Chely Wright blows most of those ideas out of the water. An established country star who happens to have a strong Christian faith and a publicly declared sexual preference for women, she makes you reconsider what should expect from public figures, and how much it hurts to submerge your identity to please other people.
Port Townsend, about an hour west of Seattle. isn’t a big country and western town but it opens its heart to the politically and socially oppressed. Which is part of the reason that the town embraced Wright, prominently featuring the movie that traced her coming out as gay in this year’s Port Townsend Film Festival. Wright, 41, came to town to promote the documentary, “Wish Me Away,” released in 2011, which traces her evolution from a country music star to a lesbian activist.
The movie sets the stage with some biographical clips of a closeted Wright receiving awards and accolades there is one face that is conspicuously blurred.
During a question and answer period following a festival screening Wright identified the blurred face as honky tonk veteran Jean Sheperd.
“We didn’t ask her to make a statement,” Wright said. “She didn’t want to appear in a film that had anything to do with gay issues. I’ve done the Opry hundreds of times, I shared a dressing room with that woman, and introduced her to new fans who never knew who the golden girls of country music were.”
‘‘Wish Me Away” tells the story of Wright’s coming out in a countdown fashion, chronicling her thoughts and fears before coming out publicly in May 2010. At that time she simultaneously released an album, Lifted Off the Ground (recorded two years previously) and a book. The media blitz included the obligatory Bordenational television appearances and interviews.
The movie completes and explains the cycle. It begins with a recurring scene, a makeup-free Wright staring into a camera that appears to originate from a bathroom mirror. She’s crying and cursing, thrown into chaos because the date of her coming out is coming up and she is wondering “if I will ever have the courage to let anyone see this tape.”
So the idea that this is a move to further her career is pretty much off the table right there. There are some seemingly staged sequences (how did it happen that camera crews were able to film a conversation between Wright and her father on the phone, from the father’s house?) we can suspend our disbelief.
It is interspersed with humor, including interviews with Wright’s kick-in-the-pants sister and an anecdote from Wright’s childhood, when she asked her mother why tennis player Billie Jean King dressed like a man.
“She told me it was because [King] was gay,” said Wright, who had already decided she wanted to be a famous country singer. When someone comes out to their family and friends they may attempt to orchestrate the event, finding the right time, place and words to get the message across. Wright’s orchestration was necessarily more elaborate, with millions of fans and a public face.
As Wright earns new fans she challenges them. At the Port Townsend screening there was applause for the line “the meanest people are those who do something mean in the name of Jesus” but the crowd didn’t know how to react to the account of Wright praying for guidance and being rewarded with an immediate relief of her burden.
Taken together, the book, Like Me, movie and album portray Wright in an attractive, compelling light. Anyone meeting her through these avenues will like her a lot. The movie’s honesty resonates, staging aside. The album is sweet and tuneful and will be accessible to many who don’t really dig strict country. It sounds a lot like a Rodney Crowell album, which is no surprise because he produced it.
The album has earned Wright a lot of new fans, like me, but has a long way to go in order to make up for what she has lost.
“I spend my whole life developing a fan base of millions of millions of people who like country music and I was asking them to like me,” she said. “After coming out I lost two thirds of my audience, although a lot of new people are aware of me.
“People might like me on my Facebook page because they want to support what I’ve done socially but that doesn’t translate into them buying a record. It’s like I’ve been working my whole life selling tennis shoes and now people in the underwear business now know who I am.”
“That being said this is no shock to me, I had a feeling that this is about what it would be. I have no problems with the fact that my audience in country music is smaller because I have faith. I’m here, I have more imagination to use and I will always be OK.”
After cutting the ribbon for the festival I approached Wright and asked to schedule a convenient time for a few questions. “How about right now?” she asked. So I improvised.
What’s next for you musically?
I’m always writing, I have about seven songs that I think will be on the next album, but I have to be inspired to move forward and pull the trigger on it. I feel very free artistically now, I think the next album will be in the same vein but my producer, Rodney Crowell, tends to put an identifying stamp on things.
Will he be producing your next album?
He has his own projects, Rodney gets busy sometimes. I will make another record with Rodney, I just don’t know if it’s the next one.
What’s been the surprise about coming out?
You know, the holidays are different when I’m out, family things are different, life goes on, but now there is a gay artist in country music.
Are there a lot more?
Statistics show that there have to be more, so eventually another major country artist will come out. But I love that it’s off the table that there will never have to be another first.”
Buying tip: You want to download Lifted Off the Ground, as the physical CD doesn’t contain two bonus tracks; both worthwhile. The introspective “Don’t Look Down” is available on Amazon while the hard-rocking “Hamburg” is available on iTunes, For the Wright experience you will want to have both.
Photos: Charlie Bermant, September 21, 2012, Port Townsend, WA