Chely Wright - An Interview About Owning Your Life: Exclusive
Kansas born and bred Richell Rene "Chely" Wright put the 9mm gun into her mouth and was about to pull the trigger when something stopped her in her tracks. The next two-and-a-half years would take the newly openly-gay country music singer/songwriter on a journey from her small town Nashville home to the museum-lined streets of Manhattan; an excursion that would include penning her long-awaited biography and result in her coming out of the closet in the straight world of country music.
Kansas born and bred Richell Rene "Chely" Wright put the 9mm gun into her mouth and was about to pull the trigger when something stopped her in her tracks. The next two-and-a-half years would take the newly openly-gay country music singer/songwriter on a journey from her small town Nashville home to the museum-lined streets of Manhattan; an excursion that would include penning her long-awaited biography and result in her coming out of the closet in the straight world of country music. At the end of this emotional gut-wrenching timeframe, Wright learned how to dance in the light and own it for the very first time in her life. Days, weeks, months and years of wondering when someone would find out about her secret life were finally over.
It took Wright 39 years to come to grips with her sexuality and to become comfortable with her feelings towards other women. Up until that time, she had convinced herself to believe that those around her would be punished if she even so much as looked at another woman. Being in a long-term relationship for 12 years with someone in the closet and with no intention of coming out further complicated the already complex matter. When that relationship soured, Wright was left devastated and hanging onto her last breath for any sign of tangible life. The frustration, anger and admitted insanity surrounding the break-up left Wright pouring her heart and soul out onto tape all the while wishing she could destroy the machine. Lifted Off the Ground is a reflection of this good-evil-sane-insane dichotomous time in Wright’s life.
With her book being praised on Oprah, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and everywhere in between, Like Me is becoming a smash hit. I caught up with Wright on the red carpet in San Francisco and she reached out to me and grabbed my arm while we were talking. Instantly, I could sense the warmth embedded in her spirit and knew that I needed to have more time to chat with her. She obliged my invitation to sit down for an interview for SheWired and then she opened up her heart, showed me her wounds and reminded me about the strength of humanity while under extreme pressure. The caged bird has flown. You can’t tie this one down. Her message to the world is profound and pronounced – you are not alone. Not any more.
You are out there on the road, aren’t you (doing a lot of festivities and things)?
I just got in last night. I’ve been on a jet run for about 60 days so today’s kind of my first day back in my apartment here in New York. I’m happy to be home and to not have to work on any commitments today. It’s a free day!
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The LGBT community has embraced you with open arms and we love that you have been such a strong figure throughout the recent whirlwind of the past year. How does it feel to be out and finally be yourself? I imagine it’s a huge relief.
A huge relief! My spiritual advisor asked me a few weeks ago to compare my success now to the zenith of my success when I was having hit records, major awards and nominations. He said, “I want to know which you like better.” I wanted to be contemplative and honest with him before answering, but I told him, “You know, I really think I like this better.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever played in a celebrity golf tournament, Sarah, but there are different prizes at different holes on the course. Often at the 12th hole you can win a car. When you get up to the sign and read the fine print, you don’t actually win the car – you get to drive it for a year. I likened my success to my spiritual advisor to that. When I had success before, I never felt that it was really mine because I had this abiding fear that at any minute I could be found out and it could be taken away from me. Now, everything that I have is owned by me. All of my successes now are fully, completely mine. I own the deed on my success now. Whatever bricks I put down, they are not sand. I may be building a foundation for a hut or for a castle, I don’t know yet, but it’s mine. I really get to have it and own it. I get to put my head on my pillow knowing that no one can take away from me what I have now. People who are hiding understand that when you get to come and stand in full light and tell your whole truth, there is nothing like it.
Your memoir Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer leaves no stone unturned. Was there a part or two in Like Me that you considered leaving out?
No, I didn’t. I’m glad it took me 2 ½ years to write the book. I’d wake up in the middle of the night like, “holy crap, I’m coming out!” but it’s not a salacious tell-all. If anyone gets revealed as being less than a hero it’s me. I wanted to focus on my failures and on the hiccups that I had in my integrity and my truth. I felt generous and didn’t feel like I had betrayed anyone. I felt like I pointed most of the fingers at me.
Except for General Rich – I was happy to call him out as the homophobic man that we all know him to be. He didn’t need my help in doing that, though, because he clearly established in the press that he was homophobic. I felt bad about a chapter about my sister and my brother and what that said about my parents’ parenting skills when they were young kids, but it was important to depict those narrow boundaries in which I existed as a child.
I needed to display that small world that I lived in and that made me feel trapped about who I was then. My dad read that and he said, “I have no problem with what you wrote. You wrote it beautifully and, quite frankly, you were generous.” My dad, sister and brother have told me “nobody has a place to judge you for what you wrote. You’re the one that had to spend 39 years of your life hiding. You wrote an accurate, truthful book and told a tender truth.” That wasn’t easy to do. It was certainly a difficult task. I feel very proud of my writing this book.
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Suicide has a very real presence in the LGBT community because we are so often misunderstood and feel alone. Since you have dealt with feelings of committing suicide yourself, what advice could you give to anyone reading this interview and contemplating taking their life?
I try to be mindful here in my answer. The only voice I have here is my own and I am not a medical professional or a mental health professional, but what I can say is that simply knowing that you are less alone helps a lot. I would’ve given anything when I was 15, 19, 22 year-old person to have had a story of a person like me in my hands to read.
The few coming out stories I’ve been able to get my hands on in my lifetime are like gold to me. To be able to read their stories and say, “That’s how I felt”…We humans are critters, too. We want to feel and to identify. It’s a basic human need to identify with others. I know thousands of young people out there have read my book and come to me in autograph lines, printed out letters, mailed them to me and put them in my hands and said that they were going to kill themselves but then they felt better knowing that I was okay and that they might be okay.
