There is perhaps no word Chely Wright loathes more than “tolerance,” especially when it’s used in relation to acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
“I hear the word ‘tolerance’ — that some people are trying to teach people to be tolerant of gays,” she writes in her 2010 autobiography Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer. “I’m not satisfied with that word. I am gay, and I am not seeking to be ‘tolerated.’ One tolerates a toothache, rush-hour traffic, an annoying neighbor with a cluttered yard. I am not a negative to be tolerated.”
She has a great point.
“In terms of the faith communities, I run into a lot of people who are straight and say, ‘You can come to our church, we’re tolerant,'” says Wright over the phone from her home in Manhattan. “I don’t want to come to your church if you’re just going to tolerate gays and lesbians — you’re not the house of worship for me. I want a life in which the essence of who I am is celebrated, not just allowed in. I think the word tolerance is a gross, half-assed way of understanding one another. What an insult — ‘I’m gonna tolerate you like a toothache.’ That’s awful.”
Like Me was the launching pad for Wright’s second — and arguably richer, more emotionally fulfilling — act in life, an act that was not impeded by secrets and lies. She had been one of the contemporary queens of modern country, with several major chart-topping hits — including “Shut Up and Drive” and the rousing “Single White Female” — but her inability to lead an out and open existence took its toll emotionally. Wright was at the point of suicide — gun in mouth, ready to pull the trigger — when she had a revelation and took control of her narrative. She decided to make her sexuality public, damn it all to hell.
Not long after coming out amid a ton of media buzz, Wright commandeered the stage of that summer’s Capital Pride, playing to a massive audience that was more than ready to welcome her into the fold, to unconditionally love her, forever and ever, amen. It was a life-changing moment for the 48-year-old, who to this day exults, “Capital Pride was a highlight of my career and one of the highlights of my life.”
Since coming out, Wright has used her celebrity to help others find their own way into the LGBTQ community.
“One of the reasons I came out was in hopes that someone would find comfort in my story, to know that there’s at least one person out there who knows what it’s like,” she says. “In the past eight years since I came out, I’ve had the privilege of speaking at churches and schools and corporations and I have a lot of dialogue with people privately on direct message and Facebook and email. It is astonishing to learn how many people have had the gun in their mouth or a rope hanging from a ceiling who have said that reading my story or seeing my clip on Ellen or seeing me on Oprah or something gave them pause and hope.”
Wright looks at her life today and marvels at how much fuller it is. She’s married to Lauren Blitzer, an executive at Sony Music Entertainment, and the pair are doting parents to identical twin five-year-old boys.
“We’re raising them Jewish,” concedes Wright, who was raised in a devout Christian family in the tiny burg of Wellsville, Kansas. “But there will be an observance of the Christian holidays as well. My wife isn’t terribly religious, but her Judaism is a big part of our family. There’s a lot about the Jewish faith that just really speaks to me. And the boys are getting both.”
The twins — along with the rest of the world — are also getting a Christmas album from their singer-songwriter mom. Wright recently issued Santa Will Find You, an EP of five glorious, country-infused originals — one of which, the thunderous “Christmas Isn’t Christmas Time,” co-written and performed with her friend, the legendary Richard Marx, is a deeply satisfying tribute to Phil Spector, evoking the wall-of-sound strains of “Be My Baby.”
“I love holiday music,” says Wright, who appears at City Winery DC next Thursday, Dec. 20. “I love Nat King Cole, The Carpenters. There are a lot of country Christmas records that I do like — Vince’s, Trisha’s, couple of tracks on the Alan Jackson Christmas record. I wanted to record something with an emotional breath that feels like it wouldn’t embarrass me, honestly. I don’t want my musical legacy to be [covers of] ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Jingle Bells.’ My goal was to write and record…five songs I cared about.”
A scheduled 45 minutes on the phone quickly turns into two hours. Her conversation is energized, familiar, and broad, often veering into the political and ideological. She recounts stories with the cadence of a skilled country lyricist, her catchy, homespun turns of phrase illuminating a greater point. Take, for instance, her thoughts on those who eschew science, particularly when it comes to topics of urgent importance, like climate change.
