Wish Me Away follows not only country singer Chely Wright’s public coming out in 2010 but also her rise from being the most talented kid in tiny Wellsville, Kansas to one of the most prominent country and western singers in Nashville. Directors Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf examine many of the expected questions—the country world’s opposition to homosexuality, the impact Wright’s decision has on her immediate family (including her brother in the Marine Corps.), and her career.
Wright says that her coming out was a long time coming, although there were innumerable delays—her drive to have hit records was also tied to her coming out. Like an addict who bargains in order to continue using their drug of choice, Wright made bargains of her own—first some chart success, financial security, and solid footing in the industry; then, top of the chart success, financial security, and solid footing in the industry. What she was quick to find out, however, was that her image was inexorably bound to her success—being the straight, “man crazy” (in one industry member’s words) country vixen, had catapulted her to the top of the charts with “Single White Female”, a song that would certainly read much differently if the truth were known.
We see her dodging questions about her love life in file footage—the who-really-cares look on Chet Atkins’ face is priceless—and even attending prom with a fan from Pennsylvania. She expresses regret that she was not more of a role model for gay teens and the tears she sheds express far more than her—already convincing—words could. She credits an openly gay make-up artist for ultimately convincing her to face the truth.
Still, she maintained a long-term relationship with another woman that was kept quiet while she had what seemed to be a bright-burning romance with Brad Paisley—that relationship, she notes, came to an end without her really ever explaining to Paisley what had happened. Rumors had circulated about her sexuality, of course, but she says she did her best to keep them quiet and even faced the harsh reality that if she were to come out there would be severe repercussions from her Nashville peers who were absolutely intolerant of homosexuality. (Storied singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell is an exception, appearing in the film as an ally for Wright.)
Wright’s musical family was not her only trouble—her family of origin, including a talented mother whose physical appearance would have never allowed her a music industry career, provides other hurdles which Wright is apparently still navigating, apparently with some success.
Having caught the film in 2011 as it made its rounds on the festival circuit, I was keen to see it on DVD and to note whether any of my observations about Wright and the surrounding cast of characters had changed. They have not. Wright is still likeable if sometimes hard to watch—the video diaries she keeps as she moves toward her public coming out capture the fears she surely felt and also suggest that although she is fierce she is also fragile, perfectly human.
It also remains difficult watch the film during those scenes as one considers the many who have sought to do exactly what Wright does, although without the help of a supportive film crew, a media coach, or a media blitz to accompany a glossy autobiography. Wright faces some unsurprising consequences—the Nashville community shuns her and a career that already appeared to be in decline sinks deeper. Her relationship with her mother also suffers and we see, at film’s end, that although her acceptance from the gay and lesbian community is just beginning, the roads and bridges she’ll have to build with those in her former life are far from even being designed.
Extras on the DVD include an interview with Wright and her wife Lauren Blitzer, a photo gallery, and director bios.
Wish Me Away isn’t the definitive statement on Wright or her career, it’s a glimpse at a new beginning, of a life that is sure to have the myriad ups and downs her last one did. For once this is more than a documentary about a career and instead about a life, one that is as real as the one lived by the members of the audience and one that it is necessary for us to pay witness to and examine. This is a fantastic place to start conversations about who we are and how we live.