If there is a young person thinking that there is no hope for them and they happen to be reading this interview or my book, I am here to tell them that they are not alone.
There is a very diverse community of gay people out there and they go from wearing mohawks, tattoos, piercings to country music singers, to filmmakers, math teachers, city bus drivers to scientists and chemists. I am meeting them all and I am here to tell you that there is a spot for you. That’s actually one of the coolest things, Sarah. I am able to step forward and represent something that main stream America thought didn’t exist in the gay community. They just thought that all gay people were just tattooed freaks, messed up and drug addicted. Well, you know, they’re not. Who could blame a gay person in hiding for medicating their pain with drugs and alcohol?
I have medicated my pain in hiding, but it wasn’t with drugs and alcohol. It was with workaholism. My medication was workaholism and I got applauded for it and rewarded for it. I am no different than anyone who might cut their arms with a razor blade or medicate with drugs and alcohol to make the pain go away. So, I would say to any young person feeling alone and isolated – I’m like you and you’re like me. You can be okay and you will be okay.
As the first country singer to come out of the closet, did you receive any type of feedback from the country music community that surprised you either in a positive or negative way?
Well, of course, but I try to stay fixated on the positive comments. The country music industry is full of so many different people – radio people, producers, studio people, promoters, artists and their band members. So, I’ve received a lot of positive support from some of them. On the other hand, I have not heard from certain people that I thought I’d hear from and that doesn’t feel so great, but I am so fixated on the positive that I am trying not to really think about the disappointments.
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You always think when someone like you comes out that people are going to be vocal about it one way or the other.
Right and, too, I am not on the grid looking at things. I’m not online, but my “people” are on my behalf. I am aware that there have been a handful of cynical people on music row and I know that some of their comments are just childish. As childish as anything I’ve ever seen and these are 40, 50, 60 year-old people. Someone cut and pasted a thread that one of them had on their Facebook about my coming out. This woman wrote, “Ha ha - As if we all didn’t know already”. I just think “ha ha” has no place in this discussion and either that person is ignorant or not compassionate because that person surely knows that there is a 14-year-old kid that can benefit from knowing that they are one fewer person alone.
So for that person to write, “ha ha”…You know, quite frankly, I didn’t come out for those in Nashville who thought they already knew about me being gay. I came out for the people who would’ve never ever heard the rumor that I’m gay. So, that was disappointing. A grown person who I know has a college degree who is certainly a smart, educated person would have just an ill-capacity of mind to say “ha ha – It was no secret to us.” What a non-feeling or ignorant person.
Are you still located in Nashville?
I still have my home in Nashville, but I moved to New York City in June of 2008 so I have a home in both places. I spend most of my time here [in New York City]. I needed to come here to write my book. I don’t want to be insensitive when I say this, but one can only write so many hours a day. I couldn’t imagine really writing my coming out story in Nashville because I could write six hours a day and then I’ve got 18 more hours of my life to live. I was afraid that the reality of who I was in the context of Nashville would smother me. I just didn’t know if I could write that truthful story in Nashville.
I really needed to come to New York City and get really quiet. Not only was I writing a book, but I was still rebuilding myself. It was a long way to travel personally from having a 9mm gun in your mouth to fortifying one’s self and standing up. I am facing ridicule and judgment at every turn. Thank God I have been well-prepared for this for the past few years. It doesn’t mean that every day is easy, but this preparation I have taken for myself has helped it be easier than it would’ve been. I came out here and put myself through “gay school.” I knew that I didn’t know much at all about being gay in America and I wanted to hit the ground running as a gay advocate. Five days a week I’ve been out having dinner with all of these gay activists and they’ve been getting me up to speed so that I could hit the ground running. Hopefully I’ve become a well-spoken, educated person in the gay community.
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Not only did you release the memoir Like Me, but you also shared a new album called Lifted Off the Ground with songs that were very honestly written. How does it feel to be so free now in your music?
I’ll tell you a timeline that is probably going to blow your mind. I wasn’t “there” when I wrote that album. I didn’t feel free. I started writing those songs in 2005 and the first part of 2006 and that was during the time in those very dark months when I was at my very rock bottom. The notion of coming out was not even in my mind at all. Perhaps it was prolific of me to write those songs. Those songs were so annoying to me. I wasn’t eating, I was sick and felt like I was dying from a broken heart and soul and would expire at any moment.
As a writer, or any kind of an artist of any medium, you might be thankful for a prolific time. I wasn’t. I was annoyed by those songs, although I had a duty to get them out. Perhaps the reason these songs are more emotionally pissy than anything I’ve written is because my intellect was completely suspended. I kind of really did lose my mind. I was so tired, fatigued and emotional.
You know, you hear about all of these sculptors, painters and artists as being crazy and they really were crazy! This was a really good time for me creatively because my brain really wasn’t in play. I think that maybe the one thing that really held me back creatively was that my brain was always too heavily employed in my work. I think that’s what happened with this music. I wasn’t editing it and wondering what radio would play and what song would be a hit and appeal to the masses.
As you can hear in the songs on Lifted Off the Ground, they were just not commercial. The opening line of Snowglobe is “my belly button came untied.” I mean, that’s weird! My sister asked me if I was doing psychedelic drugs! She knows that I’ve never smoked a cigarette or done a drug in my life. I just let myself go and, to some degree, there was a freedom, but it wasn’t a cognitive decision that I made. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’m coming out so I can write with unabashed freedom”. I just lost my mind and these songs were just kind of squeezing themselves out. Thank God I have my mind back!
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