The Nashville siren who's glad to be gay
The world is waiting to see just how the country music establishment reacts to the news that one of its most popular stars in the US, Chely Wright, has come out as a lesbian.
The 39-year-old native of Kansas City, Missouri, flummoxed her fans when she revealed in a series of TV interviews in America and in People magazine that she is gay.
Chely's publicity drive is to promote her autobiography, Like Me, an intimate memoir in which she discusses the reasons why she has decided to come out of the closet after all this time. The book, which was three years in the writing, was published last week to coincide with the release of her new album, Lifted Off The Ground.
Recorded with the legendary Nashville songwriter Rodney Crowell, once a guitarist in Emmylou Harris's Hot Band, Chely's new album -- her seventh -- is her most personal yet, and was written as her way of overcoming her demons after suffering a nervous breakdown triggered by the end of a relationship.
According to a posting on Chely's MySpace page, she was "seized by emotions she neither understood nor had any control over". Chely obsessively strummed her treasured Gibson guitar "till her fingers were as raw as her psyche".
"I didn't really play guitar until my breakdown," she explains. "but it was a cold winter, and I couldn't stand to be downstairs where my piano is, so I just stayed in bed with my J200 and literally played till my fingers bled. I put Super-Glue on the ends every morning and kept sticking fake nails on my fingers so I could keep strumming-just really primal."
Having emerged from her long dark night of the soul, Chely (who was born Richell Rene Wright) now faces a new and equally daunting challenge: how will her fans react to her coming out? Has she put her career in jeopardy?
Country music has never openly embraced homosexuality in the same way that other musical genres. There is no Nashville Liberace; no Freddie Mercury of Music Row. The Grand Ole Opry has never been synonymous with cross-dressing, androgynous Ziggy Stardusts striding across the stage in vertiginous platforms, mascara'd cheeks and false eyelashes. Rufus Wainwright did not make a beeline for the capital of Tennessee when he migrated to the US.
Even indie rock has its gay stars: American Music Club's Mark Eitzel is prolific in penning tortured love songs about his ex-boyfriends; Huskur Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould attacked homophobia in his song 'If I Can't Change Your Mind'; and REM's Michael Stipe has spoken openly of his sexuality in recent interviews.
Yet Nashville has no corresponding equivalent of San Francisco's Castro district. Alas, the mainstream country music of today is dominated by the so-called 'hat acts' -- chisel-jawed men with neatly trimmed goatees wearing oversized Stetsons, blue denim shirts and cowboy boots, wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes with their ultra-patriotic anthems that seem written especially for Republican Party conventions.
From Garth Brooks (whom Kinky Friedman calls "the anti-Hank") to Brooks & Dunn; from Kenny Chesney to Toby Keith, the scene is so overbearingly macho that the only gay in the village is conspicuous by his absence.
And until this week, her absence. From Loretta to Trisha to Shania, female country stars have traditionally stood by their man. True, kd Lang flirted with country music for a while but the Canadian lesbian chanteuse has since moved away from the genre.
One thinks of how Dusty Springfield was encouraged to keep quiet about her lesbianism for fear it would destroy her livelihood. In this context, it's easy to see why Chely might be wary of wearing her sexuality on her sleeve.
"I fully expect to lose my career," she told one interviewer, adding that she'd been keeping the secret for over 15 years. Indeed, there had been no clues in her music up to now. The chorus to her biggest hit, 'Single White Female', goes: "This single white female is looking for a man like you."
"Historically, country music would rather an artist be a drunk," she added. "They would rather you were a drug addict than be gay. They will forgive you if you beat your wife, lose your kids to the state, get six divorces, make a sex tape, get labelled as a tramp. Any and all of these is better than being gay."
In her book, Chely recounts a conversation she had with fellow country singer John Rich, the songwriter behind John McCain's 2008 presidential election anthem. "You're not gay, are you?" he is said to have asked her. "I said, 'No, John, I'm not.' He said, 'Good, thank God.' And that began a spiral for me. I had a meltdown shortly after that."
Indeed, Chely says that she seriously contemplated taking her own life in the midst of her breakdown. John Rich apologised on the radio last week for having upset Chely back in 2000, and denied that his comments were meant to be homophobic.
"I was clumsily trying to express my relief that even a country boy like me had a one-in-a-million chance of having a beer with a woman as talented and attractive as Chely."
Time will tell if Chely has helped usher in a new era of inclusiveness and sensitivity among the Nashville establishment. Let's hope they do the Wright thing.
Like Me is published by Random House. Lifted Off The Ground is out now on Vanguard