Editor's note: A. Latham Staples is president and CEO of Empowering Spirits Foundation, based in San Diego. He is a former vice president of marketing and public relations for Red Ridge Entertainment, where he once represented Chely and other musical talent.
Country music artist Chely Wright has accomplished a lot since her debut album hit the airwaves in 1994.
The singer-songwriter has won both an Academy of Country Music and a Country Music award, charted numerous hits including “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female,” not to mention writing songs for other country greats such as Clay Walker and Brad Paisley.
The 39-year-old singer’s coming out in today’s People magazine and on various television programs, including NBC's “Today Show,” may prove to be her most momentous feat to date.
In her exclusive interview with People, Wright explains how being deep in the closet made her become suicidal and why it took her so long to formally pronounce her sexuality. “There had never, ever been a country music artist who had acknowledged his or her homosexuality,” she said. “I wasn't going to be the first.”
After many years of waiting though, Wright could no longer hold back. She has become the first openly gay country artist.
Having worked for many years in Nashville’s music industry, and having dated a country music artist who was dropped from his label after being outed to record-label executives, I called a few friends who are entertainers, curious as to how the announcement is being received on Music Row.
Jared Ashley, country artist and former “Nashville Star” contestant, sounded hopeful for Wright.
“Chely’s a very talented artist, a great entertainer and a great songwriter,” Ashley said. “I hope that is how she’s received. One’s sexuality is no one else’s business.
“Unfortunately I think it is a bit different for women. If Kenny Chesney came out, country music would blow up, but I don’t think it is career suicide for Chely.”
Singer-songwriter Sherilyn Segrest, who used to perform as Sherilyn Collins with the folk group Deadman, and whose first-ever solo album “Through the Night” is set to release this month, said it won’t be easy for Wright.
“I can't begin to imagine the difficulties a gay man or lesbian has in coming out, but as an artist, I do know the struggle of growing up in a conservative Southern home,” Segrest said.
“For me, asking my family to accept who I am as an artist was such a difficult right of passage, but so critical to me accepting something so fundamental about myself. I can only imagine how magnified that struggle is when the issue is sexuality. I'm sure that some in Wright's audience, especially in the country music world, will hold beliefs that say they must alienate her now that she's come out. But what she gains in accepting herself, in asking others to accept who she is, is invaluable not only to her as a woman, but to her as a artist, as well.”
In today’s issue of People, Wright says, “Nothing in my life has been more magical than the moment I decided to come out.”
Various gay rights organizations spoke out on Wright’s coming out, including the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Wright is scheduled to appear at the 21st annual GLAAD Media Awards on June 5 in San Francisco.
“In coming out, Chely Wright offers country music fans a tremendous opportunity to better understand our community and the importance of conversations that move us toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality,” said Jarrett Barrios, president of GLAAD.
“As more and more gay and lesbian people live their lives openly and honestly, acceptance and understanding of our community continues to grow. With her decision to come out, Chely Wright promises to be a compelling new voice in that discussion.”
Wright has spent the past few years working in the community through her Reading, Writing & Rhythm Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes music education in public schools.
This week Wright is releasing her memoir, “Like Me,” as well as her first album in five years, “Lifted Off The Ground.”
So far, Nashville has been largely quiet regarding Wright’s announcement, but my guess is they will for the most part be supportive. As for country fans, it’s anyone’s guess.