I grew up in California and, despite the grossly mis-informed stereotype the rest of the states seem to have about California, many of us are actually huge Country Music fans. Every summer since I was about 12, my sister and I would try and see every Country artist that came through our city. One summer we saw 12 artists in just 4 months!
When I was 13, I got a job working at the Iowa State Fair where my cousins lived and raised animals. During the weeks of the Fair, dozens of artists (mostly Country) came to play at the Grandstand, a huge outdoor facility that sat over 10,000 people. By the second or third year that I worked at the Fair, I had figured out how to sneak into the Grandstand to see the best artists. I knew it was wrong but what can I say? I was a mischievous teen!
One year, Country music artist Chely Wright came to play the Grandstand and I snuck in to watch her rehearse. I loved her hair and I remember wanting to look just like her. I never could have imagined, all those years ago watching her sing “Shut Up and Drive”, that I’d relate to her so much as an adult. Or that it would be Chely’s struggle in the Country Music world that would tear my heart to pieces.
On May 3, 2010, Chely became the first commercial Country Music artist to come out as a Lesbian. I remember when she did, and I remember the minor stir it caused, but I guess I was largely naive to the real struggle Chely faced as she made the decision to be honest about her life. I recently came across the documentary “Wish Me Away“, filmed over the course of the 3 years prior to Chely’s coming out. It includes very personal interviews and conversations, as well as video diaries Chely took in the weeks before the announcement.
As I watched the documentary, my heart broke little by little. It broke as Chely told her story about being afraid to come out to her Father, only to later realize that there was nothing to fear. It broke when Chely recognized that there would always be people in the world that wouldn’t get the choices she made. It broke watching her struggle with what “normal” is and how to just fit in. And, most of all, it broke when she spoke about the real possibility of being cast out in the Country music industry.
In one interview in the documentary, Chely talks about having dinner with a male Country star a few years back. Rumors of Chely’s sexuality had been circling and this unknown artist flat-out asked Chely, “You’re not gay are you?” After Chely denied it, he apparently responded with, “Well, good, because Country Music won’t have it.” One of her producers, Rodney Crowell, expressed his fear of her being “iced out” of Nashville because of the way the Country Music world views homosexuality. Author and Country Music Historian Don Cusic predicted that many fans might consider it “a betrayal”. While being interviewed by a Birmingham radio station, Chely was told by the DJ to just “Shut up and sing.”
For so long, I have adored Country music and the artists that create it. It breaks my heart to know that so many of those singers I’ve loved for all these years, can’t accept their fellow Country artist just because she’s gay. A few weeks after coming out, Chely appeared on Oprah, who asked Chely if any Country stars had reached out in support. Chely replied that only two had so far.
I refuse to accept that Chely’s brave decision is something that will end her career. I have downloaded each one of her songs on iTunes (even ones I already owned on CD’s) and bought her memoir, “Like Me” for my Nook. Maybe you aren’t a Country music fan. And maybe you’ve never heard of Chely Wright. But perhaps you can help spread the word about her courage. And maybe her story is one to inspire others out there to be as brave as she was.