Queer Country: Chely Wright’s Coming Out

The upcoming documentary, Wish Me Away, centered on country singer Chely Wright chronicles the pains of coming out in Nashville and raises questions about why more country musicians haven’t come out.

Wish Me Away

Director: Bobbie Birleffi, Beverly Kopf
Cast: Chely Wright
US Release Date: 2012

Chely Wright

The Bumper of My S.U.V.

Label: Painted Red
US Release Date: 2009-04-08

Like Me

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Author: Chely Wright
Publication date: 2010-05

The film Wish Me Away will see its theatrical release in Spring 2012. The Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf-directed documentary chronicles country singer Chely Wright’s life, from her early years in a small Kansas town to her climb to the top of the country world, to her 2010 decision to come out, making her country music’s first openly gay star, to the ensuing backlash and death threats. Birleffi and Kopf admirably champion Wright for her decision and naturally, the film raises questions about why more country musicians haven’t come out.

The film probes the obvious answers: the country community’s close ties to conservatism and a Christian community often vehemently opposed to homosexuality, to say nothing of a nation largely reluctant to embrace the gay and lesbian community. Mainstream, corporate country music doesn’t like subtlety: men are men, women are women, God is the father of Jesus, America is right. The masculine and feminine images projected from the country music world can seem caricatures -- unrealistic, outmoded, at times even painfully comic.

Doubtless Wright’s classic beauty helped cement her place in the country scene, where the women are often painfully beautiful and the men painfully handsome. It’s no surprise, then, that her love life became a point of interest for the music media. Wish Me Away contains several archival clips of Wright dodging questions about her love life. She was -- rather unsurprisingly -- an almost immediate object of male adoration. She attended a 1998 Altoona, Pennsylvania prom with a young fan, the kind of thing that was innocent enough not to raise too many questions and sweet enough to win her a special place in everyone’s hearts. She even had a seemingly bright-burning romance with Brad Paisley that went pair shaped without his ever really knowing why. In those and many other ways Wright behaved like the quintessential country star.

From her early ‘90s arrival in Nashville until 2010, she did just about everything one could expect from a country musician -- and perhaps with good reason. Despite having some standard concerns about having lied to friends, fans, and family about her sexuality, Wright really doesn’t come off as insincere. You even get the sense that, for better or worse, she really meant when she sang on her CD, Bumper of My S.U.V.

It's a little strange to watch her discuss her decision to come out––in numerous other ways in her life and career she seems decidedly fierce. In her sexuality, she appears, at least initially, insecure. She reveals that over the years she had set many coming out deadlines for herself -- telling herself that when she reached this apex or won that award she would finally have the courage to throw the doors open and reveal all. Those opportunities came and went and it was only around the time, in 2007, that she began working on her autobiography, Like Me (2010), that she finally felt certain that she would finally open up about her sexual orientation.

Wish Me Away chronicles the moments leading up to the media blitz that coincided with her announcement and the release of the book. In the months and weeks leading up to its publication the singer meets with her publisher, with a media coach who preps her for the tough questions, she connects with her sister, who offers invaluable support. She also offers up her worries in video diary entries that are (no spoiler here) pain-filled and candid (if also, at times, a little off the mark).

It’s during those moments that the film becomes difficult to watch. You can’t help but feel that, although her experience must have carried with it its own traumas and deep gravity, it doesn’t quite mirror the reality that many gays and lesbians experience. Few if any of them have media coaches or editors to guide them through the coming out process, to help them brace themselves for the imminent backlash. It's at times hard not to feel angry, knowing how many gay people will not have the same support. Perhaps that’s the intention of the film, to stir up emotions in those moments and incent viewers to feel at least a modicum of outrage.

Wright’s already fragile relationship with her mother suffers as the result of her decision, and surely that mirrors the reality for too many members of the gay and lesbian community. Many of her former friends and colleagues have shunned her since her coming out -- perhaps the least surprising element of her story.

There are acknowledgements -- by Wright and others in the film -- that Nashville has its share of closeted gay and lesbian musicians, but there’s no sense that the film intends to motivate them to come out or for Nashville to rethink its stubborn ways. Not only is it not a surprise that more country musicians have not come out, it’s not a surprise that more musicians at all have not come out. Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford has remained one of the few openly gay men in heavy metal for more than a decade and punk rock icon Bob Mould seems to have only recently become truly comfortable with his sexuality, even having emerged from a musical community that has welcomed other gay and lesbian artists.

Perhaps one of the points we’re asked to consider, as we watch Wish Me Away is that our favorite artists’ orientation really doesn’t matter -- not any more than whether said artist prefers brunettes or blonds, Shakespeare or Stephen King. Maybe, after all, at the end of the night, it’s really nobody’s business who you go home with or whom you love. At least it’s pretty to think so.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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