A Country Star Cracks Another Bastion.
by Chely Wright
Pantheon Books. 286 pages, $25.95
UNLESS YOU SPENT the spring and summer in a monastery, you will have heard the news that country singer Chely Wright broke new ground in that historically conservative world by coming out as a lesbian. Sure, k. d. lang got her start in country music, but she's Canadian and was never embraced by American country radio, which is why she ultimately eschewed the twang and kept the torch songs in her repertoire. Wright is different. She worked her way from minuscule gigs in nursing homes to the top of the Billboard country charts, from various poor but cozy family homes in Wellsville, Kansas, to world travel, wealth, fame, and success as a country singer, all the while guarding the secret that would define, and nearly end, her life.
Like Me opens with the part of the story readers may have encountered already. In early 2006, after a tumultuous breakup, Wright suffered depression leading to a nervous breakdown, which culminated in a suicide attempt. Worn out but still alive, she retreated to her bed. At this point in the narrative we jump back in time to her childhood and her daily prayers to God to remove her homosexuality, a ritual that began in third grade and continued for years. The story then moves in short, fast-paced chapters through Wright's childhood, which was peppered with teasing from school bullies but guided by a strong Christian faith and an early ambition to make it big in country music, a dream that she worked constantly to realize.
Every victory on the road to fame, from landing a gig at Opryland to that first record contract and number one single, forced more compartmentalization and lies. In a long-term relationship so closeted that she referred to it in an interview as being "behind the sheetrock in the back of the closet," Wright was forced to deflect questions about her personal life or, eventually, to date men for cover, notably fellow musician Brad Paisley. Incapable of returning his affection in equal measure, Wright was personally miserable even while at the top of her game professionally.
While this is a sad story on many levels, Wright lays it out un-sentimentally and with good humor when it's called for. She writes, as she sings, with more immediacy and muscle than a glance at her would lead you to expect. The churches she attended didn't stint on the hellfire for homosexuals, but she writes: "[E]ven if the Bible were to read, 'Chely Wright ... if you're reading this, be clear that it is a sin for you to love another female and for you to desire to partner with her for life,' I'd find it unsettling, but I would still know that this is who I am ... and that His love for me is infinite." This is reinforced when Wright is twelve and, after gazing at the waitress's breasts for several minutes during a family night out, she notices the slogan on the older girl's shirt: "GOD DON'T MAKE MISTAKES."
When news of Wright's coming out first began to appear, some were quick to label it a "publicity stunt." She responded in interviews that the real publicity stunt was playing straight for all those years. I didn't understand the accusation initially, since I couldn't imagine how coming out as gay could work to someone's advantage in country music--unless you're tired of touring and want to retire. It's not as if she were a techno artist spotted making out with Lindsay Lohan in the back of someone's car. In any case, it turns out that Wright's memoir was three years in the making, begun soon after the suicide attempt, and that she moved to New York in 2008, lying to many friends about her exact motives, in order to immerse herself, however discreetly, in the gay and lesbian world, all the while preparing for the day when she would come out as a lesbian.
Like Me doesn't let readers forget that coming out is the reason for the book's existence. Initially the short chapters and the tendency to jump back and forth in time suggest a writer getting the story down in vignettes, then threading them together into a cohesive whole. Upon reflection, those short chapters allow Wright to continually thread her sexuality into the discussion, allowing what some readers may still find exotic to become familiar, then mundane. From winning music awards to serving on numerous tours entertaining the troops overseas and veterans here at home, Wright is frequently introduced as a patriot and a "great American," but lives with the question of whether the people praising her would be so quick to salute if they knew she lived with and loved another woman. It's far more likely the invitation would never have been offered in the first place, and that's what someone blind to anti-gay discrimination needs to grasp.
Chely Wright ends her memoir with a chapter titled "State of the Union," in which she confesses to having no idea what will happen when the book is released and her fans learn her secret, ending things "at peace with the uncertainty of it all." We are lucky to have her still in our midst, and the bravery behind her confessions will undoubtedly change things for the better in communities where these issues are still deprecated or ignored.
Heather Seggel ran from country music as a kid to find solace in bunk, but Marty Robbins can still make her cry.
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|Title Annotation:||Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer|
|Author:||Seggel, Heather L.|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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