Wish Me Away:
The Coming-Out Story of Chely Wright
Country star Chely Wright had finally gotten everything she’d wished and worked so hard for since she’d started singing Loretta Lynn songs as a four-year-old girl in Welleville, Kansas. She had eight albums and fifteen country chart singles, including the No. 1 “Single White Female.” She’d been honored by the Academy of Country Music, featured in sexy People and FHM spreads, written songs for Brad Paisley, Richard Marx, the Indigo Girls, and Mindy Smith, among others. She’d dated Paisley and done the rounds of talk shows.
So why one day after a period of isolation, depression, and not eating enough, did Wright find herself crying, putting a gun in her mouth, and praying for God to give her some reason not to pull the trigger? Because for the better part of four decades, she’d been, in the words of one of her songs, “a damn liar,” hiding the homosexuality she’d been taught since childhood in church to loathe as demonic, and hating herself for both her orientation and her cowardice. Midway through her career, she had made a deal with God that when she hit it big, she’d come out of the closet, providing succor to all the bullied gay kids—out or closeted—who were looking for love and validation. But she made it big, then made it bigger, and still couldn’t find the courage to make that leap.
After that gun incident, though, she felt God’s warmth, she tells us, and began to gather forces to come out like no other. (There are some asterisks around this, given how you define “country” or, for that matter, “coming out” in Nashville’s somewhat Don’t Ask Don’t Tell environs, but consensus seems to be that Wright is the first major country music star to do so.) An astonishingly organized, driven musician and performer since her preteens, Wright marshaled those talents toward a new goal. Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf—the filmmakers behind the involving, tender film, Chely Wright: Wish Me Away—documented the three years leading up to Wright’s announcement via album, book, and film.
If the film, and indeed the whole multi-front campaign, seems sometimes overwrought and irritatingly self-involved—and occasionally it does—consider that Wright wasn’t a rocker, wasn’t a punk, wasn’t a Broadway crooner or a jazz diva. She was a performer who lived for the love of her fans, and had the good and bad fortune to choose a musical genre Krazy Glued to Bible-belt, hetero, patriotic, red-state values. Just ask the Dixie Chicks—and yes, Wish Me Away does make an interesting companion piece to 2006’s Shut Up and Sing, which chronicled the Chicks’ country-fan comeuppance in the wake of their anti-Bush, anti-Gulf War brouhaha.
As country music historian Don Cusic puts it, “Fans are loyal to an artist until they feel betrayed.” Even surrounded by an enviable team of veteran, topflight managers, spiritual advisers, producers, publicists, editors, stylists, friends, and family, Wright knew that what she was contemplating was nothing less than pressing the self-destruct button on the musical career she’d spent her life building. So hey, be a little self-involved, right? Heck, she’s earned it.
It’s the kind of decision you’d only make if you couldn’t not make it. “For decades I thought I’d take that secret to my grave,” Wright tells us. But living life “not openly and not honestly about killed me, so I’m gonna take it back.”
An interesting wrinkle is that while she may be riding that float now in the Chicago Pride parade, Wright’s still, politically, more than a little bit country. The sister of a Marine, she wrote a song (“Bumper of My S.U.V.”) about an altercation she had over a Marine sticker on her car. She says: “For some reason people think that you can’t be gay and have those platforms of your life. I’ve never denied God and I am about family and I am about the freedoms of my country. And I’m gay.”
Part of the film’s fascination is that it alternates between production values as flush and slick as any CMT music video and shaky home-video snippets of Wright, often in the middle of the night, spilling her self-doubting guts. At the one-month countdown before her coming out launch, for instance, she says, “I don’t know if I have the courage to actually have anyone see this tape.” In a wee-hour home videoed rant, Wright tells off her otherwise esteemed book editor, Random House’s Victoria Wilson, after the latter made a dismissive comment about a sensuous swimsuit shoot Wright did at the height of her career. You be a feminist your way, Wright says in far more colorful language accompanied by a gesture involving a finger, and I’ll do it my way. Hey, can Wright help it if she is, in the words of one colleague, drop-dead gorgeous?
Wright’s massive coming-out party has no pat ending. There are the vestiges of a childhood at the apparently physically and verbally abusive hands of her mother, though Chely’s sister Jennifer seems to have borne the brunt of that. There’s the reluctant but persistent disapproval of Jennifer’s husband, Mike, who still regards homosexuality as a sin. There are Wright’s regrets over the pain her lies caused others. Of Paisley, she says tearfully: “I just completely cut him off and that’s the worst thing you can do to a person…. I was a coward.”
And, of course, there are, amid the flurry of hate mail and death threats, all those lost fans Wright lived for. “There’s nobody quite as mean as people being mean for Jesus,” says Wright’s spiritual adviser, C. Welton Gaddy. Wright’s songwriting/producing colleague Rodney Crowell predicts in the film that the country-music world wouldn’t hound Wright out of town, but that they’d freeze her out in a special, quiet, deadly passive-aggressive Nashville way. That seems to be exactly what’s happened.
Still, one can only imagine Wright’s got a lot of new fans. She has a wife, too! And she’s got her soul back. “I don’t feel like I’m coming out,” she says. “I feel like I’m coming together.”
“I feel as if it’s my birthday,” Wright says thrillingly. “I’m super-duper out!”
Her supportive dad Stan thinks that while Chely might be the first big country star to come out, she sure won’t be the last.
Look to your right, Country USA. Look to your left. Look to your own families and churches and schools. As Wright sings in the immortal words of Chuck Berry—and her version’s grown on me, though I still like Emmylou’s best—“C’est la vie, say the old folks. Goes to show you never can tell.”
Find out where Wish Me Away is screening here. The documentary will also be available on video October 16; more information here.