When I interviewed Chely Wright in 2005 for a book I was writing on country music and politics, she was a hero to the right and pariah to the left. And not tremendously happy about that. More than any other entertainer except Toby Keith -- and you'd have to count that as a tie -- Wright was identified as a champion of the American armed forces, with her constant visits to entertain the troops in Iraq or cheer the wounded in military hospitals. Her autobiographical 2004 hit "Bumper of My SUV" stood up for military families against mindless attacks from the angry antiwar left. She had a defensive streak about the nation's defenders. But it pained her to think this caused her to be identified with the pro-war right.
At the same time, I sensed a slightly provocative streak in her, the way she talked about getting a red-carpet welcome to Sean Hannity's show... where she spoke in defense of gay rights.
"I've been told by people, 'Hey, way to go, I'm glad you're pro-Bush.' And I tell people I've never endorsed a candidate," Wright told me shortly after the 2004 election. "I'm a country singer that likes to support my troops. I was on Sean Hannity's show and he said, 'You're a good Republican girl. I like that.' I said, 'Ahhh, easy there, Sean. I did an event with Senator Clinton this morning.' I had been grand marshall of the Veterans Day parade in New York City. He went, uhhhhh. I said 'She came out and shook my hand and said "Thank you for all you've done for the troops," and she seemed very genuine to me.' He just berated her and went off. I said, 'That really bothers you that I touched a Democrat today, doesn't it?' He said, 'It really does. I feel like I need to go wash my hands. I feel dirty. Come on, you're a Republican. You've gotta be. Your brother's a gunnie! You've performed for the troops for 10 years.' I said, 'I never reveal who I vote for. I have issues with both candidates.' He said, 'What are your issues with President Bush?' I said, 'Thank you for asking me that! I think his whole angle on amending the constitution to preserve the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman is just ludicrous, and just shy of a hate crime.' And a vein popped out in his neck and he said, 'Do you realize what show you're on?' I said, 'You wanted me to talk about my song, and when I say in the song that I'm not a Democrat or Republican, I'm not a liar.'"
Fairly strong words for a mainstream country singer at the height of polarization over social issues. Not quite as strong, of course, as Wright actually coming out as a lesbian this week. The woman who reached No. 1 on the country charts in 1999 with "Single White Female" finally revealed a good reason why she remains (legally, at least) single: Her position about the defense-of-marriage act had a very personal basis.
This had been rumored for years. As one Tweeter going under the name of @DrunkenMartina tweeted today, "Chely Wright's gayness is the worst-kept Nashville secret since Gary LeVox's girdle." Ba-dum-bum.
Pundits are reaching for precedents and parallels here, whether it's one-time country favorite k.d. lang coming out as a lesbian or the Dixie Chicks endangering their career by revealing their non-right-iness. In both cases, there are interesting similarities and crucial differences. Ms. lang had pretty much left country in her rear-view mirror for a few years by the time she outed herself -- and was openly butchy enough from the start that she probably didn't leave too many red-blooded, blue-balled male country fans stunned or heartbroken in the wake of her exit from either the genre or the closet. Wright, on the other hand, is what they used to call a fox, heterosexually speaking, and does stand to lose something from no longer benefiting from being the stuff of "I've got a shot with her" male fantasy.
As for genre, that's a bit of a tossup. Wright is still identified with mainstream country, but hasn't been on a major Nashville label since 2003. Her new album, Lifted Off the Ground, is coming out on Vanguard, a label pitched more toward singer/songwriters, and certainly without a country radio promo squad. Tellingly, perhaps, it is produced by Rodney Crowell, an avowed liberal who made the move from mainstream hitmaker (and sex object) to Americana cult favorite, quite happily. So musically, at least, she already had one foot outside the mainstream door, making it hard to rate this against the commercial impact it would have if, say a Reba or Faith or Martina were to come out. (Although I do expect Twitter's @DrunkenMartina to make an announcement any day.)
Some are already wondering if Chely will get "Dixie Chick-ed." And again, by already having moved to the Americana or alt-country margins, musically, her new material wasn't destined to get a shot on country radio anyway. So there will be no "boycott," covert or otherwise. It might be interesting to gauge whether "Single White Female" and her other oldies get less recurrent play as a result of the announcement, but there will be only anecdotal evidence for that at best.
The only way in which Wright truly stands to potentially be "Dixie Chick-ed" has little to do with radio, and everything to do with her standing with the American military. Has the "don't ask, don't tell" generation made enough of a shift into the "don't ask, but telling is okay" future for Wright to continue to enjoy the full acceptance of the armed forces and their families? It would be ironic if the Chicks got dissed for being made out to be anti-troops and Chely, whose rep is as the most pro-troops person in all of popular entertainment, somehow came to be unwelcome because of completely unrelated reasons. It'll be interesting to see what the reaction will be when Wright does her next USO tour or her next visit to a veterans' hospital. There's no reason to suppose she won't be greeted happily, other than perhaps our own prejudices about military prejudices. But it's clear that there really is a lack of precedent here, because for a lot of country music-loving soldiers, even after she stopped being a radio favorite back in the States, Chely Wright was the closest thing they had to a WWII-era Betty Grable pinup girl.
