By Blaine Zuckerman
May 17, 2010 12:00 PM

Country singer-songwriter Chely Wright appeared to be living the Nashville dream. She had a sound that won awards and landed her on country charts (her biggest hit: 1999’s “Single White Female”); a writing style that made major stars want to record her songs; and looks that routinely landed her on hot lists (including PEOPLE’s Most Beautiful in ’01). But Wright also had a secret that was tearing her up: She’s gay. On a cold morning in January 2006, alone at her Nashville home, she pressed the cold barrel of a 9-mm gun to her mouth and thought about ending it all. Now, on the eve of the release of both her 12th album, Lifted off the Ground, and a memoir, Like Me, Wright, 39, sat down with PEOPLE’s Blaine Zuckerman to discuss her years of living a lie-and what made her put down the gun.

I had so masterfully painted myself into a corner. I was a country music star. Who dreams of that and then gets to do it, you know? At the same time, there had never been a country music artist-ever-who had acknowledged homosexuality. I wasn’t going to be the first, damn it. So I hid everything for my music. The hiding just ripped Julia a pseudonym for her partner between ’93 and ’05 and me apart. After we broke up, I realized I would give it all back if I could just live in some awful little apartment with her. And no matter how I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the situation I was in. So I decided I can’t fight it. I decided to kill myself.

I’d always judged people who committed suicide. How non-spiritual. What a loser. Then I found myself with a gun in my mouth.

I know why I didn’t do it. I was looking in the mirror thinking, “Why am I not crying? Don’t people cry when they kill themselves?” I thought of sunlight on my skin, of my dogs, of my ex, of music. Then I saw myself start to cry, and I knew: I’m not gonna do this.

I’m a prayerful person. So I stopped praying for a plan to magically make my gayness and my career intersect; instead I prayed for a moment of peace. The minute I said, “Amen,” it washed over me. I said to myself, “Am I coming out?” The seed was planted. I started to honor the moment and stopped trying to make this grand plan.

I knew when I was 4 that I was different. At 9, I knew I was gay. It scared me because I was hearing the word in church-“homosexual”-and knew it was a building block of sin and evil. But I fell in love with my third-grade teacher. Then I got a crush on my second cousin. Around 13, I brokered my deal with God: I’ll go without love; give me music. That will be enough. Just get me to the Opry stage. By then God was saying in my ear, in my heart, “You’re okay with me.”

[Growing up] I didn’t feel not genuine. I was one of these girls who would get up at 6:30 and curl my hair. But I could also put up a ponytail and play basketball. I’m pretty sure the boy I dated in high school was dating me on a bet that he could score with me. He lost. But short-term relationships with boys deflected so much. I chose boys I really enjoyed hanging out with-somebody that I thought, “If I have to go without love, I’ll just be with them and hopefully they won’t want to have sex.”

My first sexual relationship was with a woman when I was at Middle Tennessee State University. I had a job at Opryland USA. There were gay boys at Opryland, and I thought there might be something they could identify in me. So I thought I’d throw them off with antigay sentiments. I’d say, “I think it’s a sin.” I was spewing such venom. I’m ashamed to admit that.

I was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time on Sept. 16, 1989 [when I was 18]. I wanted to be famous-but not that famous. I remember seeing Ricky Martin being interviewed by Barbara Walters. She pounded him about, “Are you gay, are you not gay?” And I thought, “I don’t want it that bad.” It was really great to be nominated for the Academy of Country Music’s Best Female Vocalist in ’99-but it was super-duper fine that I didn’t win.

I met Julia during the making of my first album. She’d never been with a woman. After we got involved, we told only two people-four years after we got together. We had different breakups throughout. She got married when we were together too. Frankly, I was kind of relieved.

When we would fall apart, I would see guys. But they were never beards. Ever. My choice was, if I’m going to settle again, I’m going to pick someone I admire and like.

Brad Paisley, he was just starting out. We had fun. We toured together. We had a relationship for nine months to a year [around ’00-’01]. But once I realized he was in love with me, I cut him off. It was cruel-one of my biggest regrets. I wish I could have said, “I’m gay, and that’s why I can’t be with you.” I will never, ever do that to another person.

Julia [whose marriage had ended] and I tried to reconcile in late 2006. But there was no way around the gaping wound, the hiding of a homosexual relationship in a highly conservative country music community. We were exhausted. I mean, can you imagine having a relationship for that long and having to lie about it?

I didn’t decide to come out until the making of this record. It became obvious that, holy cow, what will I say about these songs? Chely, who are you writing about? So I decided.

I cannot wait for my book to come out. I feel like it’s my birthday, like I’m going to be born. I don’t just want some of my joy; I want all of my joy.