Integral. Beautiful. Authentic. Charming. These are the words that populate my mind when I think about meeting singer/songwriter/activist Chely Wright during Newfest this year in New York City. Chely Wright’s career was no stranger to me, even before she became the first openly gay country music superstar: I spent my childhood listening to various genres of music, including country, and I still vividly remember her music videos being shown on TNN and CMT, and can still sing the words to one of her biggest hits, “Single White Female.” I read her book, Like Me, on my Amazon Kindle from flights from North Carolina to New York City before I moved here, and felt invested in her powerful and intimate story because I could understand where she was coming from with similar roots.
It was truly a pleasure to sit down with Chely in an in-depth interview recently to discuss her career, her latest album, Lifted Off The Ground, her book, her faith, her latest and intimate documentary Wish Me Away, her activism and what hopes she has in the future.
Bambi Weavil: How long did it take you to write the book? I read it when it first came out. Just to give you a little about my background, I grew up listening to country music; I grew up in North Carolina. It was my own decision, I was coming out in my teens, and country music got me through a lot of that stuff. So how long was the process of writing that and recording your album?
Chely Wright (Facebook, Twitter): The timeline of the project is: I had my breakdown which you read about in my book, my emotional breakdown where I hit rock bottom, it started first day of 2006 and I began writing those songs with no notion that I would be coming out. Those songs began coming to me and in the summer of 2007 is when Rodney Crowell and I started making the record, so all of the songs except for Heavenly Days were written and we began making the record. During the making of the record was when I realized I had to come out. That’s when I put pen to paper (actually typing on my Macbook) and decided to come out. In doing that, I decided to write a book, and that was the summer of 2007. So I began writing those songs. A lot of people think that I wrote these songs after I decided to come out, that they are my coming out songs, they’re very much not. Those songs were written prior to my understanding that I would be coming out. Starting in 2007, I wrote about 100 pages before moving to New York City in summer of 2008, and then Random House bought the book in April 2009, and I turned the book in January of 2010, it came out in May of 2010. So I worked on the book for several years and I thought in the first 50, 100 pages, ‘Surely I’ll get the thing going and someone will assign me a ghostwriter’ because most books written by celebrities or known people are written really by ghostwriters, no one really writes their own book. Quite frankly, I am a writer –a songwriter, and I do enjoy editorial writing, but I really did not want to write this book myself. Part of that was because I wanted to remain detached from the emotional toll it would take on me, and it did take an emotional toll, it was very difficult to write this book. That being said, I’m really glad my editor and publisher, and managers really implored me to write the book myself, because it became (the narrative) something better than I ever imagined it would be, deeper and more profound, and quite frankly, I think it changed me, that I wrote it myself.
BW: How did the film, Wish Me Away come into play, when were you approached to do a documentary?
CW: It’s really interesting, I think, how it came to be. I was still living in Nashville, and I had been out in L.A. talking to the head of my record label, Kevin Welk who owns Vanguard Records, and we were talking about how we would eventually launch this record. He said ‘There’s a guy in NY named Craig Karpel who owns The Karpel Group. Why don’t you get on a plane, and go talk to him about ways we can do this, he’s very well versed in marketing to the LGBT community.’ I said, OK. So I got on a plane and sat down with Craig, and we were having a private, non-disclosed discussion about what we were going to be doing. We ended up not working together on the record; on his wall he had a poster from a documentary film named Be Real which I had seen on the LOGO Network that I used to get in Nashville. The Be Real documentary was about coming out stories of real-life people. I’d seen it a couple of years prior to this meeting, it had really inspired me and also devastated me. As I watched that film, it let me know that I would never have that, the freedom the people in that film had. I pointed at it, and told him I had watched the film, that it was brilliant. He said he knew the filmmakers, asked me if I wanted to meet them. Then he asked if I’d been documenting with any type of video my process of coming out, how I felt about it. I said it was funny, I had been doing video diaries since I’d been writing my book for the past eight or nine months. He said ‘You should meet with these TVGals, that’s the production company, “The TVGals” I said “ok, maybe I will,” so he gave me their email and I emailed them a few times. I couldn’t say in the email why I wanted to meet them, it was all so secret. I kept e-mailing them and they would write back quickly, but they didn’t know what I wanted, and I couldn’t say. So I finally offered to buy them dinner the next time they were in town, and they said ‘Sure.” So we finally got together and we sat down and they said, “You’re a country singer, you’re amazing and great.” And then I said, “I’m coming out”, and their jaws dropped to the table. We spent the whole evening talking and they said, “You have video diaries.. this is the film. This isn’t just you need to catalog your video diaries, this is a film.” From that day forward they began following me with their own film crew then it grew bigger and the relationship grew, the trust built, it was an amazing experience.