“My wife and I had a pretty pissy discussion the other day about mass shootings, and the hopes and prayers from the GOP,” she says. “She said, ‘What if all the firefighters in California had just gotten on their knees and prayed? What would that look like to anybody? Not much.’ How did firefighters fight that fire? I guaran-damn-tee you they used a lot of math and science. There’s no other way to fight a big fire like that without math and science. I don’t understand why anybody could deny the math and science of why our oceans are rising, why it’s hotter and it’s colder than it’s ever been, why the glaciers are falling into the ocean — glaciers that have never ever cracked off before are breaking off into the ocean. I don’t understand. Why can’t they be people of faith and science? I am.”
METRO WEEKLY: We last interviewed you in early June of 2010, just before your Capital Pride appearance. You were pretty much freshly out. How have things changed for you in the ensuing eight years?
CHELY WRIGHT: When I look back at that time now, I was kind of in a fog. It would be interesting for me to go back and read that interview to hear where my head was. So much has changed. I’m a married mom of identical twins now — that’s a big threshold in life. And a lot has changed in the world in terms of equality and how we’ve been able to move the needle from where it was in 2010 to where it is now. Marriage equality is the law of the land on a federal level. I really think that kind of happened in a way that none of us would have predicted. Had you told me in 2010 that you’d be able to get gay married in Mississippi in 2018, I would have laughed in your face. But here we are.
So we’ve made incredible gains, and in doing that it also unearthed the contrarians to equality. Much like when President Obama became our president, race became a new and rejuvenated discussion. We thought we were a post-racial country. We’re not. With all the gains we saw with a black man in the Oval Office, we also got to see the underbelly of what America thinks of black people. We’re seeing that again because we’ve got a person and administration in the White House that has emboldened and empowered nasty dinner table talk. It has emboldened and empowered anti-Semitism. So we did gain a lot of ground, but with it comes the subset of people who often have felt most comfortable articulating their messages in the dark of night under hoods.
In terms of the equality movement for the LGBTQ community, yes we have to celebrate our gains, but we are in danger of losing a lot of the ground that we have made in the past eight to ten years.
MW: Part of it, I think, is a matter of history repeating itself in some fashion. It’s like a cycle.
WRIGHT: What is the saying? “History may not repeat itself but it often rhymes.” My grandfather was in the army during World War II — Harold Henry was his name. He and I were very close. He was one of the first guys into a couple of the camps they liberated. Right before his death, he talked to me about the Holocaust, and said, “I gotta warn you, this is gonna happen again in your lifetime.” I couldn’t believe that. I said, “What do I do?” and he looked off, out the hospital window and he said, “Well, you won’t know what to do. You might not even know it’s happening. They’ll hogtie democracy.”
If you’ve grown up in the country at all, you hogtie an animal so you can castrate it. They take an animal and they tie its two back legs together, and then you tie the third leg to the other two, and then you tie the fourth leg. But by the time the back two legs are tied, the animal has been rendered useless and helpless. He said that they’ll hogtie democracy, that they’ll do it one leg at a time.
That is what is happening now with the stacking of the courts, which is why McConnell and all and company are just allowing Trump to stay in office. They know he’s a no good guy, they know he’s a liar, they know he conspired with Russia, they know that. He’s their means to an end. They’re stacking the courts, and that’s gonna matter as anti-Semitism rises and cases are adjudicated that have to do with anti-Semitism, anti-LGBT issues, racial issues — they are doing it exactly how my grandfather said they would do it. It’s sobering. And my grandfather was right — I don’t know what to do.
MW: I don’t think most of us do at this point. Protesting and voting seem the only options.
WRIGHT: We’re in a dark time. We’ve got to vote, but the gerrymandering and all the voter suppression that’s happened — it’s like a slow moving train. And they’ve got their train kind of cooking now. It’s going to be hard to not only slow the train down, but get it turned around on the tracks. [Pauses.] What kind of a country songwriter would I be if I didn’t invoke a train metaphor? [Laughs.]
MW: Wow, we took an unexpected turn here early on.
WRIGHT: We did. But these are the things I think about at two in the morning, and I suspect you do, too. We have a traitor in the White House and it’s alarming. Even if I didn’t have children, I would be worried about what we’re leaving to the next generation. There’s so much. Maybe we have coffee at some point and talk about all this, okay? Okay, music.
