What does Chely Wright’s changing musical style say about the state of country music?
Published at Newsweek.com.
This week, singer Chely Wright will come out not just once, but twice. The musician who had country-radio hits a few years back, including “Single White Female” and the pro-military “Bumper of My SUV,” reveals to People magazine that she is a lesbian. This announcement coincides with the release of her first album in five years, Lifted Off the Ground. The album is a coming out of a second kind: a quick listen makes clear that she is breaking from country music as defined by mainstream country radio and instead casting her lot in the genre known as Americana.
Americana—also known as alternative-country—is now roughly two decades old, and it remains a delightfully ill-defined sound. No Depression magazine, the leading publication for the genre, long described itself as covering “alternative-country music (whatever that is).” Today, Americana is home to bluegrassers (and sometimes bluesmen) who reach hipster audiences, country singers popular in the 1970s who have been left behind by country radio, and singer-songwriters too idiosyncratic for the cookie-cutter hits churned out by the Nashville factory system. But some artists have sought refuge in Americana primarily because Nashville became politically uncomfortable. The Dixie Chicks are the most notable act in this camp: always a little heavy on the mandolin and Patty Griffin covers that are at home in alt-country, they would have likely remained the queens of country radio were it not for an offhand quip against the Iraq War in 2003 that instantly got them effectively banned from the mainstream country airwaves.
If Americana is a refugee camp for political liberals in Music City, it is ironic that the genre’s political impulse has evolved much the way mainstream country’s did. Country became allied with the conservative movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a cultural rebellion against the day’s counterculture-influenced entertainment that blended with a populist rejection of the liberal consensus that then dominated American politics. Americana’s politics were forged in the shadow of 1994’s Republican revolution and tempered during the Bush years, a time when Walmart became the top retailer of country music. Rejecting Nashville meant rejecting big business, the cultural dominance of “Red America,” and the era’s conservative consensus.
The elaborate orchestration of Wright’s coming out—complete with carefully placed leaks and rumors—raises questions about the relationship between her personal and musical transformation. Is she changing her sound because she feels she could not reach a mainstream country audience as a lesbian, or did coming to terms with her sexuality lead her to also reevaluate her musical personality?
This is not meant to trivialize Wright’s coming out. Her account of the toll that being closeted took on her, as she tells People and NEWSWEEK is wrenching, and it is good that she is freed of that burden. Nor should we doubt the sincerity of her musical transformation, a process that can sometimes be as wrenching in a musician’s life as coming out of the closet. But the twin changes in Wright’s personal and musical life raise fascinating questions about the relationship between politics, musical style, and marketing.
Lifted Off the Ground is being released on Vanguard Records, which lacks the marketing apparatus aimed at getting top-40 country airplay. And it was produced by Rodney Crowell, once a major country hit-maker who went the Americana route years ago and is now an outspoken liberal. The album, which is musically quite strong, has only one or two numbers that could maybe get play on country radio. “Damn Liar” achieves a grandiose, anthemic quality using primarily an acoustic guitar and muscular drumming that could make it pop on the air. “Notes to the Coroner” has an airy, driving quality—that feeling of going fast with the top down—that recalls Mary Chapin Carpenter’s hits from the early ’90s. (Of course, it’s a question whether Mary Chapin Carpenter could get those songs on country radio today.)
But the rest of the album is a more low-key affair that strays into adult-contemporary territory. The atmospheric electric guitars, soothing harmonies, and stripped-down arrangements are all anathema to commercial country radio that owes its sound as much (if not more than) to classic rock as to American roots music. (Her biggest hit, “Single White Female,” is all about the large chorus with tight harmonies that could have come out of ’80s pop.)
None of the reports that have dribbled out have inquired about her musical journey as she grappled with what it meant to be a lesbian with a country career. What has been reported suggests she believed she couldn’t stay in country music and be an out lesbian. “Country music seems to be the place you can go if you want to stay away from the gays,” she told NEWSWEEK.
If choosing to come out as a lesbian pushed her in a new musical direction, that’s good news for the listener. This is a strong album, and her music is way more interesting than the songs that shot her up the pop charts. But what would have happened if she’d tried to stay in top 40? Country’s probably not ready for a gay male performer because the music still often tries to appeal to male listeners by getting them to identify with an image of swaggering masculinity. It’s also probably not ready for a song that actually deals about same-sex attraction. But if Ellen DeGeneres can become an icon of daytime television, it seems plausible that country music is ready for a lesbian singer.
It’s still early, but judging from the comments on iTunes, Wright has a good shot at becoming a gay Americana hero. This is great for her, but boring in the scheme of music history. Yet again, country is living up to its reputation as the conservative standard bearer, and those who deviate from the party line flee to Americana, a genre united by basically one thing: it ain’t Nashville.