When I read this post at Dorothy Surrenders yesterday morning, I was utterly shockedâ€”not because I have no idea who Chely Wright is but because I know exactly who she is.
You see, I am somewhat of a country music fan. This tidbit might surprise people who only know a certain side of me, but those who know the me who secretly wants to drive a Mustang, claims Miller Lite is her favorite beer, has seen Martina McBride in concert four times, watches American Idol, and thinks chip and dip is a food group, those people know that I sometimes listen to country music.
My passion for the genre peaked in the late 1990s, and I spent many a late night watching country music videos in my bedroom. Don’t feel sorry for me. I wasn’t a lonely kid. I had friends and stuff to do. I was just weird and I didn’t sleep much. Plus, country music has always fascinated me because, perhaps more than any other genre, it is a brand. It has a distinctive look and feel and a finite set of themes it works from. For my purposes, there are three categories of country music: serious, fun, and offensive. In the first category, I’ve got my beloved Kris Kristofferson and his contemporaries like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. Then, there’s also the Dixie Chicks, the aforementioned Martina McBride, and Alison Krauss, who might really be a bluegrass artist but I don’t really listen to bluegrass so I’ll just keep thinking of her as a country singer.
Sometimes the lines between the categories are blurry. I mean, what do you do with Joe Nichols? On the one hand, he has this song called “She Only Smokes When She Drinks,” which I think is just flat out a good song, but on the other hand, there’s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” which is, well, not exactly a masterpiece. Brad Paisley presents a similar dilemma, with songs like “Whiskey Lullaby” (with assistance from the lovely Alison Krauss) and “Alcohol.” (I’d also like to note that being fun in content doesn’t keep a song from being serious as in a good song that I seriously like instead of just dismissing as fun. Martina McBride’s “When God-Fearing Women Get the Blues” is a good example of this.) Notice the similar elements between the serious songs and the fun songs. Regardless of the artist’s style or level of talent, the country music brand pervades, drawing from a small pool of inspiration. You know what isn’t in that pool? The gay.
In her post about Chely Wright, Dorothy Snarker referred to her as a “major mainstream country star.” Even though she had a number one song about ten or so years ago, I wouldn’t call Chely Wright “major” or “a star.” In 1999, she was a star, but in 2010, she is just somebody who used to have songs on the radio, somebody only people like me who have weird brains still remember.
Despite my instant recall for her name and her face and that cloying “Single White Female” video that played every ten minutes on GMC and CMT in 1999, I wasn’t exactly a Chely Wright fan back in the day. Although I recall being quite fond of the first Chely Wright song I ever heard, “Shut Up and Drive,” you might have noticed that “Single White Female” kind of annoyed me and then she basically lost me altogether with “Bummer of My SUV” in the 2005. I have no patience for overly sentimental, forcefully poignant, self-righteously indignant country songs. There was this one video, though, during that magical 1999 year. The song is called “It Was” and is in my estimation her best one, perhaps tied with “Shut Up and Drive,” but I have notoriously bad taste in music so don’t take my word for it. More than the song, I recall that my sister and I were endlessly fascinated by the video. I can’t imagine why.
Despite my lukewarm feelings about Chely Wright as an artist, I am feeling quite enthusiastic about her coming out. Of course, I believe that the more lesbians in the world, the better, but this announcement is also significant for country music. I’m glad she feels like she can be who she is, and I hope it works out better for her than it did for the Dixie Chicks. But if it doesn’t, if she gets ostracized from the genre and the all-powerful commercial radio stations don’t play her music, then maybe it’s time for a new genre, with the same old sound and a new sensibility. Or maybe she should just cross over into folk. I think she would find the company there to be quite friendly.