MW: Right, music. It took an act of courage for you to come out, not just in the country music industry, but in the music industry at large. You had chart hits, you were writing hit songs for other major artists. Were you concerned about what would happen to your career after you came out?
WRIGHT: It was the biggest concern in my life. It’s what kept me in the closet until I was 39. It’s what caused me to spend twenty years in Nashville doing my job, writing songs, making records, doing all the things you get to do when you’re signed to a major label. It was a second career hiding the fact that I’m gay — a full-time job of hiding with no benefits and no perks. It’s what ruined every day of mine — that black cloud, that fear of somebody’s gonna find out. I also had a deep, abiding understanding that once it was found out, my career was over.
MW: So why then decide to come out?
WRIGHT: The decision was not made in haste. It was a matter of staying alive. I had a gun in my mouth and was ready to end it on a really cold winter morning in Nashville.
It was early 2006, in January, and I had gone through a breakup. I had a partner for 12 years during the zenith of my career. While I was having my biggest hits, I had a partner. In retrospect, of course, we didn’t survive — love just does not survive in the dark. There was a point at which I thought I was about to be outed. One of my colleagues asked me the very pointed question: “You’re not gay, are you?” I took a breath and said, “No, I’m not.” It scared me so bad that I had just lied about it — like, flat out lied — but I was scared he was going to out me somehow. So my partner and I broke up, we sold our house, and I just kind of went into a spiral. I wanted to end my life, not because I’m gay, but because I did not know how to be who I was in this facade of a life I had worked really hard to build. I thought I could always hide that secret. Then I realized I didn’t want to hide that secret, but I didn’t know how to be me in this life I created.
Obviously, I wasn’t thinking straight. I was, I’m sure, clinically depressed. I was not eating, not sleeping, my heart was beating funny, I was a mess, I was falling apart. I had a 9mm gun that my parents gave me in 1991, after I had been mugged at knifepoint. I had it in my mouth and….
MW: What stopped you from pulling the trigger?
WRIGHT: Good question. I don’t know.
MW: You must have had some realization that turned you around.
WRIGHT: I was looking in a mirror as I had the gun in my mouth and I remember being somewhat confounded that I wasn’t crying. It shocked me. I remember thinking, “Don’t people cry when they kill themselves?” My thought was if I do it, no one’s gonna be able to get me on the phone, and my sister might get in the car and drive from Kansas to come find me, and I didn’t want her to find me like that. I do know that was one of the things that flashed in my mind.
So I didn’t pull the trigger. I put the gun down and went upstairs, slept a couple of hours, and when I awoke I wasn’t convinced that I wouldn’t go downstairs and pull the trigger. What I did do was get on my knees and pray. On that day, I literally got on my knees, clasped my hands together, put my elbows up on the edge of my bed, and prayed. What I prayed for was, “Okay I’m ready to do it your way, because my way sucks.” In that moment I knew I had to come out. It would take me another nine months before I started my book, Like Me, and started putting a plan together.
I wanted to come out pretty strategically because I wanted to tell my whole story. I didn’t want anyone else to be able to frame my narrative. So I wrote my book and prepared myself physically, mentally, and spiritually as best I could, because I knew they weren’t going to hold a ticker tape parade for me in Nashville. I knew this was not gonna be an easy road, but I knew it was my road and there was something pretty peaceful about the fact that once I knew what my road was, I owned it.
I can honestly tell you my life became almost magical the very moment I decided to come out, the very moment I knew “Okay, this clock is ticking, freedom awaits.” I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m often asked, are you living the life you’d always dreamed of? And my honest answer to that is, “No, I never even dreamed of it. I wouldn’t allow myself to dream of it. It’s too painful.”
MW: What would you say to somebody who reads this, who is in the closet, who is feeling isolated, who feels, for whatever reason, that they need to end their life. What would you say to get them to take the gun out of their mouth?
WRIGHT: I would say a couple of things. The first would be to be gentle with yourself — it’s not a referendum on your courage if you’re thinking about ending your life. People ask me when should I come out, how should I come out? My mandate to people is one should only come out when they feel safe and able. Everyone’s safe and able is different. Be strategic about it, find an ally. If you live in Dothan, Alabama, maybe you’re not safe to come out, maybe you’re not able to come out, but only you are the arbiter of your safe and able.
