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In Her Own Wright


In the preface of her new memoir, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, country music artist Chely Wright reflects on her life of all-American accomplishment. She was elected class president and homecoming queen, won the Academy of Country Musics Top New Female Vocalist award in 1995, scored the #1 hit Single White Female, and was voted one of Peoples 50 Most Beautiful People in 2001. That opening vignette also details the moment, on January 26, 2006, when the 39-year-old singer put a 9-millimeter gun in her mouth to end her life of secrecy. In a candid interview with Out, Wright finally leaves the closet and opens up about the years she spent hiding her sexuality from friends, family, and the country music industry that made her a star.

Out: This is a big week for you. What are you feeling? CW: Im feeling a wide range of emotion, as I have been the past few months leading up to this big event. I feel like its my birthday, the beginning of my full, realized life. Im experiencing the deep sadness Ive had in my life, but 99% of this week is just celebratory for me. You have a new memoir, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer. Why did you choose to publish it now? I started writing the book in the summer of 2007. I made the decision then to come out, but what I wanted to do was tell my story and tell it well. I didnt want to spend a lot of time chasing my tail to try to tell my truth and to try to explain my story because my story, I think, is just like anyones who is trying to come out. The memoir opens with a very startling scene in which you put a gun in your mouth, intending to end your life. Yes, I decided to open it with the chapter where I try to kill myself. I struggle to read that part; its emotional for me. In fact, my sister and my dad and a few of my closest friends and family members had never read the book until about a week ago. When they read that opening part it was emotional for them. I think its really important to show that this isnt a scandalous, salacious tell-all, Nashville gossip, or a celebrity gossip book. This is my coming-out story, and I hit my rock bottom. To show the breadth of the emotional swing I took, I needed to show folks this is how low I got. This was do or die for me. I needed to step up and tell the world who I am, not because Im a celebrity but because Im a human being and this is how bad it got for me. And this is how good, now, it is for me. Why after all the tortured moments, secrets, and masquerades did you remain in the closet for so many years? I think my reasons for hiding, again, are not that much different than a lot of peoples reasons for hiding, whether a person is a junior high math teacher in Tallahassee or a person who works at a Starbucks in Bakersfield. Again, a lot of people who see this interview may not know a thing about country music and thats OK, but I want to make this delineation: Its not just the South. My manager made a really good point to some folks we were talking to in New York City about gays in America. He said, You guys need to step back and pay attention. You may think that its just uncomfortable for a gay person in the South. You take a major metropolitan area anywhere in the nation and you can consider it blue, but go 40 minutes outside [that city] and its conservative. Its small-town America. You can pretty much rest assured that a young gay kid or a 50-year-old kid or a 60-year-old kid is going to be looking over their shoulder and wondering, Are people judging me? Am I safe? In my culture of country music, no one had ever come out. No one had ever acknowledged, as an artist, his or her homosexuality. It would be so awesome if I were the fifth gay country music artist to acknowledge her homosexuality. But Im not. I just happen to be the first. I wouldve given anything as a little kid back in Kansas, playing my piano, dreaming of being like Loretta Lynn or Buck Owens or Conway Twitty, like I was, like I was dreaming that dream, had I been able to read liner notes on albums, like I did, and had I seen anything or anyone that represented someone like me. But I didnt. And now I know there is a little girl or a little boy practicing their guitar in Lincoln, Neb., thinking Taylor Swift is the greatest thing in America, and they want to be just like her, and they know that theyre different, like me. Now they can know, Phew! I dont have to be the first. Im proud of that. Youve come out to your sister, brother, father, and friends. Youve had a tumultuous relationship with your mother for years. Have you come out to her yet? I wouldnt call my relationship with my mother tumultuous. I would call my relationship with my mother dynamic. I dont know a woman my age who doesnt have an interesting relationship with her mother. My mother and I will have this discussion at the appropriate time. I love my mother very much and I hope that at some point when I tell her -- I hope it fills in a lot of gaps for her. I have hope. Perhaps I need to give her a little bit more credit. Maybe I have some walls up because of my fear of rejection. I have a lot of fear of rejection about my fans, my industry and the general public. I hope maybe Im projecting some of that onto my mother. Ill keep you posted. Does your sexuality factor at all into your new album, Lifted Off the Ground? My sexuality absolutely does factor into Lifted Off the Ground. These songs are a direct result of my breakdown. My breakdown started on the last day of 2005. If you can take a person having a broken heart, an implosion, and then wring them out like a dishrag and look at what comes out, thats these songs. There are no pronouns about men. Part of why this record had to be held back to be released with Like Me is because theres a particular song on the album called Like Me that is, theres no doubt, about my relationship with a woman. So there was no way that we could release it without my outing myself. I was halfway through the process of making the record when my producer, Rodney Crowell, and I sat on my front porch and through a couple of conversations and some introspection I realized, How can I talk about this record? How can I do my interviews and have people say, Chely, tell us about the song Damn Liar. Tell us about the song Broken. How did you come to write the song Object of Your Rejection? When you put out a record, you get asked about where these songs came from. I wrote all these songs by myself and this album is about my broken heart. Who was I going to say these songs were about? What lie was I going to make up next? I was trapped again. The public had no perception and no knowledge of any relationship Id been in. So was I going to make up some fake boyfriend in Argentina? I couldnt do it. So halfway through the making of the record I told my producer, Im going to come out. He said, How are you going to do it? I said, I dont know, but Im going to do it well. Im going to do it right. I think he wanted to sit around and discuss it because Rodneys got a very feminine side to him, which I love. I said, Theres one song that I havent played for you. Oh, and by the way, that was the day I came out to him. I sent him away and said, I need to send you a song. Its at the musical heart of what these other songs are about. I e-mailed him the song Like Me, which is clearly about my relationship with a woman. I e-mailed him the song, went downstairs to my office, opened my laptop, and I wrote the title page of Like Me. Thats the day I started my book. Do you think your coming out will change the country music industry? What would you like to say to the country music industry now? I very much believe that my coming out will change the country music industry in that there will never again have to be a first country music artist that has had hit records acknowledge his or her homosexuality. Thats off the table now. Done. Phew! What do I have to say to the country music industry? Well, one of my best friends said the other day, [Nashville] has caused you so much fear. I said, Yes, thats true, but that town is also the town that made my dreams come true. I dont have a love/hate relationship with Nashville. I have a love/fear relationship with Nashville. I no longer have to be afraid of my town, but Im still in love with Nashville. Thats the town where, when I was 8 years old, I wrote on my Christmas list, Mom, Dad, Santa Claus: Can we move to Nashville? Thats my town. I live in New York now, true, but Im incredibly proud to be a part of the Nashville music community. I dont say they or them. I say we. I still feel a part of it. I dont want to be left out. Its going to break my heart if I lose my country music career. But if thats what happens, so be it. Im incredibly proud to be a person theyve already signed off on and said, We like that gal. Were going to give her hit records and nominate her for awards and give her awards and were going to honor her with humanitarian awards and honors. Im proud of the things Ive done, and Im proud of the things Ill get to do. I hope they dont decide to leave me out, but if they do, I will find my way. Like Me (Pantheon Books) and Lifted Off the Ground (Vanguard Records) are available now

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