa Kansas, in Target in Fresno, California, and the people that live if you go anywhere 45 minutes to an hour outside of a major metropolitan area and you are in conservative America.

And in conservative America, the number one most consumed kind of music is country music. So for producers and people on Music Row, pulling the levers of who gets a shot at radio, they’re thinking it’s so expensive to put an artist out there and they can’t afford to put all of those resources into an artist to go out there with strikes against them. So why would they choose to break the norms? The answer to that, I say, is because they should. Because they have a responsibility. They have a moral responsibility. They have a human responsibility and they have the power to break some of those norms and I think they need to look themselves in the mirror and say, “You know what’s going to be said about me and what I did for progress and to make the world better and different?” And so I think some people in the industry are asking themselves that question now. And I think it’s bearing pretty exciting results.

JB: In terms of your latest music, I’ve noticed it’s gone more and more into the Americana space. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

CW: if you were to go back to my record Metropolitan Hotel in 2005, I made a really conscious decision then to set my sails toward Americana. I love that record, but it was kind of a half-assed attempt at Americana, because I really kind of committed myself to half of, maybe more than half, the tracks tried to thread that needle, but then you can tell where I got maybe a little scared and tried to satisfy some of my commercial fans by putting a couple of commercial sounding things on there too. But the records that followed after that were I feel fully Americana.

There’s a lot of really good, important music to be found on country radio. I want to be the first to say that. But for the most part there are parameters and guardrails that you have to observe when you’re trying to get on the radio and with Americana you don’t. It’s not even a consideration. You think about how do I put 12 songs on a record that takes someone somewhere. How do I create a soundscape that that helps you evoke emotions and something that’s transformative and a full tank of gas and a lot of open road.

JB: Do you think your future music will continue in this direction?

CW: I think the best plans for me is to not make plans as far as genre goes, although I have done that in the past. I think I can be in service of the music best if I write what I’m feeling. The songs kind of tell you where to go, really, if you listen to the narrative. My job really at that point is to get out of the way and deliver the best performance I can. Although I think I’m probably solidly in the Americana category, I honestly can’t say what the next music will be. I really don’t know. I just know I’m writing the songs.

JB: Is there anything that you’re working on at the moment that you’re in a place to talk about at all?

CW: I am. I’m working on a new book, I am working on new music, of course, and I am working on some advocacy initiatives that you know are important to me basically trying to help people tell their stories. Also we’ve recently released the 10th anniversary vinyl of Lifted Off The Ground, which is out now!

JB: As Country Queer is a publication aimed at elevating LGBTQ voices in country music, is there anything you would like to say to Country Queer readers in particular?

CW: I’m super duper proud to be country and queer and I am so glad that this publication exists to help elevate perspectives, voices, emerging artists and established artists who want to be in a space to talk about things like this. These aren’t always the most comfortable conversations when I have them with publications that aren’t so open and friendly, so this is just like all dessert. This is just like a big piece of chocolate cake. And James is the best – quote me on that. James is a great conversationalist. [Author: Chely Wright insisted I include this!]

JB: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

CW: Wherever you are, if you’re in a democracy, vote!

10th anniversary vinyl of Chely Wright’s Lifted Off The Ground is out now on all major streaming services.

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