Chely Wright Talks Emmylou, Rodney, and "I Am the Rain"
Country singer, guitarist, and songwriter Chely Wright’s coming out as a lesbian in May of 2010 not only liberated a woman from a secret she’d held since she was eight years old; it inflamed preexisting concerns within Music Row about promoting an openly gay artist. Wright was, after all, a patriotic Christian hailing from tiny Wellsville, Kansas. Hers was a squeaky clean, conservative image, unlike that of openly gay underground acts like Lavender Country in the 1970s or the more liberal-minded k.d. lang in the ‘90s.
At the time, fears that Wright had committed career suicide unfortunately made sense. In 2004, she was the anti-Dixie Chick in some listeners' minds, with her hit pro-military anthem “The Bumper of my SUV.” Then, less than six years later, it was Wright’s turn to have fans of a genre lauded for honest storytelling disown her for telling an honest story. Or so it seemed.
Despite the perceived and actual fallout from Wright’s big reveal, she turned to crowdfunding in 2014 to fund the creation and release of I Am the Rain, which she released this Sept. 9. The Kickstarter campaign for Wright’s first album since coming out of the closet earned $247,181, making it the highest grossing country music-related project in the site’s history. Whether I Am the Rain achieves any semblance of mainstream country acceptance or encourages Nashville peers to openly embrace changing times remains to be seen. What’s certain is that some of Wright’s crowdfunders either forgave her or weren’t mad to begin with, shattering negative assumptions she once held about segments of her fan base.
I chatted with Wright earlier this summer about her cathartic cowdfunding victory, the ever-shifting socio-political landscape’s effect on the country music industry, her dad’s iconic status among parents of LGBT children, following Emmylou Harris around at the grocery store, and her loudest and proudest ally, Rodney Crowell.
Robert Moore: You used Kickstarter to fund the new album. Was it comforting or validating for the campaign to be successful, considering the questions you’ve addressed over the years about how coming out has effected how you’re viewed by the country audience?
Chely Wright: I was so averse to the notion of crowdfunding. Over the past few years, I’ve seen people do it and thought, "That’s a cool, innovative thing for them to do, but I’d never use it." I did a lot of talking with my management and my team, and it just seemed like something that would make sense, given the ever-changing business model of the music business. There were moments when I thought it’d just be humiliating if we don’t reach our goal.
Going into it, my thinking was that a big win would be to get funded, to get to the mark. It ended up being more of an existential experience for me in that I was hearing from fans that had been with me the whole time, 20 plus years. I was hearing from fans that said, "I saw you in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003 and can’t wait for this record." I guess I kind of had it in my head that I’d lost more of my fan base than I had. Now it was noticeable to me which diehard fans of mine didn’t show up and have kind of gone silent and gone missing since I came out. That’s okay, because I kind of knew going into my coming out experience that that was a likelihood, but being funded on Kickstarter was secondary to the emotional high bar that was reset for me. It was exactly what I needed, and I didn’t know I needed that.
Do you think maybe some fans have come around since 2010 and got used to ideas that are maybe opposite how they were raised?
I came out in 2010 and it’s 2016 now. It’s no doubt incredible strides have been made amongst people who didn’t know they ever knew or loved a gay person. Part of that growth and part of that moving of the needle has to do with people they admire, love, and care about coming out to them and saying, "This is my story, too." "You know Ellen DeGeneres? I’m like she is." "You know Rosie O’Donnell? I’m like she is." I’m hoping somebody might say, "You know that country singer Chely Wright? I’m like her." God knows we’ve got a long way to go, but goodness, look where we’ve been.
Your faith is a big part of your story. It seems like on one hand, what you’d heard in church as a child caused some doubt and guilt. On the other hand, your beliefs have given you a lot of inner strength. Did you ever waiver? Were you ever rebellious against your upbringing because of your own struggles, or have you remained steadfast?
That’s a really good question because a lot of people who find themselves in a situation like mine become anti-faith because they feel like faith and religion is what shoved them deeper in the closet and made them feel bad about themselves. Honestly, I never felt comfortable pushing my faith practice away from me.
