Skip to content

Chely Wright says, ‘I’m gay!’ Brave stand or marketing ploy?

May 6, 2010

It’s an act of courage any time a public figure comes out of the closet. So why is my admiration for country singer Chely Wright clouded by cynicism? Maybe it’s because the fading star declares herself a lesbian just when she has a new book and a new CD to promote…?

Since Wright went public Monday in an interview with People magazine, the Internet has been abuzz with speculation about whether her country career can survive the revelation. To which I say: What career?

Granted, Wright’s an expressive singer and a gifted songwriter, but her stardom peaked between 1999, when she hit No. 1 on the country charts with “Single White Female,” and 2001, when People magazine named her one of its  “50 most beautiful people.”

She lost her major label deal in 2003, after disappointing sales of her album Never Love You Enough. Since then she’s forged a place for herself as an independent artist, selling music largely through her website

Now 39, Wright’s days as a hot young Nashville hitmaker are long behind her. The new album, Lifted Off the Ground, is Wright’s first in five years. The good news: it’s produced by Rodney Crowell, one of the smartest talents in country music. Given Wright’s skill as a songwriter, my guess is it’s probably pretty good.

Wright’s memoir, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, may be pretty good, too. According to her publisher, it tells of growing up in a small Kansas town, the homecoming queen who knew she was different and prayed for God to “fix” her. She writes of leaving home at 17 to pursue her dreams of musical stardom, and her fear that she would lose everything if the truth came out.

But the way the story has been rolled out this week shows the signs of a well-planned marketing campaign, one that sells Wright as “the first country star to come out.” And thereby seeks to obliterate a real lesbian pioneer, K.D. Lang, from the history books.

In case you’ve forgotten, before she was a pop chanteuse, Lang was a country singer–and not a marginal one either: she won a Grammy in 1989 for best female country performance.

It was only in 1992, when she was ready to burst out of Nashville, that Lang declared her sexual orientation —  which set her up nicely for her subsequent triumph as a pop singer.

Given that Lifted Off the Ground is said to be less “country” than her previous albums, Wright’s announcement that she’s gay looks like nothing so much as a genius way to transition out of country and into either a mainstream pop or a sustainable folk-rock career.

Wright may be worried, as the many stories claim, about losing her country audience, but the truth is she’s set herself up so she doesn’t need them anymore.

That’s not to say I don’t believe Wright when she speaks of the pain she’s gone through living in the closet all these years, fearing rejection by country’s conservative audiences. But these stories are coming to us via a slick publicity blitz.

Wanna read how she cried during sex with former boyfriend Brad Paisley? See zap2it.com. About how fellow country star John Rich sent her into a depression by questioning her sexuality? EW.com. (And for Rich’s stunned response, gac.com). How, on the brink of suicide, she put a .9 mm pistol in her mouth? See accesshollywood.com for a video interview.

In fact, you can find Chely Wright all over the newsfeeds today, from any number of sources. (For what it’s worth, the deepest, most humanizing interview I’ve found is the one at Entertainment Weekly‘s musicmix.com).

So what do you think? Chely Wright is a lesbian: Brave stand or marketing ploy?

34 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2010 2:36 pm

    It can’t be both?

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 6, 2010 2:46 pm

    Why, yes, yes, it can. Johnny, I think we have a winner! What does the lovely Alexis win? Our undying admiration, yes? Don’t spend it all in one place, my dear. But you are right. I think Chely is trying to be brave, but I also think this is a deeply cynical and calculated move to revive her career with a new and less judgmental non-country audience. And what does she have to lose? It’s not like she’s some hot new thang, like Taylor Swift, with a rising career to protect. I’d say it’s a safe gamble, and one that’s likely to work out for Wright. And while I find the cynicism and calculation objectionable, it won’t prevent me from listening to her future work with pleasure if it’s any good, and as I say in the blog post, it may very well be.

  3. Sean permalink
    May 6, 2010 3:32 pm

    I’m going to cut Wright slack. There is definitely some button-pushing and career-positioning going on here – it’s a performance that we’re watching – but it’s her story and she’s allowed to present it as she sees fit, provided she’s not doing anything hurtful to herself, people around her or the LBGT community in general.

    Maybe her music career was at low ebb partly because she hadn’t come to terms with her true self, and owning up was part of getting unstuck, personally and artistically, and back on track.