I was intrigued by Wright's complexity and compassion when I first interviewed her in '05, and that's why I made her a recurring linchpin in my book, Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music.
"We typically think, if you sing about the military or if you have military in your family, you're a Republican," I quoted her as saying in my book. "And I'm very much not. I'm very much not a Democrat either. I hate political parties. I told G. Gordon Liddy on his show, 'I think it's gang warfare at its finest -- corporate funded gang warfare." He said, 'Okay, explain yourself.' I said, 'Well, it's like you're a member of the Bloods out in east L.A. and you see a brother getting beat up by a Crip, and you'll go over and beat up the Crip to get him off the Blood, and you don't know what happened or what the fight's about. But you're gonna defend your brother because he's wearing the same do-rag on his head? That's retarded. How can people go down a ticket and go "Republican" in one fell swoop?' People may think my family sits around and says, 'Go, President Bush! Start a war! Kill people!' But I really love that I grew up not knowing which political affiliation my parents were. I never heard the words Republican and Democrat in my house as one being the good one and one being the bad... It's not some big secret I'm trying to keep, that I really do have a political affiliation and you have to guess it. In high school and college, I was kind of a jock, kind of a scholar, kind of a band geek. I had subsets of friends. I never believed in cliques."
She told me the real story behind "Bumper of My SUV," which became a sort of rallying cry for the right, though it wasn't intended that way, and certainly stands up as a great snapshot of a polarized moment in time. The real-life incident described in the lyrics happened simply as a result of her having a USMC decal on her bumper in honor of her brother, as she related in Rednecks & Bluenecks.
"The war was a few months old," remembered Wright, "and that's when this lady flipped me the bird and then got me to pull over at the red light and mouthed 'Roll down your window!' I was like, okay, I don't think I'm gonna get shot; she's in a minivan with a car seat in the back, and we're on West End, near Bowling Avenue, where rich people live. I rolled down my window and she said, 'Your fucking war is wrong. You're a fucking killer!'
"It's not as if I had a pro-war sticker or 'I love Bush!' or 'Kill people!' on the back of my car. Just the eagle, globe, and anchor -- that's it. I got flipped off, and I couldn't grab that lady by the throat and drag her over here [to the coffeehouse] and buy her a cup of coffee, so I wrote a song about it.
"I'm a mouthy person. Typically I would have something to say back. I don't know if you've ever been in a wreck, where your legs feel like jello and you've got to pull over. But I had no response. But as she pulled away, I was looking at her two bumper stickers, and one was of a private school here in town, religious in nature, and one was a Bush sticker with a line through it. It shocked me that she was so angry, but didn't shock me that she had something to say. Because people at that time were just really, really being outspoken, vocally and with the stickers and banners about which side they were on. They can both be American sides. You can be against this war and still be pro-American, don't get me wrong. I've got a lot of questions about it myself. Like I say in the song, 'Yes, I do have questions, but I get to ask them because I'm free.' "
Cause I've been to Hiroshima
And I've been to the DMZ
I've walked on the sand in Baghdad
Still don't have all of the answers I need
But I guess I wanna know where she's been
Before she judges and gestures to me
Cause she don't like my sticker
For the US Marines
On the bumper of my SUV
So I hope that lady in her mini-van
Turns on her radio and hears this from me
As she picks up her kids from their private school
And drives home safely on our city streets
Or to the building where her church group meets
Wright's dad was in the Navy in Vietnam from 1967-71, on the USS Mimitz. Her granddad got a purple heart; he was in the Army division that hit the beach of Normandy in WWII. Her Marine brother is the one who sent her the sticker, recently promoted from staff sergeant to gunner. Wright herself grew up playing taps on the bugle at over a hundred military funerals, and she'd been entertaining the troops and visiting VA hospitals as a country star for 10 years by the time "Bumper of My SUV" came out. But GI Jane she wasn't.
Her music has grown tremendously. Wright's first independent album, The Metropolitan Hotel, was a huge leap forward for her, as is the new Lifted Off the Ground. She's much more of a songwriter now than anyone could have imagined during the days when she was enjoying her biggest hits. And now she may naturally find a smaller but even more dedicated fan base among the politically progressive, folksy-rock set. Yet it's impossible to imagine her shedding her identification with the troops and their families. Will it be possible to maintain two such disparate fan bases?
"Bumper of My SUV" was not a rallying cry; you could read it as a plea for tolerance... from the left. Now Wright may be testing the tolerance of some on the right. By challenging all of our assumptions, whether it's about who gay people are or who military supporters are or what a country singer does or should represent, Chely is being a true artist, off the record as well as on.