Chely Wright Reflects on Coming Out As a Country Singer & the Ups and Downs of 'Gang Mentality'

Chely Wright
Courtesy Photo

Chely Wright

“I actually decided to come out of the closet in 2007,” country singer Chely Wright, who is now married to wife Lauren and has two children, tells Billboard. “It took me three years to get everything together the way that I wanted it. I did start to imagine that I could have a full, balanced, and normal life. Had you told me in 2006 where I would be in 2016, I would not have believed you, but I did have plans to have the life that I wanted to.”

Wright, who just released I Am The Rain, her first album since 2010, says that her love of music was always authentic, even while she was trying to keep her sexuality a secret.

“I feel like the only way, the singular way that I was authentic was in the music, and talking about the music. I never felt as if I was being a phony when it came to the actual work of recording. When I hear those records now, it’s still 100 percent me. It conjures up nothing squeamish or anything like that” she says, admitting “if I look at old interviews on TV or in print, I can see how hard I was working at keeping the façade going. But, the music to me is still a really pure reflection of what I wanted to say artistically.”

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Fans of her longtime work will no doubt identify with the open-hearted honesty of tracks such as “Where Will You Be,” “Blood and Bones and Skin,” and the emotionally raw “Pain,” which features harmonies from Emmylou Harris. Trying to affect her fans in the heart is something that Wright continues to take a lot of pride in.

“I look at all of the records I’ve made – this is my eighth studio record, and sometimes people will ask what my favorites are. Of course, you gravitate toward your hits, but I tend to go back to things like 'Before You Lie' and 'Emma Jean’s Guitar' -- they are meant to tear your heart out. If I can’t continue to try to do that as an artist, then quite frankly, I don’t know who I am. This album certainly has some higher emotional moments than my last record, but I tried to go there again.”

Having one of her idols along on the track was a surreal moment. “When Emmylou sang on it, and she rendered such a heartbreaking vocal, she said ‘I just wanted to get where you got, and do what you were doing.’ That floored me on so many levels – not the least of which that Emmylou sang words that I authored. That just kills me!”

For I Am The Rain, Wright worked with Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry, a collaboration that was suggested by longtime friend Rodney Crowell.

“I was starting to think about cutting a new record, and we were doing a show in Florida. It was early in 2015, and I played him some of the new stuff I’d been writing. He said ‘You should talk to Joe Henry.’ I was very aware of who he was and his work, but honestly, the idea of working with him scared me. He makes records in a way that you have to get it right live – you don’t get a chance to go back in and fix your vocals. I told Rodney that maybe I would. Then, a little later, we got together in New York, and got together to lunch. He asked me if I had called Joe, and I told him I didn’t. He asked me why, and I told him it scared me. He said ‘That’s why you need to call Joe.’ So, he called him, and he leaves him a voicemail saying ‘Joe Henry. I’m sitting here with Miss Chely Wright, and here’s her number and email. I’ll give her your information. You two need to talk. That’s how it happened, and it just went from there.”

She admitted that working with Henry – whose credits include Solomon Burke, John Doe, and the late Allen Toussaint – was everything she thought it would be.  “Yes, the fear was justified. But, it was also a good thing for me. It made me do a lot of emotional work before the first session ever began – just to get myself in that spot. There were no tense moments or crying, but we would track from about 9:30 in the morning to 5 or so. I would go back to the room, eat dinner, and pass out. It was extreme physical fatigue. That’s how you know how hard you’re working.”

For I Am The Rain, Wright aligned with Kickstarter, which she admits took a little bit of convincing. “I had heard about crowd funding for a couple of years, and thought ‘That’s interesting. I don’t think I’d do it, but that sounds pretty cool.’ My manager and team started to discuss it one day, and I said ‘I don’t want to beg my fans for money.’ He said ‘It’s not begging fans for money. It’s essentially pre-selling your record.’ And your hardcore fans, who want more, will get to reap some of the rewards that you’re giving like a phone call, a Skype session, or a co-write.”

She said that meeting the financial goals for the project happened rather quickly, but there was a greater reward – a re-introduction to many of her fans from the days of such hits as “Shut Up and Drive” and “I Already Do.”

“For me, the greatest part of it was it re-engaging with fans that I didn’t know I still had. You don’t hear from a lot of fans in reality, maybe a couple thousand. They may contact you on Twitter, Facebook, or they may come to shows, but I was having contact with fans that would recall seeing me open for Tim McGraw at the Nebraska State Fair in 1996 – or someone from the military who remembered me playing there in Baghdad in 2003. It was a great reminder, or a re-calibration emotionally for me. There were still a lot of people who were still interested in what I was doing, and that can’t be a bad way to start a record.”

One of the stylistic highlights of the new album is the story song “Halona,” which has gotten some rave reviews from a unique audience. “There’s a public school that asked my permission to use that for their multi-cultural night talent show. That just thrilled me. It kind of reminded me of an old song I did called ‘Alligator Purse,’ which kids loved. It’s about a little Native American girl. She was born during a period where they really needed rain. The fact that she had blue eyes and blonde hair on an Indian reservation, people assumed that she was magic, or a princess, and she could bring them all the things they needed it. I remember writing it at midnight, which is why the first line of the song is ‘She was born at midnight – the moment that the storms made.' To me, I was thinking about people’s perceptions, and gang mentality, to be honest. How, when enough people believed in something, there becomes this spiritual abiding in this belief. It can be negative sometimes, as we’ve seen in the campaign election cycle. But it can also be beautiful, and it can sponsor faith in community.”

She admitted that the track does have a personal tie. “My great-grandfather was a Native American. So I’ve always been intrigued by the stories that my mom would tell me of my family. When I wrote that first line, I just saw this little girl, and the story just popped out in about 45 minutes. I’m so happy that it’s on the record.”