    I wouldn’t call what Wright has done courageous – ‘courage’ being one of those words we throw around too easily – but there is a gut check: Wright has just done a full-scale public reboot that goes to the heart of who she is not just as an entertainer but as a person.

    Now is she subordinating the needs of the person to the needs of the entertainer in a way that could inspire cynicism? Possibly. On the other hand, back when she was living the lie of the straight single gal singing about boys and dating her male peers, she was definitely putting career above all.

    Charles Passy noted on Facebook that this has happened so often in showbiz (though not in country music) that by now there are, in essence, categories of coming out based on timing and motive:

    “The Ricky Martin thing really irked me. It seemed he chose not to be open when he thought it would have hurt his career and then chose to be open when it would help him (as in, “Who gives a shit about Ricky Martin anymore? Oh wait: He’s finally admitting he’s gay. Let’s put him on … See our magazine cover!”) Adam Lambert was an interesting example — he was essentially out all the way and used it to his advantage but also didn’t seem to flaunt it for those reasons. Clay Aiken is an even more interesting example — he didn’t come out till well after the show, but he did it at a point where it theoretically could have hurt his career (and guess what? it didn’t).”

    I can’t remember whether Aiken came out or was effectively tossed out because of some tabloid-y revelations, but anyways I think Charles is right, that there’s a kind of integrity meter associated with disclosing one’s gayness while in showbiz.

    And yes, you could definitely argue that Wright has handled the disclosure more like Ricky Martin and less like Adam Lambert – or for that matter like k.d. lang. Ricky might even be more sympathetic than Wright, because he was absolutely dogged by rumors about his orientation at every turn in his career – “He must be gay” was practically his tagline – and he was going to have to address the issue at some point.

    Wright? Not so much. In her case, the revelation feels like it comes out of nowhere and with far less context. But maybe the memoir is where she provides the missing context and explains her decisionmaking.

    Agreed that one bad decision Wright made was to downplay k.d.’s pioneering role in allowing country music to have a gay face – even before Chris Gaines!

    The only defense of that omission is that even at her most country, k.d. never belonged to the Nashville establishment, Grammy notwithstanding. Whereas Wright is very much a product of the culturally conservative company town of Reba, Toby, Tim and Faith, et.al. k.d. made her name on Sire records, the hip NYC label that signed the Ramones, Madonna, Talking Heads, The Cure, et. al., so she was already moving in circles where being gay or bi was cool, even if she didn’t come out until later.

    Anyways, we shall see whether Wright can complete the Hail Mary pass from country to folk-rock!

    S.

    p.s. bonus question: Are art and culture better served by an artist who hides an essential part of the self or by an artist who’s totally forthcoming?

  4. rachel permalink
    May 6, 2010 3:36 pm

    I agree. Both.

    I bet she was scared before of coming out. And right now the climate is just about right. She has more to gain than to lose.

    For the record, I never even though single white female was that good of a song.

    I do like seeing homosexuals in the media. I think it is good for us.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 6, 2010 4:02 pm

      Single White Female was okay, but Shut Up and Drive was really a good song.

      I like to see homosexuals in the media, too, especially when they show the diversity of gay life.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 6, 2010 3:50 pm

    Good lord, Sean. You’ve said a mouthful. First, I believe that, apart from politicians and activists who can do real damage by hiding their orientation while promoting homophobic policies, each person has the right to come out or stay in the closet, and for any reason whatsoever.

    As for Wright, as I say in the post, I don’t doubt her genuine pain and conflict, and she has the right to come out whenever she feels like it. But the rest of us have the right to recognize the publicity machine when we see it in operation, and to be skeptical of what it’s trying to sell us.

    And one thing it’s trying to sell us is Chely Wright as the first country star to come out. It’s true that Lang was never an accepted part of Nashville, but she was a successful country singer, and lots of people knew her as such.

    For Wright to try to write Lang — a genuine gay pioneer — out of history is pretty close to despicable.

    Another thing that makes this whole thing offensive is appearance: Lang is masculine — remember that awesome Vanity Fair cover of her being shaved like a man by Cindy Crawford? Wright on the other hand, his heartland fem. She looks like a girl, talks like a girl, acts like a girl. So it means more (more is lost?!) if she’s a lesbian. Need I say this is retrograde in the extreme?

    But Wright is cynical in other ways this is being handled. Her story of how sad she is that she “hurt” Brad Paisley, who supposedly wanted to marry her, is just as bad in a female way as Kenny Chesney defending aspersions against his sexuality by bragging about all the women he’s slept with. Yech, in both cases.

