with Deep River
Tonight, 7:30 p.m.
3701 Mount Vernon Ave.
Chely Wright is sick.
Nothing major but it’s her third day of a cold she picked up last weekend at a songwriter’s festival in Florida. It’s bad enough that a doctor’s visit is planned. She’s at home in Manhattan, where she moved nearly three years ago to finish her autobiography. She’s confident she’ll be recovered enough to play the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., Friday night.
“Several of us were kind of passing it around at the festival,” she says sounding clear-voiced during a phone interview.
This is her first show at Alexandria’s Birchmere but she knows the venue from other singer/songwriter friends. Tickets were still available as of Blade press time Wednesday.
“It’s a very discerning audience there,” she says. “I’m excited.”
The venue doesn’t regularly book country acts but has hosted shows by Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, the late Johnny Cash as well as current acts like Sugarland and the Zac Brown Band.
Michael Jaworek booked Wright several times at the Alexandria country club Zed in the early years of her career and is excited to have her play the Birchmere where he’s been booking acts since 1988.
“Musically, her current work fits the club, plus she has an audience,” he says. “It’s made up of her old fans from her Top 40 country career and the new ones who have discovered her since coming out. The new album shows that she can write solid songs and is produced by one of the best songwriters today, or any day, Rodney Crowell. We don’t book many country acts but we do book those we think can fill the venue.”
It’s been, of course, a life-altering time for Wright, who came out last May with a high-profile media blitz that included the Crowell collaboration album “Lifted Off the Ground,” the aforementioned memoir “Like Me” and appearances on “Oprah,” at Capital Pride and more. She’s known for a string of late ’90s/early ’00s country hits that found her charting about 15 singles on the country radio charts including the No. 1 cut “Single White Female.” “Ground” is the 40-year-old Kansas native’s seventh studio album.
“I’m still having what Oprah calls those ‘a-ha’ moments,” Wright says. “Time is still revealing what this freedom brings even just in simple things like going to my girlfriend’s house for the holidays. I’m still in my first year of doing all those once-a-year things. The holidays are a stressful time for a lot of gay couples because they’re often split up. With my ex-partner, it was a stressful time.”
Wright has been dating someone since last summer but they don’t live together. She spent last summer pushing her book with in-store appearances to which she’d bring her guitar and sing a few songs. She spent the fall writing songs, touring some and doing behind-the-scenes advocacy work with several national LGBT advocacy groups. She says the chance to positively impact young LGBT people was one of the reasons she came out.
At one time suicidal herself, she says last year’s spate of teen suicides brought a bevy of mixed emotions.
“I felt incredibly thankful to be out. It would have really devastated me to be in the closet when that happened and know I was still locked into silence. It really galvanized my mission. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s happening every single day. America just paid attention this time and it got out of hand. Kids were feeling hopeless. And while yes, there has been an upside to it, dare I say that, in that people started paying attention, the downside is that the negative volume gets turned up to and out in the schools each day, gay kids are still being bullied.”
So what’s life like for Wright now that the initial coming out hoopla has calmed?
She says she’s found herself more “lyrically free” as a songwriter.
“I do have a liberty and a freedom that wasn’t there before. I don’t have to stop and think about how I can make this sound like it’s not about a girl.”
Wright enjoys living in Manhattan but since she’d spent lots of time there before, it wasn’t a big adjustment. She still has her house in Nashville and says she likes both cities. One thing that hasn’t changed for her is her sense of style.
“That’s just the way I am,” she says. “I never wanted to have short hair and the way I dress suits me. I never felt any pressure. Sure, if I’m doing a show or a photo shoot, I dress up while I am perfectly comfortable in tennis shoes and jeans on other days, but I just happen to be a feminine lesbian.”
Wright, who’s said in other interviews that Mary Chapin Carpenter was the only other celebrity who made a public statement of support when Wright came out, says there have been some quieter statements of solidarity. She spent “a little time” with Melissa Etheridge, perhaps the most famous lesbian singer/songwriter in the U.S. who’s in the midst of a not-so-amicable split from Tammy Lynn Michaels.
She says Etheridge “had some great mentoring words and very supportive words — she was lovely.”
And she knows k.d.lang’s management team whom she says “reached out in support.”
She hasn’t spoken to Brad Paisley, whom she once dated briefly, since last year but says he made a donation to one of her LGBT charities, which she described as “a beautiful gesture.”
And in terms of other celebrity happenings she says seeing the backlash against the Dixie Chicks several years ago, especially on country radio, made a huge impression on her and, at the time, cemented her resolve to stay in the closet.
“Oh yes, I was definitely watching that situation and it had a huge effect on me,” Wright says. “Yes, it’s apples and oranges, but it’s all fruit. I’m very well aware of how our industry works. It’s commerce. It’s like McDonald’s selling hamburgers. You don’t want to anger your sales demographic. … I saw the repercussions and just thought, ‘Holy crap, I might get outed at some point, but I’m never gonna do it myself.’ I steeled myself against it then because I saw the nastiness they faced.”
Wright feels the support from the LGBT community — playing her first Pride date at last year’s Capital Pride was “very emotional” — but she knows that solidarity won’t necessarily translate into record sales.
“There’s a big difference between hitting ‘like’ on Facebook and coming out to a show, but that’s what rebuilding is all about and this is a time of rebuilding for me. I’d love it if they say, ‘I want to hear music that’s great so I’ll go hear her,’ if those dots connect, but it’s two different things. And we actually have a fairly robust LGBT following in country music generally though I certainly have been made aware of the new consciousness.”