'I just can't believe how good freedom feels' 

Coming out was the lost chord for country music's Chely Wright

Wish Me Away is not only the title of the documentary film about country singer Chely Wright, it's one of the highly personal songs she wrote for her Rodney Crowell-produced 2010 album, Lifted Off the Ground.

The album was timed to accompany Wright's announcement to the world that she was gay - the first platinum-selling country artist in history to do so.

At the same time, Wright published an autobiography, Like Me, and went on TV to talk to everyone from People magazine to Oprah Winfrey.

Since the film is screening this week at the Savannah Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, we called Chely (it's pronounced "Shelly") at her Nashville home to ask: What's happened in the meantime?

It's been a year and a half since you made your announcement. Looking back, did it happen the way you thought it would?

Chely Wright: In a large part, yes, and in some parts, no. Of course I had steeled myself for the experience to be talked about. My managers, everyone involved, we wanted it to be a notable, talk-worthy event. That's why I didn't just tweet "Hey, y'all, I'm gay." I wanted to create a forum for discussion. I had a feeling it would be newsworthy, simply because I'd lived through it and I knew it was a remarkable situation that a commercial country music artist would say that they are gay.

I just can't believe how good freedom feels. There's something really beautiful about when you're not experiencing freedom, your brain doesn't fully metabolize the prison of hiding. And that's a good thing. Although I was suffering, as many people who have a secret life do. But you never know how good freedom tastes until you have it. And now that I know how good it is, I don't think I could survive a day, a week, a month in hiding again. I just don't know how I survived it.

Was there a backlash from conservative Nashville? Did your record sales suffer?

Chely Wright: The caveat is that everyone has seen their record sales go down as the economy has tanked, and downloading continues to be an issue.

My record sales went to a third of what they had been. The venues that used to automatically book me every time I had a record out very candidly told my agents and managers "We are not sure if we can book her. We're just not sure if the butts will show up in the seats that we are accustomed to showing up for Chely Wright."

Did it shock me? No. Did it disappoint me? I hadn't pinned my hopes and dreams on the conservative right of country music fans of country music showing up for me.

You said "conservative Nashville." I wouldn't really agree with that label. I think what you're saying is Music Row. I will say this - although there are very progressive individuals in my industry, the industry at large is as a whole still very conservative. You've got a bunch of really mindful, creative LGBT folks that work in the industry, quite frankly. But the aggregate of them together still isn't enough to tip the scale over to something more progressive.

Obviously, there probably have been more gay artists in country music, but we hide that. We work very hard as an industry to make sure those rumors don't ever make it on the radio. It's a little secret that Nashville keeps. Why? Because we all want to stay in business. We all know who our consumer is, by and large, and we want to sell records.

I can't point too many fingers at the people who try to keep the gay secret in Nashville, because I tried to keep the gay secret in Nashville, too. I wanted to make a living and continue to make records - so there are elements of greed, shame, fear, there's a lot of stuff that causes the industry to be so slow to catch up.

Did your business associates at some point try to talk you out of coming out?

Chely Wright: I realized that there was no choice for me. All the team that I had at that time, I just let everybody go. And I started to build my new team with the understanding that that's what I was going to do. I searched for not just a "gay coming out" team, but a team that really believed in me as an artist, that also wouldn't flinch when I said "Oh, and by the way, I'm coming out." I built a team based on my new self. But that doesn't mean that we didn't all sit around and say "This is probably going to hurt your country music career." To some degree it did. But it's all right.

Is it frustrating to be an artist, a writer and musician, and know that your coming out is going to define you to some people?

Chely Wright: We were halfway through the record when I said "Holy crap! How am I going to go out and talk about this record, and these honest songs? And I going to make up a fake boyfriend that broke my heart from Buenos Aires?" I was really cracking myself open as a songwriter - I wrote the whole record myself, except for a song that Rodney and I wrote.

He and I had a lot of discussions about how "the story" would eclipse the record for a while. I had to be OK with that. The good thing about a record, it's forever. But had I not come out, there would have been no record. Had I not known that there was light at the end of the tunnel, I don't think I would've had the fortitude to still be here, quite frankly.

On Wikipedia, there's an asterisk that says "First gay country music artist." I like that better than "Took her life in 2006."

For information on the Savannah LGBT Film Festival, click here






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About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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