    Wright has also exploited John Rich by casting him as a villain in her story. He may deserve it, he may not be a “normal” person as she claims in her EW interview. But she doesn’t prove the case, which leaves her looking hateful and unjust. Maybe the book will fill in the blanks.

    I was a country fan back in the ’90s, before Nashville turned rancid, and I liked Chely Wright a lot. But until this weekend, when I was culling my CD collection, I had not thought of her in years. I stood in the living room, looking down at Let Me In. It was by the slimmest of margins that I slpped it back on the shelf instead of tossing it into the reject bin.

    This calculated move restores Wright to public attention. I can’t find much to admire about it.

    But I wish her luck. I’d love to see her put out a string of good folk-rock or alt.country albums.

  6. Sean permalink
    May 6, 2010 4:02 pm

    >>But until this weekend, when I was culling my CD collection, I had not thought of her in years. I stood in the living room, looking down at Let Me In. It was by the slimmest of margins that I slipped it back on the shelf instead of tossing it into the reject bin.>>

    Of such moments and such possessions – especially our albums and books – life is made! Well played, sir, well played.

    Two words for Chely: O prah.

  7. Sean permalink
    May 6, 2010 4:05 pm

    Also, I think it was you who once said that if men are sometimes guilty of turning women into sex objects, then women are sometimes guilty of turning men into relationship objects. Wright’s public show of feeling bad about hurting Brad Paisley proves your point.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 6, 2010 9:18 pm

      Yeah, I stand by that one, too.

  8. Sean permalink
    May 6, 2010 4:11 pm

    And in conclusion (applause!), here’s one to your point about pols and activists …

    http://blogs.miaminewtimes.com/riptide/rainbow_connection/

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 6, 2010 9:19 pm

      Yeah, I saw that. Delicious, is it not?

  9. Tommy Smart permalink
    May 6, 2010 4:44 pm

    Sean (as always) has brought up some good points.

    I think it could be both. And it could be neither.

    as to the bonus question, I guess It depends on whether the artist can keep their edge. If an “out” lyricist stop being able to use subtlety in their work, leaving the listener some wiggle room to make the song their own, then yes I suffer. So does the artist, who has now become a “one-act”.

    I think there is more to the mind of an artist than just their sexual orientation, so if done right, if done artfully, an artist or just a normal person could survive, even flourish after telling their truth. The world, art and culture, and most importantly the person themselves will be better.

    On the other hand, an artist who’s whole world is fiction, all the way down to the level of who they perceive themselves to be, would have to have nurtured an amazing imagination and be an expert in the art of story-telling.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 6, 2010 9:22 pm

      Oh, Tommy: You’re such an idealist. If I convey any truth in this blog myself, it’s that everything that happens in the mediaverse is about marketing, PR, selling you something. The points you raise are much less important (though not completely irrelevant, I’ll grant) in this world than they would be in a better one.

  10. Sean permalink
    May 6, 2010 4:53 pm

    Owning ones truth is brave. The book and record that I bought and read could not be releaed without her coming out. The songs and the stroy tell of this struggle. If she didn’t cone out they wouldn’t make sense. I am happy for her, there are kids everywhere that have a little mire hope because of her. Hope us what saves lives.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 6, 2010 9:47 pm

      “Owning one’s truth” is another overrated concept sucked up into the cultural maelstrom, where it will swirl around for awhile, leading more than a few unsuspecting innocents astray. More than two decades as a literary and entertainment journalist has convinced me that most artists have next to zero idea of their real truth. How could they? They’re generally blinded by the dazzle of their own enormous egos. Do you really think Norman Mailer had a clue as to his “own truth?” What about Nabokov? Kingsley Amis? Most are too besotted with drink, sex and self-regard to see any significant truth about themselves.

      “Owning one’s truth” is a cliche arising from therapy culture. It’s dehumanizing.

  11. Sean permalink
    May 6, 2010 5:41 pm

    “On the other hand, an artist who’s whole world is fiction, all the way down to the level of who they perceive themselves to be, would have to have nurtured an amazing imagination and be an expert in the art of story-telling.”