I know people believe in a lot of different things. Some people worship the wind or the moon or worship God by a different name. To me, it’s all the same. If people believe we have a creator that is not earthly, we are reading off of the same page.
But I never felt comfortable pushing my faith practice away, and I have to say the moment I knew I had to come out it was because I was acquiescing to what God had been whispering to me for a long, long time. I believe that if my maker had His or Her way, I would have come out long before I did. It was my faith that actually led me to coming out.
One of my favorite things about the movie (2012’s Wish Me Away) was your dad. That’s definitely a message of love there. He’s the relative that maybe doesn’t understand you being gay, but he accepts it anyway.
That’s part of why I wanted my story out there. I thought I was uniquely positioned, having had a successful career in country music, a lot of people who knew my name would hear this story and it might cause them to scratch their heads a bit.
I’ve got to tell you, I run into people in airports who say, "Will you give your dad a hug for me?" It comes from LGBT people, and it comes from parents of LGBT kids who say, "It took seeing your dad to see myself." If Stan Wright, a redneck from Missouri, can turn on a dime the minute he finds out his child is something other than what he thought she was, it’s pretty powerful. You saw my dad made Oprah Winfrey cry, and that’s not an easy thing to do. My dad told me, "You didn’t say you killed somebody. You said you love somebody. You have a different capacity for love than I thought you had, but how in the world could that ever be a bad thing?" So I think my dad has done more good for families than you could ever imagine.
"Kacey [Musgraves] has proven to be the anti-jerk. She’s talking it and walking it." - Chely Wright
With society changing, have you talked to more people within the country music business in recent years and found them to be supportive, or are you still on the outside looking in?
It took a while for my colleagues in country music, not just artists but producers and label people, to even reach out or text, email, or Facebook message me and say, "I’m proud of what you did" or "I hate to hear that you struggled at all." But I would say that all of those I’ve heard from, maybe one one-hundredth of them have spoken up publicly.
We need to get to that spot where straight allies are comfortable coming out as straight allies. I’m not jumping up and down screaming about it, but whenever I get the chance, I encourage my colleagues to use their voice. A lot of them have said they don’t know what flak they might get. They don’t want to get picked on or have someone think they’re gay. They’ve got to think about how those hesitations must make a gay person feel about coming out. I know it’s hard, but I think we’re making slow progress.
There’s newer performers like Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson with more of a progressive, cosmopolitan image than some of the stars you came up with. Do you know some of these upstarts, and do you find them to be pretty open-minded?
I’m a fan of Sturgill. I don’t know him personally, but when his record came out I was blown away. I really love what he’s doing. I love his band, and I love his drummer especially. His drummer reminds me of Don Rich, who used to sing background vocals for Buck Owens. That’s how tight those harmonies are. But I digress. Culturally, he’s not mainstream country. He’s not being played on country radio.
As far as Kacey goes, she’s on a major Nashville label, but I think she came out the gate and made sure everyone knew she’s not your everyday Music Row artist. She advocates marijuana and gays. I look at what her platform is, and she really comes by it honestly. One of her producers is gay, and a couple people she writes songs with are gay. If you can sit in a room and make a record with a LGBT person and go out there and not even speak of it, I think you’re a huge jerk. Kacey has proven to be the anti-jerk. She’s talking it and walking it.
It’d be cowardly, too, to work with gay people and not be an advocate.
Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the number of country singers who have knowingly recorded songs written by gay people, have gay people that work with them, have a gay publicist or record promotions guy or girl, and a gay person in their management office, yet they don’t say a word. That’s bad news. That person is low on the list of people I admire. There’s many of them. You can do a little digging and find scores of them who knowingly reap the benefits of gays and lesbians. Some of them even say things contrary to advocacy and equality. Country music seems to be the last bastion where it’s just okay to say nothing and it’s okay to say negative things.
Do you think it’s because of that fear that middle America will shun you, make fun of you, or whatever?
