If you want to see Chely Wright lose her cool, ask her about American Airlines.
“There’s a federal provision that passed in 2012, I think,” she said over the phone when we spoke in mid-May, “that legally allows us to board with our guitars, allowing us a chance to see if there’s enough overhead bin space to sit our guitars. We legally get to do that, but about half the time the folks at the airlines aren’t aware of the law and they try to take our guitars from us.”
She found herself in exactly that situation, a few weeks prior to our conversation, and it is fully documented on her Twitter timeline. Like any traveling musician, Chely Wright faces with every flight the likelihood that her guitar will be stored with regular baggage, where the barometric pressure outside the cabin or simple baggage handling can cause damage.
“Boarding with our instrument is a source of maybe heart attack material type stress!” she said. “If I ever die of a heart attack, it will be when I’m boarding with my guitar. Or not.”
The issue has yet to be resolved to her liking. According to Wright, the airline simply should agree to send a company-wide email that references the provision, so musicians won’t be faced with arguing on its behalf with every flight.
It was a Monday morning when we spoke. “I am in my home office at my apartment in Manhattan,” she said casually, and it belied her busy schedule of late. A resident of New York for a decade now, she had spent the previous two weeks in Nashville recording new music (to be released later this year). She and her wife Lauren Blitzer were in upstate New York the past weekend attending the wedding of CNN broadcaster Brooke Baldwin. Earlier this morning she’d taken her and Blitzer’s twin sons to their biannual dentist appointment. “I’ve been on the move!”
She acknowledged that, as of a few days earlier, eight years had passed since her public coming out, in 2010. A full-on media campaign, it was announced via People magazine and accompanied by both a new album of music (Lifted Off the Ground) and the Lambda Literary Award nominated autobiography, Like Me. Undoubtedly, her world has changed enormously over the past eight years. She reports that, to this day, she receives email and messages via Facebook and Twitter that are negative, yet they are balanced by supportive messages from fans old and new.
“I lost some fans,” she said. “I’m sure I gained some fans that maybe had never given country music a shot before. So it’s really hard for me to have any objectivity about it, because I’m so close to it that it’s hard for me to know how much change has happened. But change is slow in these pockets of conservative fanbases, and that’s ok. I wish it were faster but I’m happy to have been part of the change.”
“There will never again have to be a first commercial country artist out of the closet,” she quickly added. “That’s been done, and then a few years after I came out my pal Ty Herndon came out, and the same day Billy Gilman came out, so there are a few of us who had commercial hit records who’ve come out, so there’ll never again have to be a first, second, or third.”
Wright’s professional career, and the evolution of a unique Chely Wright sound, has mostly followed the trajectory of the artist’s personal life and experiences. It is uncommon for a modern country music performer to deny the fickle whims of radio programmers, to negotiate an expression that encapsulates both personal history and current influences. And it all began just as organically back in 1994 with an album called Woman In the Moon.
“I don’t know if my first album was that good,” she told me. “It’s hard to know. Did [the singles] not get airplay because the label wasn’t right, or I wasn’t right at the time, or the music wasn’t there, or the sound of the record wasn’t there? But my first album really was a reflection of the aggregate of the musical knowledge that I had at the time.”
“Then after having made my first record,” she said, “and having spent more time in Music City, which is not just country music city but music of all kinds, I think my second record (1996’s Right In the Middle Of It) then kind of reflected just my musical intake at the time. And as I grew into myself as an artist I think I started to gain other influences that showed themselves in my work. And as a young person—I was 23 when I made my first record—I was willing to grow into myself musically through the years, until now… seven albums later and I’ll be 48 this year, and I think the music has appropriately reflected my diet of music.”
And new music is on the way. Along with a holiday themed collection, Wright is working on an EP now that will bring her full circle to the style of country music she first recorded nearly 25 years ago.
“It’s not an attempt to get on country radio,” she said, “but… I had a lot of good years in commercial country and this kind of pulls me back a little bit more to the commercial realm of things. It’s also got some commercial pop feel to it, which speaks a lot to the influence of Dustin [Ransom] and Jeremy [Lister], the producers of this record. The reason I went to them is for those very reasons, I wanted it to have that commercial flavor.”
Which brings us to Nashville Pride 2018. Of the fifty or so personal appearances she makes each year, Wright estimates that maybe twelve of those are for Pride festivals across all parts of the country.
“They’re always emotional for me,” she said. “Standing on the stage is one thing, but it’s the hang with the audience either beforehand or afterwards and hearing the things they say, you know, about the fact that one of their favorite country artists ended up being gay, it’s really emotional for me. It’s not lost on me how much that means to people when someone they grew up listening to, or their parents listened to, comes out of the closet and owns their authenticity.”
“I wish I could do two songs off of every album,” she added, regarding the sort of playlist that might lend itself to a Pride festival, one that is not exclusively country music in nature, “but I kinda’ have to gauge the audience and consider ‘what do they expect to hear from me?’ So I know they’re going to want to hear the hits that I had, ‘Single White Female,’ ‘It Was,’ ‘Shut Up and Drive,’ but a lot of them are also new to being listeners of my music, so I give them a little bit of Lifted off the Ground, the album that came out when I came out, something from [2016’s introspective] I Am the Rain and some of the newer stuff. It’s always really tricky.”
“Nashville Pride is a milestone for me,” she said. “Next week it will be 29 years since I moved to Nashville, so I can’t think of a better way to ring in almost three decades than to stand on stage at Nashville Pride. When I moved to Nashville, I was still praying every single day that God would fix me."
"So this is quite a milestone for me. In a lot of ways.”