The ’90s were a great time for the women in country. They dominated the charts and paved the way for a new generation of female artists in the genre. Songs like “Shut Up and Drive,” “It Was,” and of course, “Single White Female” shot singer/songwriter Chely Wright to the top.
Coming from a country household, Wright knew she wanted to be a country singer at the age of 6. And by the time she was 9, she was playing bars and Honky Tonks around her hometown. After graduating high school, Wright packed up and moved to Nashville, where she earned a spot in a musical production at Opryland USA. Her talent and confidence caught the attention of country’s most iconic artists including “Mr. Grand Ole Opry” himself, Porter Wagoner. He even asked her to be “the girl singer” in his band. Considering the last “girl singer” Wagoner had in his band was Dolly Parton, who could turn that down?
Last year, Wright sat down with Inspirer to talk about her then upcoming album, her charity, and what it was like for her to be the first out artist in counrty. With the release behind her and her “Story and Song” tour winding down, we caught up with Chely just after her Santa Monica show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop.
I can’t believe it’s been a year since we last spoke.
It doesn’t feel like a year, time really does fly.
When we last spoke, you were just about to release “I Am The Rain,” were you happy with how it turned out?
I was and am so pleased with what it has done as a stepping stone in my body of work, Joe Henry is such a brilliant guy. He’s such a great producer and had this innate understanding of what this record needed. I think I love the record more than I thought I would. Which is a weird thing for me. When I was on the plane back home, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I think the reason I couldn’t tap into my analytical perspective of what we had done was because, as Joe would put it, I left it all out on the field. I really couldn’t be happier.
The album holds the record for being the most successful Kickstarter campaign in country music, did that show you just how many fans were out there still believing in what you do?
It was great to get funded, but the emotional connection I was able to have with my fans, new and old, was something I didn’t know I needed. I was very happy with the Kickstarter but not for the obvious reasons. It boggles my mind that there are still fans out there I haven’t met. At the McCabe’s show, the woman who handed me flowers has been a fan of mine for 23 years and it was the first time she had seen me. It’s just crazy and awesome that this could be the case.
I’m sure this tour you’ve been on has helped you connect with your fans as well.
Yeah, it really has. I was talking with a friend after my show and she was asking how this run was going, and if playing the east coast is different than playing the west coast. I told her no, it’s the same. When fans come to see me, they know what they’re going to get. They know that I love to talk, which is why we’ve been calling this tour “Story and Song.” At this point in my career, I feel like the stories are just much the meat and potatoes as the songs themselves. It’s fun for me to say here’s how “Shut Up and Drive” happened, and how I felt during that time. I’m just so lucky that at this point in my career that I have fans that want to hear about that. I think it goes back to what Minnie Pearl and Porter Wagoner told me years ago, If people want to hear your records then they’ll put on your record. When they come to a show, you have to give them something to take with them. I think that’s why I’m enjoying this tour so much.
There is a pattern with a lot of female singer/songwriters that have an extensive career touring this way, telling the stories of the songs came to be. There’s an air of confidence when they are allowed to share those things with the audience.
Yeah, it changes. When you’re 20 you try to appeal to the masses. I call myself a former “pop-tart.” My job was to get up there and entertain 40,000 people. But, I’m glad you mentioned the female singer/songwriters. I’m going to be 50 in a couple years, and there’s a comfort and ease in this place. I think it’s the sweet spot in my career. I’ve never had more fun. Maybe it is confidence. Having the confidence to say “here’s my journey, here’s where I started out. And here is how I ended up here.” When you play the venues I have been, you know that’s what the fans are there to hear. There’s zero pressure to be anything other than myself.
You seem to have a very strong and honest bond with your fans. It was apparent when we saw you meeting with a few before the McCabe’s show.
I do. I think I always see myself in them. I love music, it’s been the heartbeat of my life since I was six years old. I had a fan that night, tell me he had waited 12 years to meet me. Think about that, most marriages don’t even last that long. He waited that long to be able to tell me what song on my second album meant to him, and what my new album means to him. I know, as a fan, if I would have wanted the chance to tell Merle Haggard, or Loretta Lynn those things. Luckily, I have been able to over the years. I know what it means to be able to say how an album has changed the trajectory of life. That hits me in a powerful way. I appreciate you saying you see that. I really do feel a connection to my fans.
One man drove from Vegas up to the McCabe’s show, and there was a couple who drove 7 hours, I even met a gal and her two daughters who came from New Jersey. They flew out just to see that show. It’s amazing and pretty special.
There haven’t been many female artists topping the country charts lately, and “party country” is the trend. Why do you think things have shifted?
I think it’s cyclical. I remember when my first record came out, the generation before me had a lot of complaints. But I know when Merle Haggard came out people were saying, “well this is no Hank Sr.’ Or “that’s not country.” It doesn’t really faze me. We all had a good run on radio at one time. It was fun, we were at the top of the game. But there’s a passing of the torch that needs to happen. It’ll come around though. I was part of a movement in the ‘90s. Out of the top ten records, seven were by us women. It was unheard of before then. They were breaking all these rules on the radio where you don’t play two female artists back to back. But we were all hitting at the same time. It was a fun few years, but I think it’ll come back around.
Things will always grow and evolve.
If you’re an artist and love what you do, you’re going to do it. Certain fans will track you down, but what I call “the McDonald’s” crowd are going to listen to what’s being played on the Top 40 country stations. What I mean by that is the masses. They buy and love what’s on the radio. Then you’re going to have the people that aren’t feeling it and they turn to a country station on Sirius to hear Patti Loveless. I had my time on radio and it was a great thing, but I’m going to continue to do what I’m doing.
What are you doing? What’s next for you?
I’m about to make a Christmas record, it’s something I’ve been needing to do for a long time. I haven’t told anyone about it really, but you can be the first to put that out there. It’ll be out this Christmas. It’s very exciting. I’ve written Christmas songs for a lot of different artist, but I’ve never made my own album. I did record a song for a compilation project when I was at Universal, though. I love Christmas and holiday music, so I’m writing some new songs and recording some I wrote for other artists. It should be a lot of fun.
We are glad we were able to see you perform out here in California, the McCabe’s Guitar Shop show was a lot of fun.
I loved playing the historic stage at McCabe’s and the audience was so great. I love that they tell everyone to shut off their phones, it really changes the show in a beautiful way. I just felt a great connection with the folks there. And I’m glad you ladies were able to come out and be apart of it.