When Chely Wright came out, Nashville turned its back on one of its hitmakers. But now the happily married mother of 2 has found her own, new musical voice
JONANNA WIDNER | Contributing Writer
My goal,” says Chely Wright, as we chat on the phone few days before the release of her new album I Am the Rain, “is to be as cool as Emmylou Harris and to emulate Rodney Crowell and be as poetic as Joe Henry.”
That’s a hell of an aspiration, and judging from the introspective, sophisticated sound of I Am the Rain, her aim is clearly on target. Although she began her career in mainstream pop country — quite successfully, in fact — I Am the Rain embodies Wright’s continued evolution from a clever, skilled hit-writer embraced by corporate Nashville to a cerebral (and happily out) songwriter, free and untethered by radio-hit formula. Rain’s melodies take their time, relying on emotional heft rather than the Budweiser twang of modern country, and the instrumentation runs the spectrum — ”At the Heart of Me” is lifted by a lilting flute, “Will You Be There” is piano-driven — resulting in an album that skews more Laurel Canyon than Tennessee Valley.
Emphasis, by the way, on that word, “album.”
“I have an affection for some the records of the ‘70s,” she says. “They’re more a narrative than a collection of singles. I wanted this new album to be more an experience… It’s not ‘Oh, I love tracks 2 and 13,’ and it’s not an album to listen to as you multitask. It’s put your phone down put on headphones and lay flat on the floor and close your eyes and absorb it.”
Rain, then, is no place for a three-minute pop song. And while they have their merit, three-minute pop songs don’t play as big a part in Wright’s life as in the past.
In 1995, she scored her first Top 40 country single with the catchy number “Shut Up and Drive.” Then in 1997, she earned a No. 1 spot on the charts with “Single White Female.” The album of same name ended up spawning several hit singles. Wright pretty much could have stuck with the commercial country formula, made a career out of it, and called it good.
But as Wright’s life shifted, so did her ambition to evolve as a songwriter. In 2008, she signed to Vanguard Records, home to a more eclectic and artsy lineup than her previous labels. In 2010, she released he seventh studio album, Lifted off the Ground, produced by Crowell.
Wright came out publicly as lesbian that same year.
During that pivotal time, Wright let go of something she was quite good at: Writing hit pop-country songs.
“A lot of it had to do with pulling up my big girl pants and doing something pretty terrifying, after growing up in the mainstream country world,” she says. “Sometimes you have to put some of that identity to bed.
“Maybe it’s very lesbian of me to say,” Wright laughs, describing what it’s like to challenge herself as a songwriter, “but it’s kind of like when you’ve practiced a new golf grip, but then you get out on the tee box it’s very tempting to go back to your old grip.”
I Am the Rain, she says, “is an exercise in sticking with the new grip.”
Wright has claimed more than once that after she came out, Nashville effectively froze her out of its hierarchy. (She does note that during her more mainstream years, “I never felt controlled” as far as her songwriting goes.)
“I had a lot of good years in country music,” she says. “But I’m 45. At some point you don’t want to put on the costume of a 25-year-old or a 30-year-old.”
It makes sense. You grow older. You maybe have kids (Wright has two, with her wife Lauren Blitzer). You grow into your own. And along the way, if you want to, you can step out of the mold you were in at a young age.
“I can write a six-minute song now,” Wright says. “It just gives you a freedom.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 9, 2016.