    @Tommy if there is going to be a First Rule of Truth in Artifice, I think you have just drafted a strong rationale for it – the idea that in some instances the make-believe can be so complete and essential that you couldn’t imagine the person or the work without it, never mind object to it. We could put the young David Bowie in that category, along with Andy Warhol, and maybe our aforementioned Philip K. Dick in his more rapturous periods.

    p.p.s. Chauncey recommended the the EW/Music Mix interview with Chely and as it happens Glenn Richards over on Facebook grabbed a quote from that article that I liked. Here she is:

    “I’ll get accused of this being a publicity-driven thing. And I can’t stop people from throwing that dagger my way. And quite frankly I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to defend myself against that. All I can say is, This is so much more truthful creatively than anything I’ve ever done. I couldn’t imagine saying, “What can I do for attention? I’ll come out, and then I’ll make a real country record for country radio!” I wouldn’t even begin to imagine how to do that. I couldn’t have made a different record right now. I’m not saying that won’t be my next record. I don’t have it in me right now. Anything else would be a lie. Not big into lying right now.””

    S.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 6, 2010 9:33 pm

      That’s all well and good, and as I said I have no doubt Chely has suffered and I’m glad she’s out, and able to “own her truth” (is that one of the more odious new cliches, or what?). But just because she acknowledges the likelihood rude people like me will accuse her of using her coming out to promote her new book and album doesnt mean it isn’t so. It might just mean she has really, really good advisors.

  12. May 7, 2010 8:40 am

    Let me ask all my friends this. I have friends in my life from all walks of life. I feel very honored for the friendship. When talking about your friends to another, do you add, she is a wonderful friend, she is my gay friend? I do not.
    When talking about other friends do you add, he is my minority friend? I do not. I guess I am saying it does not matter. To her it does for now. I am to agree with Chauncey.

  13. John Karwacki permalink
    May 7, 2010 8:43 am

    Ah, cynicism thy name is Chauncey Mabe. Love the comments on this blog; they are usually thoughtful and heartfelt. I am completely out of the loop on mainstream country. Like pop music, it seems corporate and artificial. Look what those bastards did to the Dixie Chicks. You mention Rodney Crowell who has some credentials (and soul) which nudges me to listen to some of Chely’s stuff. Without my advice she seems to be moving in the direction I and many ex-country lovers (remember the 70’s – Willie, Waylon, Cash pre-sobriety) have taken: Americana. I even love the word. One of my beefs with the entire music business is labels. Where does John Prine fit? Or Tift Merritt? Or Sheryl Crow for that matter? How about the Allman Brothers? Grateful Dead? Little Feat? Or Bonnie Raitt? I despise the fact that any artist needs to fit into a pre-packaged faction in order to fit on radio, television or anywhere beside the bargain bin of my local record store. There I go dating myself again; what’s a local record store, Dad? So, you go Chely – speak your truth and let the cards fall wherever they will. I promise not to care what you do in your bedroom if you’ll afford me the same courtesy. As Carl Lewis, Olympic track and field medal winner and consummate country singer said, “Life is about timing.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 7, 2010 10:36 am

      John, you make a good point about categories — what genre is John Prine, indeed? Categories exist mainly as marketing tools. And yet, genres do exist, even if they shift over time. Much of what was clearly rock music in the ’60s and ’70s would be Americana or alt.country (or even mainstream country) today. My rule of thumb? If it rocks, it’s rock. Country, on the other hand, originated as dance music, something we’re too seldom reminded of. Country music, therefore, does not rock, it swings.

  14. Sean permalink
    May 7, 2010 11:21 am

    “Country music, therefore, does not rock, it swings.”

    In honor of that observation I’m going to listen to ‘Tiger by the Tail’ and ‘Detroit City’ today.

    @John, Tift Merritt is a great mention – and maybe a role model for future Americana Chely Wright.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 7, 2010 1:45 pm

      I had wrestled with the difference between rock and country for many years, especially baffled by some of my favorite Americana acts — Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earle Keen, Patti Griffin, Buddy and Julie Miller (I could go on. And on) — who rock and yet still seem country. I still don’t quite know how they managed that. Something to do with Venn diagrams and advance acoustical physics, I believe. But I had my epiphany about the fundamental differences between country and rock while listening to Wagonmaster, the 2007 Porter Waggoner album, produced by Marty Stuart. Waggoner, a neglected icon of country music could swing like nobody’s business. This late album, coming shortly before his death at age 80, is a masterpiece that should be set alongside the American Recordings Johnny Cash did with Rick Rubin.

