The statistics alone — one in 10, right? — suggest that someone in country music must be gay or lesbian. And yet crickets chirp when you think about an out performer hailing from Nashville.
While never a mainstream country artist, k.d. lang came out of the closet in 1992 after she had already left the genre. She released “Ingénue,” an album that signaled a sea change in both her musical style and her personal life, in tandem with her announcement.
Nearly 20 years later, Chely Wright became the first commercial country singer to openly identify as gay. If it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, “Chely Wright: Wish Me Away” makes it clear just how grueling and groundbreaking her decision was in May 2010.
The documentary speaks specifically to Wright’s experience, but it’s also a broad examination of why country music is so skittish about homosexuality. For a genre so consumed with matters of the heart, you would think that country would embrace a performer who is staying true to hers.
“Wish Me Away” reiterates that the music’s chief tenets seem at odds with a gay lifestyle. President Nixon, seen in video footage from 1974 at the Grand Ole Opry, commends country for upholding American values. In return Wright asserts that she, too, believes in the moral pillars at the core of country music, from belief in God to patriotism and family values. She just happens to be gay.
By her account, Wright played by Nashville’s rules when she arrived on the scene in the late 1980s. When asked about her personal life, she had tricks for avoiding the topic. Was she married? Well, married to her work. Seeing anyone? Nah, too busy for that. She did date fellow country singer Brad Paisley, but Wright now admits she regrets how unceremoniously she cut him out of the picture.
Wright had the cards stacked against her from the start. She remembers seeing Billie Jean King on television as a child (she was born in 1970). “I freaked out,” she says. “‘Oh, my God. Am I going to grow up to look like that?’ Because if I do, I’m screwed. I’ve never seen anybody on the Opry look like that.”
Traveling to Wright’s hometown of Wellsville, Kan. (population: 1,600), the filmmakers introduce us to her family. Her sister is feisty, her father a little kooky and entirely lovable.
Her mother, however, is portrayed as a source of both Wright’s confidence and crippling fears. Unfortunately the film doesn’t linger too long in that little town, which is a shame since it’s clearly the root of the struggle that would grip Wright for most of her life. At the very least, we later see Wright in discussion with her book editor, who urges and even provokes Wright to examine her relationship with her mother.
Spliced throughout is candid commentary from a crudely shot video diary that chronicles Wright’s agony. The closer she gets to the day she’s going to come out, the more her nerves are frayed, the more her mascara runs.
Wright ended up coming out in full splendor. Around the same time, she wrote a book (“Like Me”), recorded the most revealing and compelling album of her career (“Lifted Off the Ground”), made the rounds on radio and talk shows, and graced the cover of People magazine.
Decades in the making, her coming out was not a rash decision. If anything, we learn she was especially careful about damage control, and the film is a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Leading up to the announcement, we see Wright undergoing media training. After so much fraught anticipation of the fallout, it’s heartening to witness Wright blossom, as if someone had dropped Technicolor on her black-and-white world. There’s genuine joy and emotion when she interacts with her family, though Wright decided not to come out to her mother in advance of the media coverage. Her father tells the camera that Wright’s sexuality doesn’t change anything about his love and respect for his daughter. And then he breaks down, just as we’ve seen Wright do so often throughout the film.
“Wish Me Away” ends on a note of uplift but also uncertainty. Her future in country music is still in limbo, and Wright has received hate mail and even death threats. None of that matters, though, if you believe the last words that flash on the screen: “She has no regrets.”