The 2010s have been a big dang deal in the life of Chely Wright. She kicked off the decade by coming out in a very public way with a huge media blitz supporting an autobiography (Like Me) and an album (Lifted Off the Ground), as well as the related LikeMe Foundation. Over the next few years, she released a documentary, got married, got pregnant, had twin boys, ran a Kickstarter campaign, and suffered the loss of her mother.
Pooling the emotional after-effects from all those life changes with the funds earned through Kickstarter, Wright emerged in 2016 with I Am the Rain, the beautiful new album she made with producer Joe Henry. With all but one song written (or co-written) by Wright, the record features players known for their work with Ray LaMontagne and Jackson Browne rather than Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood. Guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and the Milk Carton Kids further testify to Wright’s transition out of the commercial country music she was once largely known for and into the more rough-and-tumble realm of Americana. That was a big reason for Wright wanting to work with Henry and it became a large part of their vision for the project: “We set out not to make a record that was, ‘Look! Here are 13 songs you can hear on the radio!’”
Instead, Wright offers up 13 songs that turn their gaze inward, looking at presence and compassion, faith and foundations. Even a simple scan of the song titles betrays the album’s introspective intent — “Inside,” “At the Heart of Me,” “What About Your Heart,” “Pain,” and “See Me Home,” among others. Indeed, she’s come a long way from “Single White Female.”
In the middle of the set, Wright makes Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” her own, with a perspective few others would be able to bring. Because she stuck to Dylan’s original pronouns, the tenderness in her voice expresses all it needs to as she sings lines like, “Yes, and only if my own true love was waitin’. Yes, and if I could hear her heart a-softly poundin’. Only if she was lyin’ by me, then I’d lie in my bed once again.”
Though she loves putting a gay spin on the cut, she’s also content to sing songs straight, as it were. “To interpret a song, you don’t have to have lived through every perfect detail,” she explains. “And I often say this: I’m pretty sure Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. My job is to tell a story in four-and-a-half minutes and I don’t feel shackled to the idea that I need to make everything a female pronoun now. And, quite frankly, I still feel good about singing ‘single white female looking for a man like you.’ I’m a character in the song.”
Having grown up in Kansas, Wright moved to Nashville in 1989 in hopes of making it big. Her debut album dropped five years later and her first number one single five years after that. It would be another 11 years before she would come out publicly.
Thanks to artists like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves, commercial country music has begun to lean a little more left in recent years, but, if she had it all to do over again in the current conditions, would Wright be out from the start? “If I were a new artist who just got to town, I may be a little tentative to be the first. I may be a little tentative to try to get a real record deal being out because, out of the 20 real hitmakers that there are right now, none of them are out,” she says. “So I would follow that lead, probably, and say, ‘Now’s not the time to come out.’ Doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have tried to get, maybe, a couple of hits under my belt and then come out right after I had a number one record.”
She continues, “I mean, I thought about it back then. I had fantasies about walking out on the ACM [Academy of Country Music] stage after I did a performance or gave an award or got an award, and saying, ‘Thanks for this.’ I really did. I thought about it. I really wanted myself to have the courage to do it, but… as far as being a new artist coming to town, being openly gay, and telling the world. I would be really reticent to approach the labels and say, ‘Hey, I’m gay. Will you give me a record deal?’ Maybe it’s a lack of courage on my part.”
For anyone who has seen Wright’s 2011 documentary, Wish Me Away, a lack of courage is not something that is remotely equatable with the singer/songwriter, something which the charitable work through her LikeMe organization further evidences. Comparing and contrasting her two main forms of impact — music and activism — she offers, “It does feel good to have people say that, ‘You’ve been a soundtrack to my 20s.’ Or, ‘My mom listened to you and now I listen to you and you’re a part of our lives.’ That’s a good feeling on a… I don’t want to say ‘shallow’… but it makes you feel good about the work, the time, the effort that you sit down and write 50 songs and only two of them are good. That makes you feel good.
“But, as far as on a spiritual level — and have I kept my commitment with God to try to put more into the world than I take out — someone being touched by my coming out story is definitely the best of the best.”