      Here’s a link to something I wrote about Porter Waggoner: http://weblogs.sun-sentinel.com/features/arts/offthepage/blog/2007/08/a_giant_of_elder_times.html

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 7, 2010 1:47 pm

      I had wrestled with the difference between rock and country for many years, especially baffled by some of my favorite Americana acts — Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earle Keen, Patti Griffin, Buddy and Julie Miller (I could go on. And on) — who rock and yet still seem country. I still don’t quite know how they managed that. Something to do with Venn diagrams and advance acoustical physics, I believe.

      But I had my epiphany about the fundamental differences between country and rock while listening to Wagonmaster, the 2007 Porter Waggoner album, produced by Marty Stuart. Wagoner, a neglected icon of country music could swing like nobody’s business. This late album, coming shortly before his death at age 80, is a masterpiece that should be set alongside the American Recordings Johnny Cash did with Rick Rubin.

      Here’s a link to something I wrote about Porter Wagoner: http://weblogs.sun-sentinel.com/features/arts/offthepage/blog/2007/08/a_giant_of_elder_times.html

    • Bob Alquiza permalink
      March 26, 2011 1:55 pm

      dude i agree

  15. John Karwacki permalink
    May 7, 2010 12:27 pm

    Sean, I got a million of ’em. Shelby Lynn, anyone? I agree with Chauncey that a lot of what plays on country radio today sounds like 70’s pop; again I just don’t care for contrived boxes. Don’t fence me in, right? Patty Griffin is one of my favorites these days. I suppose she would be considered country because she has written hits for country acts, but this lady is so much more. Man, I weep at some of her stuff – to me that’s art and I don’t care what genre you place it in. What ever happened to soul music? Hijacked by thugs and wanna be gangsters. Don’t get me started… too late.

  16. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 7, 2010 1:57 pm

    Making Pies is one of my favorites of the past 10 years, a Patty Griffin classic. Do you know Kathleen Edwards? Joy Lynn White? Iris Dement? The Meat Purveyors? Old Crow Medicine Show? Robbie Fulks? I could name dozens. We’ve actually been through a country music Renaissance the past decade and a-half. And Nashville paid no attention whatsoever.

    I take mild umbrage at your remark that Griffin is so much more than country — as though being country were not enough! Emmy Lou Harris once said singing country music sounds easy, but it’s actually the hardest thing in the world.

    Kinda like hitting a major league curve ball.

    Shelby Lynne has a new album out any day. Don’t overlook her sister, Alison Moorer, another fabulous country talent.

  17. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 7, 2010 2:00 pm

    One other thing: Holly Dunn, who had a few Nashville hits in the ’80s (Daddy’s Hands, among them), was known to be a lesbian, I believe. She wasn’t a superstar, but she was a legitimate country music star of her day. She’s a successful artist now, I understand.

  18. John Karwacki permalink
    May 8, 2010 6:23 pm

    I love all these artists you mentioned, Chauncey. Robbie Fulks, wow, Lucinda, genius, Robert Earl, no doubt. I agree about Porter Wagoner too and Sean’s mention of Buck Owens, a totally neglected figure. Who knew you literary types were so eclectic. Too cool for school – sounds like a country song.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 11, 2010 3:56 pm

      As I once read in a magazine primarily devoted to classical music, country-and-western is the musical form closest to Shakespeare: It always tells a story, frequently about murder and lust and ambition and revenge, and it puts a premium on language. So I see no disparity betwixt literature and country music at all.

  19. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 10, 2010 10:39 am

    Congratulations to anyone who has the “balls” to come out of the closet. Double good for you if you can use that scenario–scary for many people– to actually boost your career.

  20. Pat permalink
    May 18, 2010 2:26 pm

    Chauncey Mabe … ignorant people like you who feel the need to continue to spread rumors that you hear about another person/artist is the reason why people live in pain because they have to lie who they are. If you do not know if she is a lesbian, don’t write her name down. Its also apparent you do not know about her career. You just know rumors! What a idiot you are!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 19, 2011 3:11 pm

      Pat: Rumors? What rumors? She’s written a book and she’s been all over TV and magazines. Taking her word for it, I think Chely Wright is gay. Your point, however, eludes me entirely.

  21. Justin biber permalink
    March 26, 2011 1:56 pm

    I want you to go out with me

  22. April 19, 2016 4:39 am

    interesting. going t obookmark this one🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: