Chely Wright 1 – Country Music 0: Is Country Too Staid to Go Gay?
COLUMN: It's official. Doomsday Fundamentalists will most certainly herald the forthcoming of the End of Days. They've been given a sign. What sign would that be, you may ask? Well, of course, I'm referring to the People Magazine interview in which multi-award winning and chart topping Country Music Artist Chely Wright has officially announced that she is a lesbian.
First 7.0 earthquakes peppering the globe, then volcanoes erupting beneath glaciers while holding cross-oceanic airports hostage, and now â€“ Chely Wright is a big ol' Lady Lover. Surely this must be the sign of The End.
If Country Music is smart, it will be the sign of a Beginning.
The reaction to Chely Wright's coming out has been explosive. Blog after blog across the internet reflects supportive fans, indignant Country Music Purists inflamed at the very notion of, well â€“ YOU know what, k.d. lang fans who are in an uproar over Chely's publicist's claims that Chely, not k.d., is the first country artist to officially come out as gay, and a staggering crop of twenty-somethings who are completely irritated by the fact that some 39-year-old-whoever is now saying she's tipping the velvet. Like, omg, who cares? That's so 1990-something.
Well, if I could ask any of the incredulous Gen Y's out there to stop Twittering for a moment about how u thot yr Big Mac wus sick — it may interest you to know (and you can even Twitter about this later) that Chely Wright's coming out is an incredibly important play in the touchy political landscape of Country Music, an industry that is almost indelibly tied to the God and Country Evangelical Christian Movement, thanks to a few Country artists and a few politicians. If that sharp sociological significance, coupled with GAY, escapes you â€“ I mean, u — then I suggest you return to the World of Warcraft.
Chely Wright has had 13 number one chart positions across Billboard, the CMT's and GAC's. She has had eight songs and videos in the top ten. Chely Wright was as mainstream-cross-over-hot-airwaves-Country as it could get. She was â€œAmerica's Sweetheartâ€ before Taylor Swift was even walking on her own. In fact, without artists like Chely Wright, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzy Bogguss, and Shania Twain, Taylor Swift would not even have a market niche in which to play.
So is Chely Wright's coming out as a lesbian a big deal, in an industry where God and the Red, White, and Blue are the bread and butter?
Um â€“ yeah.
If she were a one-hit wonder, this coming out to People Magazine would be seen as nothing more than a late-career publicity stunt. However, Chely Wright was far from a one-hit wonder. She was one of a handful of female Country Artists who helped shape, and redefine the modern country music market as it is identified today. She is the first country artist to â€œcome outâ€.
Many k.d. lang fans disagree, but it's important to remember that k.d., though incredibly accomplished and courageous for being exactly who she was when no one else was allowing themselves to be seen as gay â€“ entered the industry as an out gay woman, so there was no â€œcoming outâ€ to be had. It's also important to note that to her credit, k.d. lang has the support of being Canadian, a country who is sociologically very accepting of gays and lesbians, where Chely Wright has made an announcement in the good ol' U.S. of A, where we are far less tolerant. So though yes, k.d. lang would be the first artist singing country music that people associated with being gay â€“ Chely Wright would still be the first mainstream Country Artist to come out.
I know of several closeted mainstream gay country artists, and whether they come out or not is their business. I also know what a toll the entire closeting process takes upon an artist. So the fear of losing their careers and their fans is even more crippling to these Country Artists than the unbearable weight of pretending to be someone that they’re not, day in and day out. Think about that for a moment.
Chely Wright is amongst a crop of choice cross-over mid-nineties country artists who planted their lips square on the stagnant mouth of a flat-lined pop and country market and gave a big enough puff for country music to not only cough out the dust that had settled on a dark solo horse carrying the country industry by the name of Garth Brooks, but to breathe the color back into the cheeks of pop listeners who were left dashed against the rocks in the wake of the airwaves Smelling Like Teen Spirit.
Chely Wright's contributions to the face of Country music are enormous, and ergo, her announcement regarding her sexuality carries much weight. To understand the weight of this impact, one must fully understand what was occurring in the musical climate of the nineties.
When the early nineties Grunge Boom took the music scene, it was such a phenom that it ate everything on the airwaves from pop to rock. If you didn't like Grunge, too bad. Every label was clamoring to create this sound.
I was signed to a record label in Seattle during the Grunge Boom, as a pop artist, and my job was to help fill the non-Grunge gap. I'm gay, and I was told expressly by my label that I was in no way to publicize that I was a lesbian. I was to stay “in the closet” because I could â€œpassâ€ as a “straight girl”. Well, I came out anyway, because I knew how hard it would be to attempt to hide an entire life, so I figured being openly gay would be much easier. I was right in the long run. The label was much, much less than happy in the short run. This may seem odd in retrospect, considering that Seattle was viewed as the Ultimate Fringe. But beneath it all — all the Grunge, and the Defiance, were big dollars, and no one wants to gamble with those. Remember, this was 20 years ago — the â€œDon't Ask Don't Tellâ€ generation, not the â€œTattoo Me Gender Queerâ€ generation.
In the nineties, the commercial homophobia in music was intense, even outside of the Country industry. Not to mention, the music scene was tipped on its ear by this overpowering Grunge phenom. So musical adjustments had to be made, and Chely Wright was part of those adjustments. There was an enormous hole open in the airwaves, and the Country Music Market was smart enough to adapt â€“ and take advantage of what was wide open: The pop market listenership.
â€œNew Countryâ€ was born, taking up the slack for everyone who wanted more than the Grunge movement. The brand of Country that came out to fill this gap was superbly crafted to be easy on the ears and almost pop-esque in its listenability. Gone from the now-branded â€œNew Countryâ€ were the hard â€œrâ€s, weeping steel guitars, and checkered-bloused bouffant babes, and in their place came smart, sexy and savvy gals crooning in low, dulcet tones about their weaknesses, their incredibly strengths, and with arrangements that hinted of Country pain, but didn't jam the eye-watering Western clear down the listeners' ear canals.
It was absolute producing genius, and it elevated a then-limping Country genre to appeal to not only Country listeners, but a whole new demographic. It changed the Country music market forever, later inspiring Country greats like Johnny Cash to cover Nine Inch Nails. â€œNew Countryâ€ married classic country and pop. It was to be what mainstream Country has become. Chely Wright was one of its finest, launching into the 2000's with purpose, zest and zeal, along with Shania and Martina McBride and a host of other Country Sweethearts, winning the souls and adoration of a nation that had been drenched in the mossy melancholy of the Northwest for a little too long.
So here comes Chely Wright, fifteen years later, once a fixture in the New Country Turnover, announcing she's gay. No biggie if you're a citizen of the new millennium. But this means that every traditional Country listener who has been spinning Chely for fifteen years â€“ has been loving a lesbian's music. This is an issue if your music is your way of life, which tends to be the case with many Country listeners. Reference the fan reaction regarding the Dixie Chicks and Natalie's comment about George W. Bush. That's extreme, but so are the loyalties of the fans in the Country Music Industry. Now start doing Chely Wright's math.
Holy emotional and sociological dilemma, Batman.
The Country Music industry would be well served in this new millennium to go ahead and use Chely Wright as a transition piece, once again, just as she was utilized along with the other â€œNew Countryâ€ cadets, in conjunction with referencing Country Grammy winners such as k.d. lang, to demonstrate what â€œlibertyâ€ and â€œfreedomâ€ â€“ two of it's driving tenants — are all about.
The squeaky-clean apple-pie stigma placed around female Country Artists forces the artists to lie to their fans, their families â€“ the public in general, if they are to maintain any sort of career, and that insincere modality is in direct violation with the â€œdown-home codeâ€ of the country artist. I know a little something about this code. I'm from Montana. That's a dyed-in-the-wool Country Music culture. I've had a chance to play and write for some great Country artists like Chris Ledoux. I certainly wasn't announcing to Chris that I was a lesbian, but then again, I didn't need to because he already knew that, and didn't care, since Montana is a â€œLive and Let Live Cultureâ€, so it was a non-issue. Which is my point entirely here.
If the Country Music Industry was less concerned with offending the religious members of their ranks, which are many as God is an enormous foundational backbone in that genre, and be more concerned with adhering to the Christian tenants of not judging one's neighbor, as â€œye without sin cast the first stoneâ€, as Jesus asked all Christians to do, then the Country Music industry would send a clear message that indeed â€“ they were 100% behind an All-American attitude of Living and Let Live, of not judging one's neighbor but of supporting the great work that a great neighbor does, that what happens in an individual's personal life is between them and God alone, should they chose that path, that not one of us â€“ not ONE of us â€“ is qualified to sit in moral judgment of another person, ever â€“ then I cannot imagine a more unified, more all-American, more freedom-based, more God and Country stance.
There is strength in the truth, no matter how difficult it may feel coming over the lips.
I am going to go out on a limb today and actually pull for the Country Music Industry, that they will have the strength, and the courage, and the commitment, and the integrity to do the right thing with this opportunity that has been afforded them. I will hold out great hope that the Country Music Industry will seize this important and pivotal moment in musical history, and in time, to take advantage of the press focus surrounding Chely Wright's proclamation, and finally make a statement on the utter foolishness of attempting to hide the essence in each one of us. Hiding who you are is not American. Forcing someone to hide is not Christian. And hiding certainly does not represent Freedom. God, the Stars and Stripes, and Freedom — all three things that the Country Music Credo is based upon.
C'mon, Country Music Industry â€“ put on your big boy boots. It's time to pony up, or leave Cheyenne.
Editorial Note: the above article by Ms. Egnew does not necessarily reflect the opinion of this publication. Further, it has not been edited or corrected in any way in order to maintain her â€œvoiceâ€ for this article.
May 5, 2010 @ 1:40 AM PDT
This is quite possibly the best thing that I have read in reference to Chely Wright’s coming out. As a lesbian & lifetime country music fan, I completely understand her fears about coming. Country music is seen to be about God and family, and well… God and family, but just because one is gay does not mean that they don’t share those same values. Kudos Chely Wright! I always loved you…now I know why!
May 5, 2010 @ 4:49 PM PDT
Love you Chely! This is such Great news that she is living her truth.
I’m a lifelong Nashvillian. The haters will get over it!
YOU GET AFTER IT GIRL!
May 5, 2010 @ 5:07 PM PDT
Well stated and articulated…I’m guessing the industry is probably more able to get on board then some country music fans though. Thanks for taking the time to explain why her “coming out” is truly brave since I don’t know that a lot of people personally have that “Heartland” grasp of what this acknowledgement means. I have read some responses via blogs and loyalty appears to go out the door when it comes to being “GAY”. What little I have heard of her story so far has been heartbreaking!
Stephen Hall, you might notice I don't pretend to be Stephanie!
May 6, 2010 @ 12:08 AM PDT
Well, I think anybody coming out of the closet in any line of profession, should go back in it, and stay in it until they come to their senses.
As for Shely Wright’s CD’s, I am burning them right now. They are not even worthy of simply breaking. Oh, I used latex gloves while handling them so I wouldn’t be infected with her guilt. I certainly would not EVEN want to shake hands with her, because I wouldn’t know where it was.
The same with any other such “not so much” gay person. I don’t give a hoot if some of the big wig society thinks it’s cool to be gay. It’s not. It will still send you to Hell! And that’s not a problem for you or me. At least I won’t be there to accuse you any more useless gay things you do with other women. Shame on you!
May 6, 2010 @ 5:29 PM PDT
It’s not surprising that Ms Egnew would have this point of view, given the hyperbole in her own bio information. But the fact is that, according to Billboard Magazine, Chely Wright had one..ONE…top 10 country single in 1999. She’s hardly a “celebrity” and her career has always bordered on anemic. She is, however, a master at self promotion and calculation. Anyone who knows Chely knows this. She is a master manipulator and has burned every personal and professional bridge in her life. Coming out of the closet after all these years simply to embrace who she really is and inspire others hiding would have been admirable. But true to Ms. Wright’s history, she’s only doing this to promote a new CD and her book. She’s tried in the past to use military to advance her career under the guise of “supporting the troops” and now she’s using this. I can only hope the gay community is smart enough to see her for the pariah she truly is and shuns her accordingly. This is NOT someone to root for.