BW: I saw the film, and I thought it did a great job of being all access to you of course, and the book, your record and the process of going through the media storm. I know you’re winning awards on the road with it. Anything surprising you about the reaction you’re getting from people?
CW: Yeah, to some degree, yes. When you’re this close to a project, it’s familiar to me in that I make records for a living, and I know what it’s like to be terribly close to a project, and have to step back to gain objectivity. I’m no stranger to that, I know what it feels like, and it does take some time to get away from a project, and put it out there in the world; then you can finally get feedback. This has been a little different for me because I didn’t see the film in its making; I didn’t see any of the footage, I didn’t even see my video diaries once I made them. I never watched them, I would just make them and send them to the TVGals. So, it’s not my film, I never had any editorial control over it, they never asked my opinion over what the arc of the narrative should be. But, I will tell you that in telling the story through the media experience I had, taking my story public and writing my book, and now taking this film out there, the surprise has been – and it’s a beautiful surprise – that people who see the film are taken aback like, ‘Holy Cow, I came here not knowing a thing about country music and leaving realizing the story is not really about a country music artist coming out, it’s my story too’ is what people tend to say. That’s been the coolest thing, that it’s really our collective story, and I’ll go you one better; even straight people who see it find something in it that resonates with them. I implore people to think about that one secret, that one little tidbit that seems to make them feel different in their life. Whether it be you’re now working on Wall Street, but you grew up a little poorer than your contemporaries in your life, or you grew up a little more rural than your friends think you did, or you grew up in a divorced home where all your friends and peers didn’t. Just that one little nugget that you don’t tell everybody about, that one thing that maligns you. It’s that, when you finally feel like you can stand up and say your entire truth and the freedom, the deliberation that brings and delivers, the health that it brings, that’s what the film seems to be about. I take such joy in watching these crowds find me in the lobby afterwards and say ‘I feel so good after seeing this film, I’m so much like you and I didn’t even know it’, that’s the coolest part, and the biggest surprise.
BW: I think it’s true, I was listening as you were meeting other fans in the lobby and I was touched by the interactions. I thought that was rare; I don’t think the audience gets an opportunity to connect like that. I thought it was really special when I saw it here in New York. I know you’re often asked about the result of your coming out, what it’s cost you in terms of album sales, tickets and audience. I want to ask it in a different way. What opportunities has it given you since you’ve come out?
CW: That’s great that you’d ask that, because that’s kind of my style, to focus on the positive. The opportunity it’s given me is; first of all, I get to breathe deeper. I’m breathing freedom’s air right now, and it feels good in my lungs. I can’t discount that; I can’t sing its praises enough. I get to be a cultural head-scratcher, and I love that. I don’t know if you know who the Reverend Peter Gomes was, he recently passed. He was a scholar at Harvard, a gay man who was a clergyman, and recently was a part of a PBS documentary that I was also a part of called Out in America. He said the greatest thing. He said when he came out; I think he was in his late 50s, early 60s when he passed; he came out in a generational time when people really argued about Christianity and gay people, like they still argue right now. People spat in his face, and said he can’t be gay and Christian. I love his response. He said, very peacefully, “I offer my life as evidence to the contrary.” I loved that, and I get to be that too. When people say you cannot be a country singer who is a Christian and a lesbian, well, I get to offer my life as evidence to the contrary. I am that, and many country fans have been applauding me and standing in my autograph line, buying my records and saying I’m a heck of a gal for years. I love that the opportunity is now fully at my grasp and that I have been a role model for young people for years. That’s a great opportunity in the palm of my hand, and I cherish it.
