A movie of memories

Country music singer-songwriter and out lesbian Chely Wright will serve as a main attraction at this year's Nashville Film Festival. Her feature-length documentary Wish Me Away premieres on April 15 with an encore presentation on April 17.

From the documentary website:

Over a three-year period, award-winning filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf followed Chely’s struggle – some of which was recorded on private video diaries – and her unfolding plan to come out publicly. Using interviews with Chely, her family, key players in Nashville and her management team, the film goes deep into Chely’s back story as an established country music star and then forward in verite scenes as she prepares to step into the media glare to reveal that she is gay. Finally, the film chronicles the aftermath of that decision in Nashville, her hometown and within the LGBT community.

In an interview with Out & About Newspaper, Wright discusses this documentary film chronicling her coming-out process and the opportunities that have opened up for her in the last year.

First of all, congratulations on your engagement (to gay-rights activist Lauren Blitzer).

Thank you. Sometimes I can't even believe all of these wonderful things are happening in my life. We're trying to wrap our heads around it right now. We're just a few months away now. I've been busy with my job and Lauren's been busy with her job, so we're falling into bed each night at midnight with wedding details in our heads and laughing at ourselves. But we think we're gonna have a fun time with family and friends. The wedding date is August 20, so I'm sure it's gonna be hotter than the dickens. Actually today we have a tasting with the caterer in Manhattan. We're just trying to to cram in all this wedding stuff when we can. I see why everyone gets worried about weddings, but our mantra is "No stress." We're both pretty humorous people and our families are funny, so we can't see how we'll mess it up. It's an exciting time.

How does it feel to see this new film come to the light of day? Anxious, excited, relieved?

I never saw the film until about a month ago. Through the course of the entire filming, I didn't see one frame of film. I felt like that would be too close and it might effect how I react. It's not my film; it's the filmmakers'. They had the editorial say, so what was the point of my watching it and being upset? When it was time, we went to the filmmakers' apartment and it was all of those feelings you just described. It's a very emotional film; it does chronicle some of my tough times. I mean, nobody's pretty when they cry. (laughs)

I think it's the untold story. A lot of people read my book, but this shows all that went into my deciding to come out. It was a really interesting time. I hope that the film will be helpful and give people a glimpse into the experience. I've known and felt fine about being gay for a long time, but this was my coming to terms with telling the world. Whether you're a high school teacher or you work at Walgreen's, there are a lot of criticisms and judgments that go along with doing that. It takes a pretty steeled person to (come out).

It must be a brave thing to expose yourself in such a public forum.

I'm not going to say "Aw, shucks, it was nothing." I know the courage it took for me to come out and write the book. Allowing the filmmakers to follow me in the time that I just wanted to be alone and handing over my video diary, it's a big monster. It will keep you up at night. I just gave them all of my video diaries and let them work. I've never been one in my career to go on TV and tape it and watch it back. There are a few things that I had never seen and didn't remember. At one point in the film I was being interviewed by Dick Clark---I've been friends with Dick for over fifteen years---but I never remembered any part of that. In some ways, the film was really fun to look at and see the early arc of my career. It's a sweet encapsulation, aside from the fact that I see these crazy outfits and hairdos. Lauren was watching back one day and asking me "What you were wearing?"

I remember photos from the night you won your Academy of Country Music award (1995) with that big wall of hair.

When I look at it, I say "Why did I have a ball gown on?" It just shows how country music has changed. When I got into it, that was before we became more like pin-up girls. In the late Nineties, the women started to get noticed in ways of fashion. When I first got into country music, we were very covered up and very conservative. That's a big difference from when I did my FHM photo shoot (2002) and I'm scantily clad!

Things are a little different now.

There's been a changing of the guard in country music. It's down to 3-4 companies really. There are fewer artists and fewer opportunities. There are few who are crossing over into pop culture, like Carrie (Underwood), Taylor (Swift) and Miranda (Lambert). It's a smaller, pared-down field now.

What I think gets lost in this shuffle is this wonderful album you made, Lifted Off the Ground. Do you feel the music has been overlooked because of your message?

It was a slippery slope, this decision. We felt that we had made the record of my lifetime. There's no doubt that this is a pivotal time for me artistically. With all this talk of my book---I didn't have a ghostwriter---people forget that I wrote a whole album by myself except for the song I co-wrote with Rodney (Crowell, Wright's producer). Not a lot of artists are sitting down for three years and writing an entire album, so it's a milestone just for me artistically. But I did know that in my decision-making, the story would likely eclipse the music. When I'm dead and gone, and people choose to look back on my body of work, I hope they say "Oh, that was a great album." But I had to make a decision to let the chips fall where they may. You pick your battles. Every show we are doing is selling out, and I'm slowly rebuilding the fanbase. Some fans have remained and there are new opportunities, so I'm trying to ingratiate them with my music and it seems to be working.

How is it to perform the songs from Lifted Off the Ground being removed from that difficult time in your life?

That's a good question. It's not unlike my entire body of music that I perform every night. I've got songs that chronicle different times in my life. Connie Smith told me early in my career to not record a song that you don't love because that's the one that will become your biggest hit. I feel really good about all the songs that I've recorded in my career. Lifted marks a very melancholy time in my life, a big valley in what I was going through. It's not hard to play that part in the show and sing those songs. For three-and-a-half minutes, I can get into it. The only song that was hard for me for a while was "Like Me." People have been wanting me to do it on TV shows and things, and I couldn't. The day we recorded it, it was just Rodney and I facing each other, and we recorded it in one pass. Now I do it, and I don't mind exploring my emotions.

And I'm sure the emotions of people who have shared their stories with you.

It really is an exchange of emotions, and that's woven into my psyche as well when I'm playing and singing. I've gotten hundreds of letters and I'm touched by the stories that I'm hearing. This music is for anyone who is hiding anything or who's maligned by society. I had a dark, lonely time, and it's been a shock really to hear these stories. This is not a gay record; these are not my songs about being gay. It was just me saying that I can't hide and I can't suffocate anymore. Once I made it past the moment, once I got back on my bicycle and let reality seep in, I said to myself "What the hell am I gonna do?" I really felt that I was being whispered to by God. I'd been trying to control everything and manage my secret. These songs are from my rock bottom and come from my heart.

When can we expect new music?

I'm still trying to manage the parts of my life. I could do advocacy work seven days of work; I have a longing for it; I feel God is calling me to do it. I want to get everything done and  finding time to write is hard, especially when I'm on a plane 4-5 times a week. That's the challenge. I landed at JFK (airport) last week and the first thing I did when I came home was pick up the guitar. You've got to just hold the guitar and let yourself and be creative. Right now I've got six songs that I really, really like. This last album has been done since 2008, but it really felt like it was part of a narrative, and then there was a book, and then the film. It all had to work together.

There was a huge balance sheet that I had to reconcile when I came out. I knew that my public profile would be, to a certain degree, forever shifted. I knew my record sales would fall. But I believe I'm going to meet my maker one day, and the bulk of my life I'd been doing a lot for me to maintain and make sure my world was OK.  One day you look in the mirror and really think about what you can do for others. I'm a tough person, tougher than i ever imagined. But now I'm a healthy, 40-year-old gay woman out and about and talking about my truths. So if I can stand up and make an easier for path for someone, I really feel good about that.

Nashville Film Festival will host a mini-LGBT film festival, "Pride on Film," during this year's event. The April 14-16 festival will feature six to eight GLBT-focused films, and an opening and closing reception. For tickets, go to NashvilleFilmFestival.org.

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