It’s because the labels know what we’re packaging up and sending not just to middle America, but to the coasts as well. You go 45 minutes outside of a major metropolitan area, and you’re in red country. It’s coast to coast. It’s not just the Bible Belt or Kansas and Missouri. It’s America. Even liberal-thinking Music Row people are hesitant to sign an openly gay mainstream country artist. They know what they can and can’t package, and it’s a business.
"I didn’t feel not truthful. ... You don’t have to live every song you write. I’m pretty sure Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." - Chely Wright
What do you think can change things? Maybe a gay person having a huge hit that resonates with a very broad audience?
It’s hard to have a hit if you don’t get signed.
Even with the internet?
It’s hard to have a commercial country radio hit without a major label or a really strong indie. So you ask what can change that? My coming out in 2010. Ty Herndon coming out in 2014. At some point, a major act who is currently making hit records is going to come out or be outed. That will not be a comfortable situation if they get outed, but that will move the needle for sure.
Honesty is valued by country music fans. With this being the first album you’ve written since coming out, is there an added honesty to your lyrics?
It’d sound really cool if I could say that were true, but I don’t feel different as a writer in that regard. When I was writing while I was in the closet, it was one of the only times that I felt I wasn’t betraying who I was. The job of the songwriter or the singer of songs is to tell a story that’s compelling and do something evocative that evokes sadness, anger, lust, or whatever it might be.
I never felt like I was betraying who I was, even if I was writing a song about, "Single white female, looking for a man like you." In my mind, I was always thinking about my girlfriend. I didn’t feel not truthful. I’ve said before that you don’t have to live every song you write. I’m pretty sure Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of the character in the song. I don’t think my writing has changed at all. The only thing would be there had to be something subconscious I was doing while writing because my goal in life was to stay concealed. Now the only difference is I don’t have to play the pronoun game onstage and say, "I wrote this song about someone I care about." I can say, "I wrote this song about my wife."
You sing a duet on the album with Emmylou Harris. Does her involvement stem from your friend Rodney Crowell working with her?
It does not. I love Emmylou Harris. Who doesn’t? All us songwriters want to be a little Dolly Parton, a little Loretta Lynn, and a little Emmylou. So we made the record, and we didn’t talk about any background vocals or featured parts. We ended up having the Milk Carton Kids, Rodney, and Emmy. There’s a song called "Pain," and Joe Henry the producer called me after listening to the mixes to say how happy he was with it. He thought we should bring in someone special, and ultimately he ended up contacting Emmy and sent her the record. She agreed to appear on the song. As a kid who grew up listening to Emmylou Harris records, reading the liner notes, and staring at her LPs, it’s one of those moments where you just say, ‘I never could have imagined.’ Hearing her voice singing words that I wrote, and knowing that she wanted to match the despair in my voice and my lyrics. Just that Emmylou Harris spoke my name makes me want to fly.
Had you met her before?
Sure, I’d met Emmy before. We’ve done the Opry before together and a few industry events. The first time I met Emmylou Harris was in 1989. I’d just gotten off my shift at Opryland late at night, and I needed to get some groceries. There was a Kroger in Green Hills that was open 24 hours, and I saw Emmylou Harris there. I started following her, 15 feet behind her, aisle by aisle. I wasn’t trying to confirm it was her because I knew it was her. Suddenly, she turned around, smiled, and said, "Yes, it’s me." I just said, "Hi, how are you?" She said, "I’m fine. How are you?"
Nashville is a funny place to be if you’re famous, and in my mind she was as famous as they get. Over 25 years ago I followed this woman around the grocery store, and now she’s sung on my record. That’s pretty wild.
In your biography (2010’s Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer), Rodney Crowell comes across as a great friend and ally.
I’ll tell you this. Had it not been for Rodney Crowell and his incredible sense of honor, I would not have come out of the closet. I don’t think I’d be alive, and this is not hyperbole. His was the first hand extended to me that made me feel safe and more than okay. He made me feel incredibly celebrated as a woman, a songwriter, a singer, and a friend.