My second would be, don’t beat yourself up for having hidden. I felt guilty for a long time for having hidden because I could. I could hide, so I did. Part of it was arrogance, part of it was I didn’t want to lose my career, self-survival. But here’s what I say about coming out, here’s what I say about being closeted: It’s worth it to hide until the very moment it’s not, and only you know that very moment. There is so much joy awaiting you in your authentic life. Give yourself a fair shot.
MW: On reflection, how did the country music industry take your coming out?
WRIGHT: I was really shocked by my community, my industry of country music. I know there are a lot of forward-thinking people in my industry. I know who they are. But there are also some people who hadn’t given gay issues the time of day. I feel there was a moment for them to say, “Wow, I bet that was hard for Chely to hide.” Instead, there was some cynicism about my advocacy or the way I went about doing it. I had a book deal, I was on Oprah, there was cynicism about my motivation. Some were just like, “Oh, she’s trying to revive her dying career.” I was surprised anyone would maybe think that way. Did any part of them think, “God that must have been hard for her to hide?” The fact that they went right to “She’s trying to get attention” was just baffling and mind-boggling to me.
Knowing I was gay since I was nine years old and then hiding that so I could strategically, twenty years into my career, come out so I could get some press? What kind of an idiot thinks that way? What kind of a non-feeling, short-sighted person could think that about a person who came out in country music? That was heartbreaking to me. Some of them were people I’d worked with. Some of them were people I’d ridden around in a car with on radio tours for weeks at a time. They saw how hard I worked. How could they in any way think that it was a publicity stunt?
MW: If anything, coming out in country music put your career at risk.
WRIGHT: Their position on my career was that it was over anyway. Their assessment was that I wasn’t as big a star as I used to be. I may not have been as big a star as I had once been, but this is my life’s work. They had a lot of audacity, in my mind, to frame it as though I was just trying to get attention. It was so mind-bogglingly tone deaf, it shocked me. It shocked me.
MW: I think you did a very smart thing in 2010 when you performed at Capital Pride only a few weeks after coming out. That must have felt really supportive to see that massive sea of people out there, to feel that warmth and response from the LGBTQ community.
WRIGHT: Capital Pride was a highlight of my career and one of the highlights of my life. It meant as much to me as playing at the Grand Ole Opry the first time in 1989. I was 18 when I played the Opry, and it was one of the few moments in my life where I felt like I was standing exactly where I was supposed to be standing. Even though I was hiding that I was gay, I don’t think the trauma of the closet had caught up to me by that time in my life. Standing on the stage at Capital Pride with the Capitol over my shoulder, with the band that I had toured the world with, as an openly gay country singer, I felt like I had fully realized the essence of who I was. It was emotional and spiritual and profound, and will go down on one hand, with maybe some fingers left over, as one of the most important defining moments of who I am as a person of faith, a person who loves country music, and a person who is just really proud of who I am as a human being. That moment was the crown jewel.
MW: I’m curious. As a songwriter, did you choose country or did country choose you?
WRIGHT: Country chose me. I grew up in a house with a bunch of vinyl stacked next to a record player. My parents had an incredible vinyl collection and they announced to us kids — much like you might announce to your family that we are Democrats or we are Republicans or we are Christians — in a very sober declaration that we are a country music household. I don’t know why they felt like they needed to say that but they did. And the records that were around our house were country. There were some Beatles records scattered in there and a lot of Elvis, so for a long time in earnest I thought The Beatles were a country band, I kid you not. I thought Elvis was a country artist. But we had records like Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, The Carter Family, Emmylou Harris, Marty Robbins, Hank Sr., Hank Jr. Once I heard Connie Smith sing “Once a Day,” I was hooked. I think it was her voice and Loretta Lynn’s voice that really got me and really kind of bit me. My mom was a singer, a really good singer. My dad was a great rhythm guitar player. We sat around and sang country songs. This is what we did for fun. We sang out of a songbook my mom kept. To this day, if I’m doing a show that is loose and fun and the audience yells out to play a classic, I’ll play “Crazy Arms” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” I come by country honestly.
