Chely Wright: From Nashville Star To Outcast Activist
As a child growing up in a small town in Kansas, Chely Wright would say a daily prayer: "Dear God, please don't let me be gay."
Fiercely protecting the secret of her sexuality, she moved to Nashville to pursue a music career, and became a star. But the whole time, she lived in fear that the truth would destroy her career. She says the burden of her secret eventually led her to the brink of suicide.
A new documentary film, Wish Me Away, follows Wright's struggle to accept her sexuality, and her eventual decision to become the first country music star to publicly come out as gay. The announcement, on NBC's Today Show in 2010, dramatically changed her career. She says she was frozen out of much of the country-music business.
NPR's Neal Conan recently spoke with Wright about her journey, and how it transformed her career.
On the success of her hit song 'Single White Female,' in which she sings about looking for a man
"From the outside looking in, I was celebrating successes that people dream of, and I would have a moment of jubilation. And then that dark cloud would come over me, and I would realize that I was being suffocated by my lie. And, you know, I think it's really a human experience to have happiness and joy, but then to be troubled by something, to have something looming over you ... and that was my black cloud. That was my looming bad news, and there wasn't an hour in a day that went by for all of those years that it didn't kind of squeeze me."
On hitting 'rock bottom'
"Right when I got my first big record contract, I was 23 and fell in love with someone and ... it lasted 12 years, which would be ... throughout the zenith of my career. And [it was] pretty tricky to hide such an important part of myself, especially with the growing career that I had. The more success you have, especially in country music or in the celebrity world, when you have success, more and more people want to know about the entire you. You know, that's what fuels these magazines and entertainment shows on TV, and it's all part and parcel of celebrity. And ... I was in a hole, and I dug myself deeper with every bit of success that I got."
On how the country-music industry treats gay artists
"I can tell you, there is a lot of support and a lot of progressive people within the industry, but there's an institutionalized don't ask, don't tell... That was my experience.
"And, you know, I think seeing the fallout of my coming out after two years, still I'm not having those contemporaries of mine in country music stand up and say that they believe in equality for all. You know, I received quite a few beautiful emails privately that said, 'I'm proud of you, I love you.' But it's the public declaration that would move the chain forward for equality. And why they are not doing it? You know, we could guess, couldn't we?"
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Growing up in small town Kansas, Chely Wright dreamed of Nashville and success as a country music star. It all came true. In 1995, the Academy of Country Music named her the top new female vocalist. And a few years later, her song "Single White Female" hit number.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE WHITE FEMALE")
CHELY WRIGHT: (Singing) I'm just a single white female looking for that special lover. To put it in a nutshell, a one woman man who doesn't want no other. Oh, you never can tell. She just might be your dream come true. A single white female is looking for a man like you.
CONAN: All along, she kept a secret and continued to recite a prayer she'd said daily since she was a little girl.
(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "WISH ME AWAY")
WRIGHT: Dear God, please don't let me be gay. I promise to be a good person. I promise to do all the good things you asked me to do. Please take it away. In your name, I pray. Amen.
CONAN: That's an excerpt from a new documentary that follow Chely Wright's struggle to acknowledge sexuality and her decision to come out of the closet at the risk of her career. If you're a fan of Chely Wright, what's changed? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Chely Wright joins us from our bureau in New York. The documentary is called "Wish Me Away." Nice to have you on the program with us today.
WRIGHT: Great to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And you don't have to say that prayer anymore.
WRIGHT: I don't. I've retired that one.
CONAN: I wonder if there are mixed feelings when you hear a song like "Singe White Female," a great success, of course. You say in the film it was a great day for you when it hit number one, yet that's also, well, prominent part of the time when you were living a lie.
WRIGHT: Well, yeah. That was an issue. That was a problem in my life. From the outside looking in, I was celebrating successes that people dream of, and I would have a moment of jubilation. And then that dark cloud would come over me, and I would realize that I was being suffocated by my lie. And, you know, I think it's really a human experience to have happiness and joy, but then to be troubled by something, to have something looming over you that you realize, oh, you know, I've run my credit card bill up. You know, we all - I mean, I've got a book to read for a book report, you know, just what have you, and that was my black cloud. That was my looming bad news, and there wasn't an hour in a day that went by for all of those years that it didn't kind of squeeze me.
CONAN: And in a way, the film describes your career and your ambition as a - well, that's the way you sublimated that.
WRIGHT: I did. I cut a deal with God at age 10, which, by the way, that wouldn't be a legally pending contract now, would it?
CONAN: I don't think so.
WRIGHT: 10-year-olds shouldn't be making big spiritual and lifelong deals like that, but the deal I made was I will go without love and never act on being gay and give God time to take it away. And I'll love my music, and I'll pour my heart and my soul into my music. And then the older I got, you know, into my late teenage years, I had my first relationship with a woman when I was 19. And, you know, again, that - I ended that very quickly and recommitted myself to just music, music, just the career, just the music, and then I hit my rock bottom some 20 years later.
CONAN: Yeah. It's portrayed very movingly in the film, a decision to break off a relationship with someone you described as the love of your life.
WRIGHT: Yeah, that was a 12-year relationship that began at the beginning of my career, right - my big - my national career. And right when I got my first big record contract, I was 23 and fell in love with someone and that was - it lasted 12 years, which would be the, you know, throughout the zenith of my career and pretty tricky to hide such an important part of myself, especially with the growing career that I had. The more success you have, especially in country music or in the celebrity world, when you have success, more and more people want to know about the entire you. You know, that's what fuels these magazines and entertainment shows on TV, and it's all part and parcel of celebrity. And the more success I had, it was, you know, it was really - you know, I was in a hole, and I dug myself deeper with every bit of success that I got.
