In control

Most people come out to family, or friends. Others are outed in very public way, often by those with a harmful agenda. Still others plan the event well in advance, only to find out that the news has been leaked … to the national media.

That was the case with country music singer/songwriter Chely Wright, who was enjoying dinner with friends a few days before what she thought was going to be the big announcement. With a new album and autobiography set to release in early May, she’d chosen to reveal her homosexuality at the same time.

The best laid plans …

“Imagine that your biggest fear, something that you’ve hidden your whole life because it could affect your work, your social standing, your family status, and imagine deciding to put it out there,” Wright said. “Then imagine that you know when it’s coming, and you’ve already let the people closest to you know. That’s what I’d done, but I was having dinner with my sister and friends in New York when all of a sudden I started getting weird text messages from everyone in Nashville, things like ‘Perez Hilton? Are you kidding me?’ and ‘Holy shit, have you seen Access Hollywood?’ I knew then that I was probably out.”

Her nerves were calmed by the next call, which was from her manager and offered this sage advice: Enjoy your dinner and relax.

“It’s a weird feeling, kind of like running down Broadway naked,” Wright said. “But he told me that this was my decision, and to be proud of myself. I took my power back, even though I did it five days sooner than expected. And I can’t even tell you the pride I have for doing this on my terms.”

Since her early May announcement and book/album launch, Wright has been everywhere. People magazine, the Oprah Winfrey show, just about every entertainment and gossip website. She’s taking it all in stride, and doing what she always does: writing songs, prepping for shows, going about the business of life in the music industry.

One thing she hasn’t done is hit a stage, and so it’s telling that her first major public appearance since coming out will be here in Nashville on June 8, and for Reading, Writing & Rhythm , the Chely Wright Foundation.

“You know what’s best?” she said. “I have made sure that no one will ever use the word ‘lesbian’ as an insult to me ever again. You can call me ugly, stupid, whatever, but you’ll never use that word to insult me again. And that feels really good.”

The event is in its 10th year, and has raised more than $1 million to donate musical instruments to music and arts departments at schools around the country. This year, in part due to the horrific flooding damage here, and also because she wants to thank the city for a decade of generosity, the funds are staying local.

“I want to make certain that the money we raise goes to Nashville schools,” Wright says. “We’re also doing a food drive at the door. We’re putting that money right back into Nashville because schools all over the nation have benefited from the city’s generosity, the support of country fans, and so it’s time to give back to Nashville proper.”

As for turnout, she’s leaving that up to fate.

“The people who support me, who have always supported me, will turn out,” she said. “Anybody with an issue with my being gay won’t come out to the show, and that’s great too. It’s going to be the best case scenario all around.”

In the blitz surrounding her coming out and in planning for the benefit, she’s had to work to ensure that her album and book get the attention she wants them to have. Given that the album arose in large part to her despondency over living a secreted life, and that it and the book chronicle some very dark moments, it’s important to her that all these projects continue to move forward as a unit.

“Putting out an album is tough, and putting out a book is tough,” she said. “I had to work with two different companies, and everyone did an incredible job making sure that they could launch at the same time. They go together, and represent the audio and written word of what I used to call a breakdown, but now really know was a breakthrough.”

And the former book-report whiz, high-school newspaper editor and crack songwriter also learned a thing our two about the long-form written word along the way.

“I had much more confidence in my writing than I should’ve,” Wright admitted. “I didn’t’ realize how difficult a book was going to be so hard until I had about 100 pages, and realized that my agent and publisher weren’t going to get me a ghost writer.

“I love language, I love grammar, I have the knowledge of how to use words and syntax,” she continued,, “but I have been schooled. I have been humbled. People who write books, the real journalists authors, need to be lifted up and carried through the streets and confetti needs to be thrown on them.”

That newfound gratitude made songwriting even more of a joy for her, and now that she’s living more openly she is eager to see how that informs her craft going forward.

“The songs for this album were like an infected splinter coming out of me,” she said. “There was no cognitive activity going on. The next time I write a record, I’m wondering how all this will play out … how will this truth, this new freedom, find its way into my music? I’m curious and quite excited to know how that’s going to reveal itself, because I’ve never gotten to write with the thought of making a record with no border.”

Whether or not the country music industry, its practitioners and its fans, embrace her remains to be seen. But by being a fairly well known entertainer and one who’d already achieved no small measure of success on Music Row, should help.

“It was going to take someone they already knew, somebody they already liked, to make a difference,” Wright said. “I never thought it would be me. I cannot tell you how many times I swore to God it wouldn’t be me. But here it is, and the response so far has been incredible.”

In major metro areas, her coming out might merit a shrug. In her native Wellsville Kansas, not so much — and that’s a good thing.

“The whispers, the rumors, they still happen in small-town America,” Wright said. “They don’t have gay publications. They don’t have big gay community. In my hometown this was big news, but this may lead to intelligent conversations about being gay at country music stations, on the air. And I was told that three kids in Wellsville went to the principal’s office on the day I came out and they did as well. That is no small thing in a that community.”

At the end of the day, Wright’s well-publicized flirtation with suicide was the tipping point for what has now become the rest of her life. And now she looks forward to reaping the rewards, and learning what will likely be some hard lessons, along an open and free journey.

“You know what’s best?” she said. “I have made sure that no one will ever use the word ‘lesbian’ as an insult to me ever again. You can call me ugly, stupid, whatever, but you’ll never use that word to insult me again. And that feels really good.”

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