Reviews

She's Here, She's Queer, Get Used to It: 'Chely Wright: Wish Me Away'

Chely Wright defied country music tradition by coming out and paid the price.


Chely Wright: Wish Me Away

Distributor: First Run
Cast: Chely Wright
Directors: Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf
Release date: 2012-10-16

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.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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