“Inside,” the opening track to Chely Wright’s new release, I Am the Rain, beckons listeners with its gentle undertow. It’s a meditative life-affirming lullaby that Wright wrote to herself as she prepared to come out back in 2010. “You are small, and you are big at the same time,” she sings, an acknowledgement of how powerful and how inconsequential that act can seem in the world. Her widely reported coming out, captured in the 2011 documentary Wish Me Away, was both liberating and immensely difficult for Wright, a major player in country music who was raised by conservative parents in Wellsville, Kansas.
“You have to have humility, right? You have to understand you are just a tiny fleck of dust,” says Wright, 45, seated in the tiny, dimly lit SiriusXM radio station’s green room in advance of doing interviews for two shows. “But you also have to understand that your actions can move a mountain, can change a life,” she adds.
In preparation for her album’s Sept. 9 release, Wright is camera-ready with impeccable hair and makeup for a day of press events. As she discusses her new project, it’s clear that she is at once miles away from the moment she came out and able to summon the tumult of that time in a flash. She recalls that while the decision strained her relationship with her mother, the two ultimately grew closer in 2014, when her mother, battling cancer, entered hospice care.
“I had to lose her to get her back. It was bittersweet,” says Wright, eyes welling with tears. In the moments they shared together, Wright played demos of her new songs. Moved by her mother’s joyful reaction to the music, Wright embarked on a highly successful Kickstarter campaign—the most-funded of any country record on that platform—which helped fuel the recording and production of her music.
The album, Wright’s eighth and first in five years, is a collection of characters, opinions, and moods that draws listeners into its world. It’s reminiscent of Carole King’s Tapestry, not so much for its musical flavors, but because it’s the perfect record to absorb end to end through headphones while lolling on a bed on a rainy day. There are no steering wheel fist-pounders like Wright’s hits “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” She trades that pacing for a soulful Americana set that tackles such subjects as religious hypocrisy, forgiveness, and the rudderless, somewhat scary state of being in love. The set features vocal collaboration with luminary Emmylou Harris on the delicate “Pain,” as well as a gorgeous interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” featuring The Milk Carton Kids.
Joe Henry, who produced and also co-wrote some of the songs on I Am the Rain, helped Wright shed her fear of departing from the country music industry’s traditional syncopation—of opening an album with a barnburner. “It was a big risk—the way we sequenced it,” said Wright. “It was scary for me. The way we always did it in commercial country music is you kind of get them with a hooky thing. But Joe said, ‘You have to trust this record will deliver and you have to set the tone,’ ” she said. “The song ‘Inside’ really set the tone sonically, instrumentally, and thematically.”
Wright, who married Lauren Blitzer, Sony Music’s director of marketing, in 2011, says she began writing the songs shortly before she and Blitzer became pregnant with their now 3-year-old twin boys. “Identical twins—it’s a weird thing,” Wright says. “They’re very different, but then I’ll be pushing them in the stroller, and at the same time they’ll both stick their left arm out. They’re really connected.”
Blitzer and Wright, who live with their boys in New York City, inspire the type of headlines that offer a rare glimpse of a post-gay world: “Country’s hottest wives,” proclaimed the website Taste of Country when they wed. The article’s comments, however, are a mirror of our current state of affairs: “A slap in the face to country fans!!” says one; “Beautiful couple,” says another.
Despite advances like marriage equality, Wright cautions that we are a ways from living in a world where being gay is incidental. “I just got a letter from a 23-year-old woman in Bellingham, Washington, who got outed. She’s in college, but her parents have completely cut her off,” she said. Wright still receives letters from viewers of Wish Me Away who say she saved their lives.
She also estimates that she lost about a third of her fan base by coming out. Being an optimist—and an altruist—allows Wright to see the good in it. “They may have left me. They may have told me that they want a refund from all of the records. But now they have an awareness that somebody they knew and loved was a gay person. That can’t be a bad thing.”