BW: I agree. Knowing you from the country music industry perspective, are you able to attend Fan Fest, are you still invited to do those kind of things in Nashville?
CW: I’ve not received one single invitation from the country music world, not one single invitation from the country music establishment.
BW: Do you think it’s ever going to change, Nashville, it’s very conservative, “traditional,” not telling you anything you don’t already know. Do you see this as ever changing?
CW: I know that change is slow, but change is also inevitable. The watched pot never boils, does it? I know that if you light a flame under a pot of water, it’s going to boil. I have struck a flame under a pot of water, it’s going to boil, it will happen. I’ve started the ball rolling; there will never, ever again have to be the first commercial country artist to acknowledge being gay. Change has begun.
BW: You did take down that wall.
CW: Of course it will change. There have been people in my community, and I’m not necessarily suggesting other artists, other people in my community; songwriters, radio jocks, promotional people. The country music world is not just the South. Remember, the country music world is Portland, Maine, Portland Oregon, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Schenectady, Miami; we have major reporting country stations coast to coast, country fans that buy a lot of records, and go to a lot of shows in every state of the Union. So it’s not just in the South. People really want to have it in their head that it’s just in the South, but it’s not. It’s coast to coast. I have received communications from so many people in my industry that have reached out and said ‘Thank you for doing that, my son is gay.’ I recently received communication from someone who said ‘My son is Trans, thank you’. This is a big, big deal, and the dialogue has begun. Of course it will change. It may be ten years before another artist comes out, I don’t know, but sure as the world; the ball has begun to roll.
BW: Absolutely, you’re right. Country music is accepted everywhere; it is the heartland music, that’s what makes your story so compelling. I think that’s why nationally everyone took to it as strongly as they did.
CW: People have been very, very critical; I try not to read much about myself. A rule of thumb in show business, I learned it from way back: Don’t ever read press about yourself because you’re never as good as they say you are, and never as bad as they say you are. I’ve read a lot of very critical things about me, people have said ‘it doesn’t matter’; ‘she wasn’t big enough for this to matter,’ ‘she’s not an important enough star’. I’ll tell you what, it was a big enough story to matter, and I can tell you why it mattered. I know it did, because people talked about it. At one time, I was a very beloved part of country music’s landscape, and I still show up places where fans line up and they say they learned about country music by listening to me. There are still people that say I was the first person they heard about in country music. Country music is special. Once you have a country music fan, you’ve got them for life, and that’s what it’s about. Country music produces just a very few superstars, but it’s a special, very loyal fan base, and I’m one of the one’s that moved to Nashville that was lucky enough to get a record deal, to have a few hit records, and I consider myself lucky to still be around. It’s a special town, and people who ask if I hate Nashville – I don’t hate Nashville. It almost broke my heart, but it also made my dreams come true, and I will always be Chely Wright, country singer. It’s who I am.
BW: You’ve always supported the Military, and I read that your brother is still in the Military. What’s the reaction since you came out in terms of Military men and women you’ve performed for in the past. Do you think you’ll be invited to perform again for other USO type tours?
CW: I’ll tell you a couple of statistics just for context, because I think it’s important to note. Not to brag, just for context. I began touring for the Military in the mid-90s at the beginning of my career, going overseas to parts of Europe, Japan, different parts of Asia, and when the action in the Middle East began, I was actually the first artist to go play in Iraq in 2003. The first artist of any genre to play in Iraq and Afghanistan after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and I’m really proud of that fact. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan six or seven times, but since my coming out, I have not been invited back.
BW: That’s heartbreaking.
CW: It is. I’ve done hundred of shows overseas for the troops, and I would venture to guess in country music, nobody has done more shows for the troops than me, and I have not been invited back.
BW: Does the military, since they’ve left or returned home since serving overseas see you since you came out, and given you any kind of support?
CW: Yes, a lot of folks have come out. Now remember, we have a lot of folks who served in silence, LGBT folks, and a lot of straight service members who still support me, come out to my shows and said “I saw you in Iraq three times. I’m a straight guy, and this is my wife, we just wanted to say we still love and appreciate you and wish you’d come back overseas to see us.” If the guys and gals who have the boots on the ground or in the air overseas were asked, I think they’d have me back. It’s the old school mentality of the upper brass I think that are held back by the old ideology, that’s my belief.