MW: You have a great new Christmas EP out. Is it part of the package deal that when you sign up for being a country music star, you are at some point obligated to release a Christmas album?
WRIGHT: [Laughs.] That’s a good question. Yeah, I think so. It’s shocking to me that I’m twenty years into my career and this is my first holiday record. I’d been asked by the label in the early 2000s to do it, but it just didn’t feel right at the time. I’ve written Christmas songs for other artists but I just never recorded them myself. It’s like having a train song. When I made my record with Rodney Crowell, Lifted off the Ground, the song called “That Train” is on there because it occurred to me one day I was a fraud because I was a country singer with a lot of records under my belt and not a single train song and not a single train reference in any songs. So I wrote that song as my token train song. Same goes with this Christmas record. If you’ve done the job for long enough, you kind of owe it to yourself and your listeners to make a holiday record.
MW: It’s a lovely EP. It seems very personal and is a lot of fun to listen to.
WRIGHT: When I was on MCA, I was asked to record a Christmas song for a compilation they did — I don’t even know what the record was called. But they had me record “Let It Snow.” It’s not anything that I’m not proud of. I have no connection to it. It’s a nice recording, but it wasn’t an important song to me. I knew that I needed to be as connected to a holiday record as I am to my other records, because when you make a record it’s forever. As Connie Smith once told me, “Don’t ever record music that you don’t care about because, sure as the world, it will become your biggest hit record and you’ll have to sing it over and over and over.
MW: You mentioned prayer earlier. On Christmas day, if you were to say a prayer for the world, what would you pray for?
WRIGHT: That’s a really good question, I don’t want to answer it in haste. If I could say a prayer for the world, I would pray for the internet to go away. I would. If we could undo the internet — and I know there are upsides to it, it connects the world in ways that are helpful I understand that — but I think the way we treat one another behind our keyboards, without seeing that there’s an actual person we’re talking to, all of us, I think we’d be better off if we didn’t have that means. I think it has gotten easier to see people as one dimensional as an Avatar on social media. So I’d pray that somehow God could end that. Is that crazy? That’s kind of crazy, but that’s what I would wish for. Or I’d ask God to find a way to help us find our humanity despite social media.
It’s like taking the melody away from the lyric, that’s what social media does. It separates everything and you don’t get all of everything at once. We’re supposed to be getting eye contact, we’re supposed to be tactile and touching one another and serving one another a heap of mashed potatoes. We’re missing all that. No wonder we’re at odds — we’re not really connecting but yet we get the sense — the false sense — that we are connecting, and we’re not. No wonder depression is up in Americans. We’re looking at everyone else’s timeline and wondering why ours isn’t as good, why our life isn’t what theirs is, and we’re not really connecting with one another. That’s my prayer.
MW: I’d like to keep Spotify. Can we please keep Spotify?
WRIGHT: [Laughs.] I think we probably can. It’d be hard to get rid of Spotify!
MW: Final question. How has motherhood changed your life? Especially as a musical artist who tours.
WRIGHT: You know, I don’t go out for long stretches like I used to. I used to go out for a couple weeks at a time, and I still do that on occasion, maybe once or twice a year. But I get to where when I’m on the road and I miss these guys so much it really does hurt. Also, being a mom has made me more politically vocal.
I should have been more politically vocal even before I was a mom, but there’s something about looking into the eyes of a five-year-old and worrying about things like climate change and gun control. So I think I’m fully realized now as a human. I’ve matured. I speak my mind a little bit more, and that’s all in the soup of becoming an older person. But being a mom has made me realize that I’m well suited for it, I think I’m pretty good at it. I’m sure I have a lot of room to grow. But I think at 48 years old, I’m the perfect age to have five-year-old sons. I’m comfortable with my mistakes, I’m still curious, I love to watch them learn — they’re learning to read right now which is a magical experience. So I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
Chely Wright plays at City Winery DC, 1350 Okie St. NE, on Thursday, Dec. 20 at 8:30 p.m. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $24 in advance, $28 at the door. Call 202-250-2531 or visit citywinery.com/washingtondc. Her holiday EP, Santa Will Find You, is available at Amazon and on most streaming services, including Spotify.