The whole package

The best track on Chely Wright's exceptional new album, Lifted Off the Ground, is the dark comedy “Notes To The Coroner,” sung from the perspective of a woman who's recently passed. Written in a black notebook at her bedside is the self-described “official cause of death;” a broken heart born from a life's worth of sadness and regret.

“Be sure to read it," she insists, "it'll tell you everything.”

As will the literary equivalent to Lifted, Wright's memoir, Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, a revealing glimpse at her transformation from small town Kansas girl to newly-out country star. Unlike many tell-all books, Like Me is an even-handed account about the author's secret past. Wright doesn't abuse her ability for storytelling and atones for a number of her missteps along the way, including her ill-fated affair with country music's reigning male vocalist, Brad Paisley, whose myopic views about the gay community say much about the conservative culture of Music Row.

Wright takes mild swipes at flirty radio DJs and homophobic country star John Rich, but more often than not she turns the heat on herself. Her literary voice lends a fresh perspective to industry politics and sexuality in America.

As a child, Wright learned early on that being gay wouldn't gain her entry into the Grand Ole Opry, so she denied her sexual identity upon arriving in Nashville to pursue her country-music dreams. She carved out a modest career on Music Row under tight constraints, earning a No. 1 hit with 1999's Single White Female. Even during her commercial heyday, Wright stood as a welcome contrast to the lighthearted pop country divas that dominated the airwaves, a freethinking woman in a genre where singers are often forced to trade in clichés for a place on shrinking radio playlists.

Behind the scenes, Wright performed a tightrope act to boost her fledgling career. That she crumbled under the weight of that enormous pressure comes as no surprise. For months after releasing her fine 2005 album, The Metropolitan Hotel, she remained a near-recluse —“a big ball of pain and pajamas” as she describes in Notes — while spilling out her turmoil into songs that had little in common with her country-music past.

That creative rush coaxed her from the shadows. With the guiding hand of friend and mentor Rodney Crowell, Wright shaped her experience into a batch of songs that form Lifted, all steered by her rich, expressive alto. At its apex is a song enigmatically titled Like Me, a wrenching ballad where Wright chides an ex for hiding her sexuality. In a tender, no-fuss tone, she throws doubt on her ex's future — “Who’s gonna end up holding your hand?/A beautiful woman or a tall handsome man?”— and rues her own messy love life. She closes with a double-barreled question, equal parts empathy and impatience: “Will anyone ever know you like me?”

Once she's past that crisis point, she doles out a healthy dose of anger. Alt-rock daggers like Damn Liar and Object Of Your Rejection recall the mid-90s angst of Alanis Morrisette and Sheryl Crow. Lifted's mood of loss and longing is tempered with uplifting numbers, including a folk-inspired call for freedom (That Train) and a pop-gospel ode of gratitude (Heavenly Days).

The decidedly non-mainstream music on Lifted means that country radio will likely be hands off, but Wright seems most concerned with Music Row's moral support in the wake of her announcement. What role she plays in Nashville after this tricky turn — industry trailblazer or shunned outsider — is anybody's guess. Either way, she's delivered one of the strongest albums of the year and an inspirational story for American sons and daughters who are just like her.

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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