May 6, 2010 @ 10:55 PM PDT
I am shocked,I have enjoyed Cheleys music in the past and have often wondered where she was and what she was doing now,it makes me sick to read this,as far as I am concerned she can go away again.I will never accept a open gay in country music,if they come out,they can kiss their career good-bye!
May 7, 2010 @ 12:09 AM PDT
William – thanks for clearing that up about Chely’s ‘#1’s’. It was totally unnecessary on Ms Egnew’s part. Just because a person didn’t make it to ‘mega superstar’ status, doesn’t mean they aren’t talented and didn’t contribute.
This is the second time I’ve read about Chely using the military to get publicity for herself. Not good, if true. If this ‘coming out’ is only to generate interest and sell, she could end up getting publicity that will truly end her career. That would be ashame for those who like her for her talent, the only reason in the end that a fan stays with an artist.
May 7, 2010 @ 12:59 AM PDT
Hey all — there seems to be some confusion on Chely Wright’s number of Top Ten hits (videos and singles) and what was charting as a number one single. William appears to be confused, and that confusion appears to be spreading, so I thought I’d set the record straight. (No pun intended ;).
Chely Wright’s Top 10’s (songs and videos):
Shut Up & Drive
Single White Female
She Went Out For Cigarettes
Never Love You Enough
Back Of The Bottom Drawer
The Bumper of My S.U.V.
#1 Hit Singles:
Single White Female – Billboard
Single White Female – CMT Top 20 Countdown
Single White Female – GAC (14 weeks)
Single White Female – GAC- #1 video of the Year 1999
It Was – CMT (2 weeks)
It Was – GAC (15 weeks)
She Went Out For Cigarettes – GAC ( 1 week)
Never Love You Enough – CMT Top 20 Countdown
Never Love You Enough – CMT’s MWL (50 days)
Never Love You Enough – GAC (6 weeks)
Jezebel – CMT’s MWL (21 Days)
The Bumper Of My SUV – Billboard ( 9 weeks)
As you can see — that amounts to “more than one”. Though Chely Wright is no Dolly Parton or Reba, she is still rather accomplished and has contributed quite a bit, which was my point in listing the number of chart making positions she has held. Hope that clears up any further confusion.
May 8, 2010 @ 10:29 PM PDT
I’m not at all confused, but you seem to be. Or perhaps you simply don’t understand what the industry recognizes as real success.
Chely Wright has had one…I repeat..ONE #1 single in Billboard Magazine, “SWF,” which also happens to be her only top 10 of her career. Every other song you reference was top 10 or #1 on GAC or CMT which were part of those outlets’ video countdowns. Everyone in the industry knows that those video channels in no way reflect airplay, sales or chart success. It’s all about Billboard Magazine and always has been. many artists have had #1 videos, especially on GAC and CMT, which never even cracked the top 20 on the charts. A hit video is not recognized as a barometer for a truly successful record.
You also reference her “Bumper Of My SUV” as a 9 week Billboard #1, which is very misleading because it was NOT a #1 country single, but only #1 in sales on the “Indie” chart because Chely and her camp got military installations sales recognized on that chart, and she milked the military angle for all she could. The song peaked on the country singles chart at #35.
Not sure why you want to distort Chely’s meager accomplishments into something bigger, but the facts are the facts. It’s not confusing. But it is hyperbole.
May 10, 2010 @ 5:34 PM PDT
This guy William is right about one thing. If this woman, Ms Egnew is saying that the songs on a country music video channel countdown show are like Billboard chart positions…she doesn’t know much about the music business.
May 12, 2010 @ 11:48 PM PDT
I’m no expert on country music or the music business in general, but I think the “nitpicking” over just how big Chely Wright’s career is or is not detracts from the main point of Ms. Egnew’s editorial. I think we may be able to agree that Chely Wright has had “some success” in the county music business over the years and that her “coming out” took courage. Based on Ms. Egnew’s bio it looks to me like she is an expert on this subject.
Aug 13, 2010 @ 2:45 AM PDT
WOW! Why all the hate? If you’re truly Christian then you’ll understand not only how to turn the other cheek, but to love thy neighbor as you love thyself. I’ve been a fan of Chely’s since “She Went Out For Cigarettes” – and I’m still her fan. I’m grateful to GOD she is now known as the gay country singer instead of one more country singer who killed herself.