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Country music singer Chely Wright: ‘I Am Rain’ helps wash away painful past

Country music star Chely Wright agonized for years about being a lesbian. She hid in the closet, suffering in silence.

Even though she was in a relationship with another woman for 11 years, Wright couldn’t completely overcome the kind of Christian upbringing she’d received in Wellsville, Kansas, a town of less than 2,000 souls, which left her convinced she was deviant and immoral.

Six years after that long-term relationship ended, Wright came out publicly in 2010. The experience helped wash away the singer-songwriter’s long-harbored feelings of having to live a lie. Telling the truth made Wright the first openly gay or lesbian country music singer, blazing a trail through country music’s entrenched homophobia.

At the same time, simultaneously, Wright released a CD, “Lifted Off the Ground,” her autobiography, “Like Me,” and was the subject of the documentary, “Wish Me Away,” which chronicled her coming out process.

As she expected, Wright faced some backlash from Nashville’s conservative music industry, but she shifted her focus to having a family. Wright was 40 when she married 30-year-old Lauren Blitzer in 2011. Two years later, Wright gave birth to twins, Gregory and Everett.

Now, after a six-year creative gestation, Wright has finally given birth to new music again. “I Am Rain” is a collection of 13 songs inspired by her coming out—a provocative and poignant reward for all those years of fear and self-doubt.

When Wright phoned from Nashville, the conversation included the pain of hiding in the closet, using Kickstarter to fund “I Am Rain” and taking six years to release new music. Here are some excerpts.

On taking six years to release new music: “Time flies when you’re getting knocked up and having babies.

“My job is to write songs. I got the itch in 2014. We made the record in October 2015, but it took time to get the team to put it together. There also was some family planning. I didn’t want heavy touring while I was pregnant. This seemed like the right time.

“I didn’t stop writing. I was writing the entire time. I always write songs. When I get the itch, I take inventory of what I have. I’ve never been plagued with writer’s block. I always believe I will be making another record at some point.”

Chely Wright’s new CD, “I Am Rain,” features provocative and poignant songs about coming out as a lesbian. In 2010, Wright became country music’s first openly gay or lesbian artist.

On using Kickstarter to fund “I Am Rain”: “The last three records I’ve paid for myself and then licensed them to a record label. If you build it they will come.

“I had been reading about crowdfunding. My manager and I talked it and they encouraged me to look at it. I was pre-selling the record to fans. Emotionally, I was able to reconnect with fans. I need that reconnection with my fans. When you come out of the closet,  you never know what’s going to happen.”

On coming out: “I came out the day after ‘Lifted Off the Ground’ came out. The sales were lower, but I don’t worry about it. I’m saying my truth. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about people who don’t like me. When I came out,  I quit a 40-hour work week of worrying. I wish I got a gold watch in my retirement.”

On the title, “I Am Rain”: “It’s a perfect title. I love the metaphor.  Rain conjures up a lot of things. It can cleanse you, usher in a new life. It can also drown you. It’s a great metaphor for my life right now.”

On the song “Pain”: “I had to revisit that in the studio. I could feel myself becoming that person. I had to open a few doors to get there, but I pulled it out. The melody happened effortlessly. I had never written a song on it.

“It was an unrelenting pounding of pain. We try to hid the pain, but it can beat the crap out of your insides. Being closeted and continuing to hide took a toll on my insides. It destroyed me spiritually. I lost weight. I almost committed suicide. I almost put a gun in my mouth.

On the theme of “I Am Rain”: “It all matters. Every piece matters, the whole 13 song-record. I wanted to craft a musical parlance, a sonic landscape of storytelling. The feelings are deeper than a hook. There are evocative image and tense melodies. The overarching theme is emotion. It’s an emotional journey.

“Pain, loneliness, hurt, joy, those are the basic emotions we share as human beings. We all have a need to belong. I hope it makes someone feel unalone. I’ve been there. This is my 57-minute effort to move the needle a little bit.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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