All popular music works in identity politics, and perhaps no genre is better at this than country and western. Country music is a passport to a semi-real place called “the heartland,” a rite of citizenship for a self-identified Real America.
But where most forms of pop and rock are predicated on a rejection of the music of one’s elders—“If it’s too loud, you’re too old”—country’s brand of listener identification emphasizes a rare generational continuity. It is family music, uniting parents, grandparents and children in fandom. That makes it inherently slow to adapt to broader societal changes—meaning that, while individual country artists may hold political views ranging from Steve Earle’s outlaw socialism to the flag-waving ass-kickery of Toby Keith, the genre as a whole can fairly be called conservative, purely in a descriptive sense.
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Nowhere is that more true than in the country community’s very traditional attitudes toward sexuality. There’s no reason to think that gays and lesbians are represented in any lesser percentage in the ranks of country performers than in the population at large, but they remain invisible. While rock and pop music have welcomed openly gay performers since the 1970s, the country scene has (aside from K.D. Lang, who was never a part of the Nashville establishment) presented itself as monolithically heterosexual. It was not until 2010 that a major Nashville country star would come out of the closet. That star was singer Chely Wright.
Burdened by the knowledge of being the first, Wright determined to make her emergence as an openly gay Nashville artist as public as possible. Her announcement was accompanied by the release of a new album (Lifted Off the Ground), an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show and publication of a memoir, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer. Even by the standards of modern cross-platform media marketing, Wright’s disclosure was carefully orchestrated.
Wright’s continuing journey from terrified closet case to proud gay-rights advocate is chronicled in the new documentary Wish Me Away, now making the rounds of film festivals. On the occasion of the documentary’s release, it’s worth revisiting Like Me, the centerpiece of Wright’s multimedia campaign.
What’s surprising about Like Me is how admirably raw it all is. Wright frames her story with a harrowing account of her “bottoming out”—hitting such a depth of depression and self-loathing that she contemplated suicide, only to come out the other side determined to rebuild her life on a foundation of truth about her own sexual identity. The narrative backstory that led to her breakthrough is fragmented, skipping freely backwards and forwards in time, with short chapters following thematic currents rather than a narrative through-line.
The writing is polished and careful, and Wright doesn’t dwell on ugly or prurient details. But the structure is something like the stream of consciousness, mimicking the racing of an anxious mind as you lie sleepless and full of regret—as Wright did, rarely leaving her bed for weeks on end—thoughts flitting from shame to shame, wondering what you might have done differently. In its very refusal to tidy up the chronology, in its rejection of pat resolutions, Like Me has the immediacy of a recovery journal, and pulls the reader into the mounting misery and hopelessness that led to Wright’s downward spiral.
At heart, Like Me is about the search for love, and unconditional love was hard to come by for Wright. Her mother, in particular, was narcissistic and demanding. This led to some horrendous childhood episodes—her father forcing her older brother to take him on in a fistfight, so the boy wouldn’t turn out to be a “sissy”: her parents tethering her older sister to a moving car to force her to run, lest she become a “fat kid” and bring shame upon the family. Wright withholds judgment, dismissing these incidents—which any court in the land would define as abuse—as simply misguided, old-fashioned parenting.
Her adult relationships with women—and a few men—followed in the same mode. Wright seems to have had terrible luck in love, getting involved with a succession of unstable lovers-turned-stalkers—including, somewhat surprisingly, singer Brad Paisley, who conceived of a great and entirely one-sided passion for Wright that led him to some ugly extremes of behavior. She fared little better with the women in her life, most of whom were as closeted as she—including her great love, a woman identified only as Julia, who was married to a man even while she was living with Wright. The pressure to keep the true nature of their relationship secret forced them into a certain emotional stuntedness. Details of their working lives were off-limits when they were together, meaning that Wright had no one with which to share the highs and lows of her career. Even as she had someone to share her life, she felt more alone than ever.
Such is the damage wrought by the closet—to force good people to lie, to hold back, to evade—and sometimes to reject and hurt those who try to love them. Wright’s remorse as she recounts her affair with Paisley is palpable. She cannot bring herself to blame him for his threatening behavior, because she could not bring herself to be honest with him. And yet she could not tell the truth without the risk of burning a great many bridges—professionally and personally.
What pulls her through—what brings her to the place where she can tell the truth, and damn the consequences—is faith. Where many young gays and lesbians feel that they must reject religion before religion rejects them, Wright has never wavered in her Christian devotion. She prayed for years to be “freed” from her sexual orientation, but eventually grew into an understanding that being gay was how God made her, part of His plan for her life—and that the prejudice found in some denominations’ interpretation of the Bible is a human invention. She writes with great honesty about her struggle to square her Christian faith not so much with her sexual identity as with the religiously motivated bigotry around her. She gives no easy answers, only the simple, touching conviction that God is love.
It’s traditional for this kind of book to end on a triumphant note, as the subject leaves behind a life of shame and secrecy to embrace life as her true self. But Like Me finishes in anguished uncertainty. It was completed before Wright came out publicly, and throughout she worries about what the reaction to her revelation will look like. That lends the book an even greater intimacy. We’re reading Wright’s pep talk to herself, feeling her screwing up her courage to make a life-changing leap of faith.
Wright’s triumphant note is coming only now, in the aftermath of her big decision. The great achievement of Like Me is to give the reader a visceral sense of just how hard-earned that triumph is.
Jack Feerick, critic-at-large for Popdose, has been known on occasion to cry into his beer.