In Chely Wright‘s signature song, “Single White Female,” a woman places a classified ad to capture the attention of a stranger in a coffee shop who laughs at the personals every morning. The hook goes like this: “A single white female is looking for a man like you.”
That lyric may seem ironic after Wright, 39, came out as a lesbian in her memoir, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, published last month by Random House. However, during a recent visit to the CMT offices, she confidently declared that she’ll still deliver the line just like it was written.
“I’m not saying I won’t spoof it on occasion,” she explained, “but I’m going to sing my songs proudly the way my fans know them.”
Wright still remembers the precise day she moved to Nashville — May 12, 1989. Like thousands of other hopeful country singers, the ambitious 19-year-old from Wellsville, Kan., wanted a record deal. With performing experience from a popular stage show at the Opryland USA theme park, she eventually signed with Polydor Records, enjoyed minor chart success with her first singles and surprisingly won the ACM trophy for top new female artist. Finally, she found her way to MCA Records in 1997 when the label’s A&R department was helmed by superstar producer Tony Brown.
“It was never lost on me the talent that surrounded me and the roster that I was so lucky to be a part of,” she said. “At that time, MCA was the label, and Tony Brown was the guy. You know, after awards shows when we would have our [record label] parties, I would look around and see George Strait, Reba McEntire, the Mavericks, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill. It always seeped in on me: Take it in. You are among the greatest artists of all time in country music. Don’t forget what this feels like.”
Although she privately battled an on-again, off-again relationship with her partner of 12 years, the singer briefly dated Brad Paisley, who also landed his first No. 1 hit in 1999 with “He Didn’t Have to Be.” Their duet, “Hard to Be a Husband, Hard to Be a Wife,” recorded live at the Grand Ole Opry, charted in 2000. But as Paisley’s career quickly ascended, Wright’s faltered. Around this time, she cut all ties with him without ever giving him a reason why.
Not surprisingly, when Like Me was published, most media coverage zoomed directly onto her candid admissions about that doomed relationship. Although she remains well-liked in the Nashville music community, Wright was slammed by some country fans for trying to capitalize on Paisley’s current stardom.
Asked why it was important to give him such a big role in the book, she replied, “I think there’s a difference in a lot of the coverage being about Brad, versus Brad being a ‘big part’ of this book. I don’t really think Brad is a big part of this book, but I do think there has been a lot of coverage about him being in this book. Brad is mentioned in two chapters. That’s a fact. In my opinion, I obviously had to write about Brad because I couldn’t call him ‘Josh.’ I couldn’t call him ‘Josh Brown’ or ‘Josh Sampson’ in this book. It was widely known in public that Brad and I had a relationship.”
She emphasized that Paisley did not know that she was a lesbian and that he was not involved in a cover-up.
“I wanted to make certain that everyone understood that when a person like me hides, they not only wreak havoc on themselves, but they damage other people around them,” she said. “At that time, I caused incredible hurt and pain to Brad. I regret it very much. It’s one of the great regrets of my life, and I needed to write that down. More than anything, I wanted to make certain that people knew he was not aware.”
Wright timed the memoir to coincide with a new album, Lifted Off the Ground, released by Vanguard Records and produced by Rodney Crowell. She remembers playing many of the new songs in little clubs in 2006, two years after her last charting country single.
“I don’t even know what people must have thought,” she recalled. “I was such a mess at that time. I’d cry when I’d sing the songs and fall apart, but it was part of the process.”
Written over the course of three years, Like Me draws on her rough-and-tumble upbringing, suicidal thoughts and finally coming out to her siblings and her father. Following her “declaration,” as she calls it, Wright said she’s pleased to be back in the spotlight as a role model for gay youth. At a book signing last month in Nashville, she stayed until midnight and was handed “no fewer than 50 letters” from people who wanted to share their story. She’s also received thousands of letters from young gay country fans.
“If I can be someone that they can say, ‘Hey, she’s like me,’ that was my mission,” she said.
After television chats with Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey, Wright will continue her promotional blitz this summer with gay pride appearances in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Lansing, Mich. She notably gives them all equal billing.
“It’s widely believed among a lot of people that listen to country music that ‘gay’ is something that only happens in San Francisco, New York and L.A.,” she said. “But there are gays in Bakersfield, there are gays in Schenectady, there are gays in Tallahassee, there are gays everywhere. There’s not a lot of talk about gay anything on country radio stations, and if there has been in the past, it’s been followed by ‘Ayuuu-ga!’ and rim shots. Now I hope the conversation and the dialogue can continue in an intelligent fashion.”
Currently balancing her time between New York City and Nashville, Wright notes that “hardcore touring” will follow in the fall.
“That’s what I’m looking forward to the most,” she said. “At the root of what I really want to do. I want to be out there playing music.”
Wright will host her 10th annual Reading, Writing and Rhythm concert on Tuesday (June 8) at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. The event benefits her Reading, Writing and Rhythm Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing musical instruments and equipment to music programs at public schools throughout the nation. This year’s concert will also feature Crowell, Jamey Johnson, Justin Moore, SHeDAISY, Bucky Covington, Jann Arden and Buxton Hughes.