CONAN: Is Nashville homophobic and, of course, by that, I mean, the country music industry, not the city itself.
WRIGHT: Mm-hmm. It's a really fair question. You know, I can say this wholeheartedly about many people in Nashville, in the country music industry - and by the way, the industry is wide-ranging. It's, you know, our industry has a far reach from, you know, every country station that we have in the nation to all of the people who work in it. So it's not just a, you know, four streets on Nashville called Music Row, but I can tell you there is a lot of support and a lot of progressive people within the industry, but there's an institutionalized don't ask, don't tell. It's been - that was my experience.
And, you know, I think seeing the fallout of my coming out after two years, still I'm not having those contemporaries of mine in country music stand up and say that they believe in equality for all. You know, I received quite a few beautiful emails privately that said, I'm proud of you, I love you, you know, but it's the public declaration that would move the chain forward for equality. And why they are not doing it? You know, we could guess, couldn't we?
CONAN: Well, here's a clip from the movie. It's your former manager, Clarence Spalding, he's worked for you - with you up until 2004 - said, wait a minute. Our perceptions of this world are not what you might think.
(SOUNDBITE FROM DOCUMENTARY, "WISH ME AWAY")
CLARENCE SPALDING: You can put our format in this little, redneck box if you want to. You'd be way off the mark. You'd be so far off the mark, you know, that it would embarrass you. It wouldn't embarrass me. It'd embarrass you. This town, you know, has gay and lesbian people all over it working in the industry. They're out.
CONAN: But then he's asked, well, what about recording artists, the stars, and he didn't have a lot to say.
WRIGHT: Yep. There you have it. You know, I loved my time with Clarence. He was a great manager and the best one I ever had to date at that time. And we had a lot of success together, and the fact that I never told him that I was gay - he managed me for eight years - I never told him, and he never asked, and it was the elephant in the room. Just - it says a lot. It speaks volumes.
And as I mentioned before, there are many, many gays and lesbians who write songs and promote the records in RN radio, and he's not telling a lie there. It's true. And some of them are kind about. But my now being really out, I understand that even in Nashville a songwriter who might be gay is careful where they tell their truth, and it's not the best, most welcoming environment for anyone.
And then the filmmakers asked Clarence the question, well, if it's so open and not homophobic, then why is Chely the only artist who's out? And his response was, I don't know.
CONAN: We're talking with Chely Wright. The film is "Wish Me Away." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And by the way, you can watch a clip of that film at our website. Go to npr.org. And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, and let's go to - this is Robin(ph), and Robin's with us from Cincinnati.
ROBIN: Hi. Yeah. The only comment that I have, I've been married for 29 years, I love country music. I have a brother-in-law who's gay and the conversations that we have - country music, it's about relationships, and, you know, to the heart of relationships, and I don't think whether you're gay or straight affects that at all because you're writing about relationships. And there - we want to be loved, we want to be accepted, we don't want our hearts broken, and that really doesn't know whether you're gay or straight. That's just the reality of being human.
CONAN: Do you still, Robin, hear Chely Wright's music on the country stations?
ROBIN: I would have to say, probably, no, but I also happen to be more of an iTunes fan, so I tend to go and pick and download what I like and do that more than I do listening to radio stations.
CONAN: All right. Robin, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see. We get - we have a caller from Nashville. Shannon's(ph) on the line with us.
CONAN: Hi, Shannon. Go ahead.
SHANNON: Hi. This is Shannon. Chely, you're actually in a dog training class of mine.
WRIGHT: Oh, my gosh. Hi, Shannon. I'm sorry. I just went - by the way, Snowflake is still very poorly behaved.
SHANNON: Oh, I'm sorry. I - well, you know, it's the - why things go sometimes. You know, I met you through that venue, and I honestly didn't know who you were at that point. I mean, I knew who you were, but I didn't know who you were in that class. And I always enjoyed your music. I always thought that you are a phenomenal singer. And I've had experience in the music business myself. And I do think that the country music venue in Nashville is a bit on the conservative side. I think that if someone came out - say, if Chely came out with a song and it was about a couple, and it were to women. I think that they probably wouldn't play it on the radio. I don't have a problem with that at all.
That, you know, I think it's just a process of being true to yourself. And I would welcome a situation where country music would actually have people of the same gender come out and, you know, and have a song or two about, you know, women in relationships or men in relationships. I think it would turn country music upside down, and I think that that's probably a good thing.
WRIGHT: Well, hey, Shannon, let me ask you this, you know, my latest album, "Lifted Off the Ground," has only one song on it that - where it's clear that I was in a relationship with a woman. The rest are very, you know, first person - there aren't pronouns, and I purposely - that's what I - that's what just came out of me naturally so one could listen to it, a straight person could listen to it and not feel in any way that it wasn't a song that they could attach to. What do you think about that? Like, obviously, you know, I'm not inclined to write a bunch of I-love-her songs. I just write I-love-you songs. And so what do you think about me...
SHANNON: Yeah, that's...
WRIGHT: ...who was recording...
CONAN: Quickly, Shannon. We're running out of time.
WRIGHT: What would that be like?
SHANNON: I think it will be - I would think it would be great. I mean, either/or, I would really like to see, you know, be more pointed and come out and, you know, and have...
CONAN: Thanks, Shannon. I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. And, Chely Wright, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.