In The Metropolitan Hotel, Chely Wright has delivered the most thoughtful, emotionally charged and self-involved album of her career. Her imprint is everywhere. She produced or co-produced every track and wrote or co-wrote eight of the 12 songs. Moreover, the album is a co-venture between her own company, Painted Red Music Group, and Dualtone Records.
Photo Credit: Sheryl Nields
While The Metropolitan Hotel has its lighter moments, notably the bouncy "Just the Way We Do It" and a high-spirited cover of Chuck Berry's "C'est La Vie," the prevailing mood is one of reflection and regret. "The River" and "Between a Mother and a Child," both Wright's compositions, are so naked and revealing that listening to them seems like eavesdropping. There are a couple of familiar tunes here, too: "Back of the Bottom Drawer" (from Wright's short-lived liaison with Vivaton Records) and "Bumper of My SUV," her gentle, albeit contentious, song in support of American troops.
So how did such a hard-hitting and radio-indifferent collection come about? And why the title? Wright says the story goes back to September 2002, after she had performed two shows in Gstaad, Switzerland.
"I decided to take a couple of my best friends with me, which I seldom do," she tells CMT.com. "My plan with them was -- once we finished the dates in Switzerland -- for us to break away from the pack and go over to Paris, where I hadn't been, and then spend a couple of days in London. I'd been there before but never to vacation." They settled in at London's plush Metropolitan Hotel.
"I always travel with a lot of music, as do my friends," Wright continues. "We ended up buying a whole bunch of neat, obscure international releases that you can't find in the States. On the last night we were in London, we had a great dinner reservation at 8 o'clock, [but] we listened to music from late afternoon straight through 'til 2 in the morning and skipped our dinner. We sat there immersed in music and trying to top one another -- 'Oh, that one makes you cry? Well check this one out.'"
It was a rich exchange, Wright recalls. "I played them songs off Mike Reid's Turning for Home and Waitin' for the Sun to Shine by Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis' Storms of Life and [songs by Canadian singer] Jann Arden -- some things that have inspired me. And they, in turn, played me things I'd never heard of before. I guess I was stating the obvious, but I said, 'You guys, if I ever make another record, I've got to make one like this with no 'skippers,' none to skip over -- a whole complete piece of work like they used to do."
After Wright left MCA Records in 2002, she took off some time to write.
"I didn't write for a record," she says. "I didn't write for the radio. I just wrote. I wrote some of the weirdest, most obscure, outlandish songs -- and then I wrote a few that made it on the record."
It distresses Wright that some still view her as a newcomer to songwriting.
"When Never Love You Enough came out [on MCA in 2001]," she says, "I'd written a couple on that one as well, and I remember someone on [Nashville's] WSM-FM played a track on there -- one of the ones I'd written -- and he said, 'Well, that was a new track off Chely Wright's new record, and she wrote that song all by herself. She's turning into a pretty good little songwriter.' And I took such offense to that. I was signed as a writer before I had a record deal. I've always loved writing, and I think writing was one of the things that got [Polydor Records chief] Harold Shedd's interest in me going early on." She points out that one of her songs, "I Can't Sleep," became a Top 10 hit for Clay Walker.
Wright says she didn't intend to start her own record company and is still open to recording for a major label. However, she owned her own publishing company, Painted Red Music, and, after she departed Vivaton last year, she had no vehicle for getting her music to her fans. That being the case, she packaged "Back of the Bottom Drawer," another master recording called "Everything" and four demos, plus a 35-minute DVD, which, she explains, showed "really cool glimpses behind the scenes -- me on the bus, me and Kid Rock in Baghdad." The DVD also had the video of "Back of the Bottom Drawer."
Once Wright had the Everything package on her Web site, she says, the retail record chains began asking for it. But for them to stock it as a record, she had to create a record company name. After deciding on Painted Red Music Group, then came the unexpected success of "Bumper of My SUV." It, too, was issued under the Painted Red label.
"It was all by accident," Wright insists. "I'm not dumb enough or smart enough to start my own record label." Nor is she interested in producing other artists, although she says she's long taken a hand in producing her own works.
Recently, Wright weathered a media storm after it was reported that the president and certain members of her fan club had tried -- without her knowledge -- to pump up the airplay of "Bumper of My SUV" by calling radio stations and pretending to be from military families. She fired the guilty parties, but she complains that the news report was based on fabricated e-mails and failed to reveal the whole story behind the song.
Wright is also impatient with those who have reacted with hostility to the song without having heard the lyrics.
"When someone says it's a pro-war or has a right-wing stance," she says, "I think, 'What an idiot! You didn't listen.' When the song got leaked out there, my biggest fear was that people were going to go, 'OK. Country singer writes a song about the war. Cashing in.' That's why I wanted it clearly stated that I was giving the money from the sale of the single to a nonprofit [organization], and that I had forgotten I had written the song and only begrudgingly recorded it. I would have Pro-Tooled it, for God's sake, if I'd known it was going to be played on the radio. I went in and made a simple recording and sent it to Baghdad, and it got leaked back here."
One of the thematic threads in The Metropolitan Hotel is being misunderstood, and Wright admits she feels misunderstood on several levels.
"People think I'm a Republican," she says. "I'm not. I'm not a Democrat, either. ... They would be surprised to know that I was asked by our president to play ["Bumper"] at three or four political rallies for him, and I passed. I don't endorse political candidates. The only way I do is with my vote, just like everyone else."
Another major misconception is that celebrities live perfect lives.
"I think one of the things I've accomplished with this record is really extending myself, almost to the point of people going, 'I can't believe you did that. I can't believe you put that on your record.' But I feel proud of it. We paint pictures in the media of the celebrity world of how perfect and great everything is. But it's not."
The tension between Wright and her mother is almost too much to bear as it plays itself out in the chilling "Between a Mother and a Child."
"I wish I had a great relationship with my mother," she muses. "In a perfect world, I guess everyone assumes that by the time they're 34, maybe they'll be married and have three kids. Maybe I feel a little bit the odd man out there."
On June 7, Wright will host her annual show at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon for the Reading, Writing & Rhythm Foundation, a nonprofit foundation she established to improve the quality of music education in public schools. "It's going to be an amazing show," she promises, "and we'll probably raise over $130,000 again in one night."