"A lot of people were applauding for me when I talked about my gayness," Chely Wright told PEOPLE
Chely Wright doesn’t typically choose her performance outfits in advance. Sometimes, she admits, she’ll wait until late on the day of the show before making such a decision.
This was not the case on Saturday when she marked an emotional return to the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in more than a decade. The country artist, now 48, took to the famed stage to sing her early hits “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female,” making a deeply symbolic fashion statement in a dusty pink color-blocked Diane von Furstenberg dress. It was the same frock first worn in her historic appearance on the Today Show in 2010 where she told the world that she was gay, rocking some quarters in Nashville and making her the first major country star to come out.
At the time, she thought her candor could likely end her career. But as she struggled for her breath and her words to address the Opry crowd Saturday night, more than nine years after her book, she had no plans to downplay her truth.
And through cheers and protracted applause, the enthusiastic crowd welcomed her home, a moment that brought her to tears in her dressing room after she’d basked in the clear admiration of fans, Opry personnel and musicians including Opry matriarch Jeannie Seely, who joined Wright on stage after her performance to offer big hugs and kind words of support.
Wright seemed surprised and overwhelmed by the love.
“I thought this was like a bookend, you know. I performed here first when was 18 and now 30 years later, I thought probably this would be my last,” Wright told PEOPLE after her appearance.
“But you know, I think I’m coming back,” Wright beamed.
“A lot of people were applauding for me when I talked about my gayness,” Wright shared, stifling a sob. “I felt so much love out there. I felt like I was finally coming home.”
Much has changed for Wright since she left Nashville in 2008 for New York City and what she thought would be a brief stint to pen a tough but heartfelt memoir that ultimately would shake up Nashville as perhaps no other book had. In her 2010’s “Like Me,” she confessed to living a lifelong lie, knowing since childhood that she was a lesbian, but trying to hide her truth from music industry pals and men she’d dated, including superstar Brad Paisley — all the while carrying on a relationship with a woman. She has publicly apologized for that.
Born in Missouri and raised in small-town Kansas where her faith told her homosexuality was a sin, Wright described in her book how her inner turmoil got so bad that at one point she put a 9-millimeter handgun in her mouth in a suicide attempt. That event became a tipping point for her living her life honestly — a career in country music be damned. She prayed to God to let her have peace as she went forward telling the truth about who she really was.
Life shifted quickly after that. Wright stayed in N.Y.C. where she met her wife Lauren Blitzer-Wright just weeks after her book was released. The couple wed first in a civil ceremony the same day gay marriage became legal in N.Y. A month later they celebrated with a formal service at a private Connecticut home before 200 guests. Both women wore white-gowns in nuptials led by a minister and a rabbi.
“Being married — that’s a hard job,” Wright says. “It can all look good on paper and then you get down into the hard work of marriage every day. My wife is super smart, super funny, super decent, super thoughtful. I think choosing your partner is paramount. Then you decide are we going to do this work together — it’s every day. You suit up together and say ‘let’s make this work.’”
Raising them in N.Y.C. has been pure joy, Wright said. “Being a mom is more complex, emotional, gratifying. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. The boys are incredible and they make me laugh every day. They make me cry every day. And doing it in New York — it doesn’t matter what you do in New York. No offense to Nashville, but it’s better in New York than it is anywhere else.”
Not that she still doesn’t consider Nashville, where she lived for 20 years and still keeps a residence, home.
Wright first played the Opry on Sept. 16, 1989 — almost 30 years prior to her Saturday show. Getting that opportunity, she recalled, meant so much as a young artist.
“The Opry has always been the mother church of country music,” Wright told PEOPLE. “It was a huge part of my imagination as a kid growing up, fantasizing about singing and doing shows and making records, imagining what life would be like as a recording artist. Playing the Opry was part of that dream.”
She remembers her appearances there fondly. “Over the years it was a big part of my career and kind of my artist identity,” Wright added. “When I first came out with my first record, there wasn’t an interview I did about my new single or my new album or my tour, I didn’t discuss the Opry shows.”
But after she revealed she was gay, the invitations stopped.
“I haven’t been invited to do the Opry since I came out,” Wright told PEOPLE. “It’s not like they have been asking, and I haven’t done it. This is the first time they have asked and my answer, which surprised me, was ‘yes’ the minute I saw the email come in.”
Gina Keltner, the director of Opry Talent Scheduling & Logistics, was upbeat about Wright’s return, noting that those who knew her in her early years were energized to see her on the historic stage again — and eager to catch up.
“We were proud to showcase Chely early in her career and during her days as a country music hit-maker,” Keltner said. “When we learned of her new music and of her being back out on tour, we were pleased to invite her back to the stage to share her new songs with fans.”
She added: “Several of us at the Opry were here when Chely lived in Nashville and visited the Opry frequently more than a decade ago, and we’re personally excited to catch up with her in addition to hearing her new music.”
Music critic and author Holly Gleason lauded the Opry’s enduring relevance to her industry.
“The Opry is still the best of what Nashville is. It doesn’t really matter what you are. Once you’re part the Opry, you’re part of the family there,” she said.
Gleason name-checked several artists whose image trends far from what some might view as a more traditional country music industry. She noted the success of Kane Brown, 25, who is mixed race, and Jimmie Allen, 33, who is African-American, along with Luke Combs, 29, “who is kind of the chubby kid from North Carolina who made good.”
She also pointed to newer artists like Ashley McBryde, who wears her myriad tattoos proudly, and to Brandy Clark, a multi-Grammy nominated singer who has not only come out, but written music recorded by everyone from Darius Rucker to Reba McEntire and Kacey Musgraves.
“It feels like Nashville has come to a place, maybe, where it’s not what you look like, not who you love, not who you vote for — it’s what’s in your music,” Gleason said. “It’s more ‘what are you saying to our fans and how do you reflect the real world around them?’”
Wright has sold more than one million records in her career. In her newest record, Revival, a 5-track EP released in May, Wright says the record’s producers Dustin Ransom and Jeremy Lister created “sonic landscapes” that are “cinematic” with a decidedly N.Y. feel. She said the record is about forgiveness and awakening to what is going on in the world. The album marks her first music recorded in Nashville since she came out.
“People ask me if I write differently now that I’m out. I really don’t think so,” she said. “The only discernible difference is before, I had this full-time 80-hours a week job of hiding… And now, I got to retire from a really hard job with no perks, no benefits, no vacation time — just hiding.” That burden is gone.
Wright proudly takes on the mantle of activist in addition to musical artist. She sweetly but powerfully acknowledged her story between songs on Saturday, explaining to Opry fans that since the last time they saw her, she’d become a wife and mother and also a woman who is living honestly. She switched up the final lyric of her last song to honor her message, “a single white female, looking for a girl (not man as the original song says) like you.”
The finish drew strong cheers and applause that Wright absorbed gratefully. No matter how she had left Nashville 11 years ago, fearing her musical dreams would soon be over — she had been welcomed, as an artist in her own right, upon her return.
“I’m thinking change is here,” she said. “The fact that there are a lot of now openly gay, LGBTQ writers, producers and artists — that speaks volumes. Representation matters. Just thinking that it is ok for your friends and family and band guys to know wasn’t enough for me. For me, it was do or die. I was going to expire or I was going to have to tell my truth.
“I came out nearly a decade ago and since then, there are new people added to the list. It’s growing and that makes me really proud and optimistic and hopeful for people to continue to live in their light.”