Richell Rene Wright (/ˈʃɛli ˈraɪt/; born October 25, 1970) is an American country music singer and activist. On the strength of her debut album in 1994, the Academy of Country Music (ACM) named her Top New Female Vocalist in 1995. Wright's first Top 40 country hit came in 1997 with "Shut Up and Drive". Two years later, her fourth album yielded a number one single, the title track, "Single White Female". Overall, Wright has released seven studio albums on various labels, and has charted more than fifteen singles on the country charts. As of May 2010, Wright's previous eight albums and 19 singles released had sold over 1,500,000 copies in the United States. In May 2010, Wright became one of the first major country music performers to publicly come out as lesbian. In television appearances and an autobiography, she cited among her reasons for publicizing her homosexuality a concern with bullying and hate crimes toward gays, particularly gay teenagers, and the damage to her life caused by "lying and hiding".
She has written songs that have been recorded by Brad Paisley, Richard Marx, Indigo Girls, Mindy Smith and Clay Walker, among them Walker's top ten hit, "I Can't Sleep" that won her a BMI award. On May 4, 2010, Wright simultaneously released her memoir, Like Me, and her first album of new songs since 2005, Lifted Off the Ground.
Wright's eighth album, I Am the Rain, was released on September 9, 2016, by MRI/Sony and was produced by Joe Henry. It entered the Billboard country chart at 13, the second highest debut of her career. It was also her first appearance on the Americana album chart, where it reached number 9.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Wright grew up in a musical family in Wellsville, Kansas, a town with a population of less than 2,000. According to her autobiography, Like Me, she wanted to be a country music performer since the age of four, and realized at age eight that she was gay.
As a young child, Wright took piano lessons, and began professional singing appearances by age 11, including playing "Taps" on bugle at the funerals of veterans at the local American Legion.
A Christian, Wright harbored the belief that her sexual orientation was immoral, that her secret would kill her career hopes. From early childhood, she resolved to never confide her orientation to anyone or to pursue romantic relationships with women.
The summer before her senior year of high school, she worked as a performing musician at the Ozark Jubilee, a long-running country music show in Branson, Missouri. In 1989, immediately after high school, she landed a position in a musical production at Opryland USA, a now-defunct theme park in Nashville, Tennessee. She lived permanently in Nashville until 2008. In 1993, Harold Shedd signed her to Mercury/Polygram, and her first album was released in 1994 on the Polydor label.
As a commercial artist
After releasing two unsuccessful albums through Mercury/Polygram, Wright asked to be released from her contract and signed with MCA Nashville. There, she had her first top twenty country hit in 1997 with the song "Shut Up and Drive," off her third album, Let Me In. In 1999, her fourth album, Single White Female, produced several hit songs and her first gold album certification. In 2000, while touring with singer Brad Paisley, Wright and Paisley cowrote the duet "Hard to Be a Husband, Hard to Be a Wife", which they performed in their joint shows and at the Grand Ole Opry's 75th anniversary, televised by CBS. The Opry performance was later nominated for Vocal Event of the Year at the 35th Annual CMA Awards. Wright also joined Diamond Rio for a song on their One More Day album, as well as Paisley's Part II album, both released in 2001.
Wright's fifth studio album, Never Love You Enough, was originally scheduled to be released on September 11, 2001 but due to the World Trade Center attack, the release date was postponed to September 25. Never Love You Enough debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard Country Albums chart. In these peak years of her popularity, Wright was named to People Magazine's annual "50 Most Beautiful People" list in 2001 and ranked No. 93 among FHM's "100 Sexiest Women of 2002". and later that year was ranked No. 18 of "The 20 Hottest Women in Music 2002"
She also cowrote Clay Walker's 2003 top 10 single "I Can't Sleep".
As an independent artist
In 2003, Wright parted ways with MCA Nashville after "Never Love You Enough" failed to meet sales expectations. In January 2004, she signed with a new independent label, Vivaton, and began preparation for a new album. Although a music video was released for a song entitled "The Back of the Bottom Drawer," the album never materialized. Wright split with Vivaton in June 2004. She wrote and released a single, "The Bumper of My SUV" in late 2004, mostly through the Internet and various radio stations, in response to an altercation with an irate woman who noticed the United States Marine Corps bumper sticker on the back of Wright's car.
The success of "The Bumper of My SUV", released on Wright's own Painted Red Music Group, was followed by the release of an EP, Everything. The record was made exclusively available through Wright's website, but its success led to a deal with Dualtone Records.