BW: I think so too. Another important aspect of your coming out is how important it is for you to give back. Especially how giving back in a way is helping gay youth, adults as well obviously, they will be coming out in their own time and their own ways, what is rewarding for you from working with organizations such as GLSEN?
CW: That’s the nuts and bolts of why I came out. First and foremost, I came out for me, because I can’t be a whole and healthy person if I don’t take care of myself first. I knew I was at that rock bottom that you hear about. People in their life, not everybody hits their rock bottom, but some people do and I hit mine, and it was do or die. But running a close second to my reason for coming out was young people. Pardon my French, but I just was going to be damned if I let another young person suffer. With me knowing that I had an opportunity, a built in public capital, I had an opportunity to make the road a little less bumpy for somebody. It became like that Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror.” It became that moment where you look yourself in the mirror and say “Who am I and what am I doing for my fellow man?” I couldn’t stand what I was not doing anymore. Knowing that I had a chance to stand up for young people, to not only comfort them, but also tell their story for them if I could, the best I could, to their parents. And many of their parents liked me already. Many of them would take comfort in knowing that a well-adjusted, healthy adult was telling them their kid was OK, they are going to be OK. Just because your kid is saying that they are gay doesn’t mean they are going to get tattoos all over their body, pierce every part of their body and be a drug addict. Being gay doesn’t mean they are going to be a screw-up, it doesn’t mean they are confused or will be a problem child. Being gay, they can be OK. I knew that I had that opportunity, and that I needed to do that and my work with GLSEN. I approached Eliza Byard prior to my coming out on the down low and said ‘this was what I was about to do, and I need your help.’ We had long discussions about how I could best hit the ground running as an effective advocate for young people. In turn, Eliza and I have become very good friends, and very good teammates in advocacy for young people, it’s a relationship I cherish with GLSEN.
CW: I can. I’d also like to mention I am a board member of Faith in America. It’s a non-profit that goes to the heart of all of what this condemnation of gay people is about. It’s basically faith based bigotry. This hatred leveled against people like us is basically all in the name of God, and it’s bigotry being emboldened in the name of God, and I have no doubt that I am exactly as God made me to be. They don’t own God, God is for all of us. So, I really love my work with them, I’m proud of them as well. Like Me is an organization I was able to start last Fall, among other things, our big project is opening an LGBT center in my home town of Kansas City in the Spring of 2012, it’s called the Like Me Lighthouse.
BW: That’s great; I’ll need to check that out more thoroughly.
CW: it’s a big town, and they don’t have a center. They have online sites, virtual sites, but no brick and mortar center where people can go for resources, references, library materials, and just fun. So we’re excited about that!
BW: I think that’s important. I’m from Wilmington, NC and we had a gay community center for a few years, it became a virtual. Their are gay youth groups in high school now. I wasn’t out in high school so I don’t even know if there was a Pride group. So I think it’s great they have that option now. I’m in NYC; we’re spoiled a little bit because we’re lucky to have a gay center here.
CW: And New York’s is great, my friend Glinda is the executive director, she’s helping us kind of with the Like Me Lighthouse, kind of building the template. And the more you look into what we have in NYC, she’s like ‘This is just a gem here, if people here really knew how lucky we were to have this.’ It’s a god-send, a life saver. Lives are said every day at the LGBT Center in NYC, it’s incredible.
BW: Hopefully with all the non-profits we are working with, we can continue to inspire and help gay youth. Besides your advocacy work, what are you working on? Are you getting back into recording any time soon?
CW: Yes. I’m actually going to getting into the studio this Fall and cut a couple of tracks for a couple of special projects. I’m writing this Fall, and hopefully will get in late this Fall for a new studio album. I think I’m going to do two albums next year. I want to do a holiday record, and a studio record. 2012 should be a fun, exciting, busy year.
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Our heartfelt congrats and love go to Chely and her partner, Lauren, on their wedding that just took place this weekend, August 20th, 2011! We encourage you to keep up with Chely through her Twitter, Facebook and her website, and to support her music, her activism, her book, and her documentary. The best is yet to come, and we look forward to continue to share Chely’s work and career with you.