Chely Wright and the expanding definition of the All-American girl
After a few days of bated breath across the gossip blogs (and the inevitable leak), word is out, officially: Chely Wright is a lesbian. The 80% of you who just said, "Who?" support the skeptical view that the country singer-songwriter -- whose only real crossover hit was 1999's man-hunting anthem, "Single White Female" -- could use the small publicity avalanche still guaranteed by the admission of anything but card-carrying heterosexuality. She does have a new album coming out, the Rodney Crowell-produced "Lifted Off the Ground," and a memoir. The timing was definitely calculated. But the announcement still carries weight.
The discussion unfolding across the gossip blogs is veering more toward an assessment of celeb publicist Howard Bragman's spin than a consideration of what impact Wright's announcement might have on her fans. There's also the chorus of k.d. lang fans who point out that the attractive diva has been open about her own lesbianism since the early 1990s. Lang performed at the Olympics! Doesn't get more mainstream than that.
Yet Wright's admission could have an effect beyond the mercurial rises and dips of the blogosphere. A growing number of women at the rootsy-Americana end of the country spectrum -- from the Indigo Girls to the seriously underrated Brandi Carlile -- are openly gay, but Wright's admission takes place within a different context. Not only did she spend years as part of the Music Row machine, writing hits for (and being romantically linked to) the likes of Brad Paisley, she is a favorite among military families for her active support of the troops. Now she's challenging the paradigm of "Don't ask, don't tell" as it survives among the fans she made as, in the words of longtime Nashville chronicler Chris Willman on the Huffington Post, "the closest thing to a WWII-era Betty Grable pin-up girl."
Willman wrote extensively about Wright in his excellent book "Rednecks & Bluenecks: the Politics of Country Music." She made a great subject because she represents the greater subtleties of the American heartland. The Kansas City native's 2004 song, "Bumper of My SUV," decries the snap judgments of liberals who scorn pro-military gestures. She wrote it after another driver confronted her about a pro-Marines sticker she had received from her active-duty brother and affixed to her vehicle. The song, like many in contemporary country, decries any clear political affiliation while supporting the soldiers most often taken up as symbols by the political right.
The not-so-obvious stance expressed in "Bumper of My SUV" is one taken daily by many Americans, who feel misrepresented by the left and the right. This experience of not fitting anyone's stereotype is true when it comes to sexuality, too, though it's less frequently spoken of. In smaller cities and towns throughout America -- and yes, in the semi-rural South still idealized in country music -- gay men and lesbians are living their lives, often having families and figuring out how to fit into communities that feel like home, except for the judgments they may face by those who condemn their "lifestyle" or those who simply haven't encountered open homosexuality before.
Going public, Wright has a chance to connect to these extremely underrepresented women and men, who don't see themselves within the environs of lesbian and gay chic any more than they do at the megachurch their neighbors attend.
There's a song on her new album, "Like Me," that seems to speak from this position. It's a love song, though at first it seems like it could be sung to a sister or even a child. Wright's lyrics enumerate the overlooked details that endear a lover: nearsightedness, a hatred of tomatoes, a tolerance for extra-hot bathwater. Then she wonders who will finally win the heart of the one she so sweetly describes: "A beautiful woman or a tall handsome man?" That both are possibilities seems a given.
In almost the same breath, Wright sings, "Will anyone ever know you like me?" Wright is letting this beloved go. Must she do so because this is a view from the closet, an expression of desire that couldn't be admitted, even in the midst of so much intimacy? If so, let's hope that public statements such as Wright's will help make such sad songs less necessary.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Chely Wright poses with a soldier in Iraq. Credit: chely.com