Wright's sixth album, The Metropolitan Hotel, was released in February 2005 on Dualtone. The album debuted at No. 18 on Billboard's Top Country chart and reached No. 7 on the Top Independent Albums chart. Wright signed to Vanguard Records in 2008. She released her seventh studio album, Lifted Off the Ground, on May 4, 2010, produced by Grammy Award winner Rodney Crowell. In October 2014 Wright's Kickstarter campaign to fund her eighth studio album became the sixth most successful Kickstarter music campaign and the number one campaign in country music. It raised $250,000, which will allow Wright to record and promote the album and to produce a music video to be released in 2015.
In July 2016, Wright announced the release of her eighth studio album, I Am the Rain. The album, which has roots in Americana, was produced by Joe Henry. It features collaborations with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and The Milk Carton Kids and the album has drawn comparisons to Carole King's Tapestry. The album was released on September 9, 2016 through the Painted Red Music Group and RED Distribution. A U.S. tour is planned for 2017.
Personal lifeThere’s the gay community that now knows my name and it’s a long leap from the new demographic of people who will come to my Facebook page and hit the 'Like' button to them buying my record and coming to live shows. It’s a big stretch from those new fans to make up for the fans I lost. It didn’t help my career. My record sales went directly in half. If it appears from the outside in that it’s helped my career, it could be because I haven’t talked about the negative. You won’t hear me bitching and moaning on my Facebook about the hate mail I’ve gotten. My life has been threatened. I get nasty letters every day, 'I’m through with you Chely Wright, you’re going to hell'. There’s a big difference between press and advocacy and sometimes people forget that people who sing or make movies, this isn’t just a hobby for us. This is how I pay my bills. In coming out I had a feeling that it would diminish my wage earning, and that feeling was correct. And, I am fine with that".
—Wright commenting on career after coming out
Despite her resolution against having sex with women, Wright disclosed in her memoir that, by her early thirties, she had had sexual relationships with two women. She had her first same-sex experience at age 19 — "it was the first time I'd ever had a girl's body pressed against mine"—and the affair lasted the better part of a year. From 1993 to about 2004, Wright maintained a committed relationship with a woman she described as "the love of my life", a woman she met shortly after winning her first recording contract. The era of their relationship overlaps Wright's rise to chart-topping stardom. They maintained their relationship even though her partner subsequently married a man, and even while both women briefly had heterosexual relationships. During their final five years they lived together, the relationship suffered numerous breakups and reconciliations due to the strain of being closeted, the fact that "neither one of us thought it was acceptable to be in a gay relationship", and Wright's prolonged absences while performing on tour nationally and internationally.
In the last months of 2000, Wright began a relationship with country singer Brad Paisley. Even though Wright and her female lover had moved in together earlier that year, and Wright admitted she felt no sexual attraction to Paisley, she recounted that "he's wickedly smart, which is one of the reasons why I made the decision to spend time with him. I loved Brad. I never had the capacity to fall in love with him, but I figured if I’m gonna live a less than satisfied life, this is the guy I could live my life with. If I’m gonna be with a boy, this is the boy." She held him in high esteem and great affection in every way other than sexual attraction. In her autobiography she expressed remorse for how she treated him, and told Oprah Winfrey that "I have a lot of regret for how that began and had a middle and ended. I had no business being in a relationship with him".
Wright eventually abandoned the belief that being lesbian is immoral and deviant:
I hear the word "tolerance"—that some people are trying to teach people to be tolerant of gays. I'm not satisfied with that word. I am gay, and I am not seeking to be "tolerated". One tolerates a toothache, rush-hour traffic, an annoying neighbor with a cluttered yard. I am not a negative to be tolerated.
Between 2004 and 2006, Wright came out to members of her immediate family and to a few of her close friends. It was not until 2007 that she decided to come out publicly, but spent the next three years writing her autobiography. She stated that she wanted to come out to free herself from the burdens of living a lie, to lend support to gay children and teenagers, and to counter the belief that gays are wicked and defective. On May 3, 2010, People Magazine reported her coming out. Wright became one of the first members of the country music community to come out as gay; country artist k.d. lang came out in 1992 (though she later abandoned the country music genre), and Kristen Hall, formerly of Sugarland, was openly gay while working with that band.
On April 6, 2011, Wright announced her engagement to LGBT rights advocate Lauren Blitzer. The couple married on August 20, 2011, in a private ceremony on a country estate in Connecticut officiated by both a rabbi and a reverend. On January 23, 2013, the couple announced that Chely was expecting identical twins. Wright gave birth to George Samuel and Everett Joseph on May 18, 2013.
A documentary film about Wright's extended coming out, entitled Wish Me Away, was released in 2011. The film shares its title with one of the tracks on her 2010 album, Lifted Off the Ground. The film premiered at the 35th annual Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco on June 22, 2011. It was filmed over three years.
After U.S President Barack Obama announced his support for LGBT rights, Wright endorsed his re-election campaign in 2012.
