So one time I met Chely Wright.
It was around 1998. I worked in a Nashville mall at the Bombay Company, a repulsive chain store that sold overpriced foreign-made furniture and faux artsy knickknacks. I was the assistant manager, and took it as seriously as I did most of my other jobs, which meant that I worked no harder than I had to while I wrote every chance I got. And one day Ms. Wright came in, looking for a dining room table.
I struck up a conversation while I described our merchandise. Somehow the subject got onto her music; I hadn’t heard of her despite her considerable commercial success, and I asked her with now-unbelievable crassness that if I bought her latest CD and didn’t like it, would she buy it back from me?
In spite of this level of repartee, she did not offer me her phone number, and left without buying a table. Over time, I’ve become more and more embarrassed at my lunkheaded behavior. Who asks a musician if they’d buy back their CD?
I mention all this because I recently watched a documentary, Chely Wright: Wish Me Away, all about her experience coming out as a gay country music singer.
I watch a lot of documentaries, and a lot of them are about musicians. But this was the first one I’d seen where the subject was someone I’d met in a situation where we were sort of socially equal. I mean, I’d flirted with this woman (well, “flirted” in the sense that I’d made a total ass of myself while trying to be cool, which is pretty much how I flirt). It made her journey real in a tangible way that someone like, say, Sixto Rodriguez of Searching for Sugar Man never was for me.
It’s one thing to announce your lifestyle change from the comfort of the Kardashian cesspool; it’s something else to face the country music audience, the group that embraced you and gave you your career yet is not known for its compassion to people like you, and still find the courage to say, “This is who I am.” I haven’t yet read her autobiography (I did get a kick out of seeing her working over the manuscript, though, with little colored post-its indicating the editor’s notes), but I couldn’t be more impressed with her courage.
She’s happily married now (in every state, thanks to the Supreme Court), with a lovely wife, adorable twins and a wonderful career. That’s the real triumph here. And it turns out she and I actually have a mutual friend, magician Tony Brent (it was his comment about knowing her that prompted me to write this). And it’s a reminder to me (who tends to be very cynical about celebrities) that there’s always a real person behind these stories, and that there’s a journey leading up to those public moments when someone says, “This is who I am.”
Support her “Like Me” organization, which speaks out about the need for LGBT equality and against classroom and LGBT bullying, here.