Wright is the founder of the charity Reading, Writing and Rhythm (RW&R), which is devoted to musical education in America's schools and helps supply musical instruments and equipment. It holds a fundraiser each June in Nashville, just before CMA Music Festival. In 2002 Wright received the MENC's "FAME Award" in honor of the accomplishments of RW&R.
In 2001, Wright was given the "Stand Up For Music Award" MENC: The National Association for Music Education.
In 2003, she was named "Woman of the Year" by the American Legion Auxiliary and "Kansan of the Year" for her career achievements, her charity work and her support of the U.S. armed forces.
In 2010, Wright was named the National Spokesperson for the organization GLSEN. Wright was named one of Out magazine's annual 100 People of the Year. Metro Source New York Magazine named her as one of the 20 people We Love in 2010.
DiscographyMain article: Chely Wright discography
- Studio albums
- 1994: Woman in the Moon
- 1996: Right in the Middle of It
- 1997: Let Me In
- 1999: Single White Female
- 2001: Never Love You Enough
- 2005: The Metropolitan Hotel
- 2010: Lifted Off the Ground
- 2016: I Am the Rain
- Compilation albums
- 2003: 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Chely Wright
- 2007: The Definitive Collection
- 2008: The Ultimate Collection
- Extended plays
- 2004: Everything (EP)
- 2005: Live EP (Digital EP)
- 2011: Damn Liar - The Dance Remix (EP)
Wright made her acting debut in the Disney film Max Keeble's Big Move. She plays Mrs. Styles, Max's homeroom teacher.
|1995||Academy of Country Music||Top New Female Vocalist||Won|
|1996||TNN/Music City News Awards||Star of Tomorrow||Nominated|
|Jukebox Awards||Best New Artist||Nominated|
|1999||Academy of Country Music||Top Female Vocalist||Nominated|
|Best Music Video — "Single White Female"||Nominated|
|Country Music Television||Female Video of the Year — "Single White Female"||Nominated|
|Country Weekly Awards||Fast Track Artist||Nominated|
|Country Music Association Awards||Horizon Award||Nominated|
|2001||Country Weekly Awards||Vocal Collaboration — "Hard to Be a Husband, Hard to Be a Wife"||Nominated|
|MENC||Stand Up for Music Award||Won|
|Country Music Association Awards||Vocal Event of the Year — "Hard to Be a Husband, Hard to Be a Wife"||Nominated|
|2002||CMT Flameworthy Awards||Video Fashion Plate — "Jezebel"||Won|
|People Magazine||50 Most Beautiful People||Won|
|International Bluegrass Music Association||Recorded Event of the Year — Clinch Mountain Sweethearts||Won|
|2003||American Legion Auxiliary||Woman of the Year||Won|
|2005||Country Weekly Awards||Star with Biggest Heart||Nominated|
|Best Patriotic Song — "The Bumper of My SUV"||Nominated|
|2006||Star with Biggest Heart||Nominated|
|2010||Black Tie Dinner||Media Award||Won|
|OUTmusic Awards||Vanguard Award||Won|
|2011||Kansas Music Hall of Fame||Inducted||Won|
|GLAAD Media Awards||Outstanding Musical Artist||Nominated|
|Lambda Literary Awards||Best Biography-Like Me||Nominated|
|Documentary Channel Audience Award-Nashville Film Festival||Best Documentary-Wish Me Away||Won|
|Los Angeles Film Festival||Best Documentary-Wish Me Away||Won|
|New York LGBT Community Center’s Annual Center Women’s Event||Woman of the Year||Won|
|2012||Seattle LGBT Festival||Audience Award, Favorite Documentary Film||Won|
|San Francisco International LGBT Festival,||Outstanding Documentary Feature||Won|
|Palm Springs International Film Festival||Audience Award, Best Documentary||Won|
|Melbourne Australia LGBT Festival||Audience Award, Best Documentary||Won|
|Seattle LGBT Festival||Audience Award, Favorite Documentary Film||Won|
|Philadelphia Q Fest||Jury Award, Best Documentary||Won|
|Tallgrass Film Festival, Kansas||Golden Strand Award, Best Documentary||Won|
|Pittsburgh LGBT Festival||Best Documentary||Won|
|Fresno Real Pride Film Festival||Audience Award, Best Documentary||Won|
|Atlanta Out on Film Festival||Jury Award, Best Documentary||Won|
|Newfest Film Festival, New York City||CENTERPIECE||Won|
|2013||GLAAD Media Award||Best Doc||Nominated|
|Emmy Awards||Outstanding Informational Programming—Long-Form||Nominated|
|2014||Family Equality Council||Outstanding Work as LGBT Activist||Won|
Chely Wright supports the following charitable cause: Gay Rights.