Six years after coming out as gay, country singer Chely Wright opens up about her family, strained relationship with her mom and new album
In 2010, Chely Wright made history as the first major country music singer to come out as gay. Shortly after, she faced backlash from the Nashville community — and her own family.
Today though, the singer, 45, is back with I Am the Rain — her first album in six years — and is feeling stronger and more comfortable in her skin than ever, having gotten married, had kids and reconciled with her mother.
Coming Out in Country
After coming out and telling her story in a memoir, album and exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Wright felt liberated but also at odds with an industry she’d long called home.
“The industry itself got really quiet,” she recalls. “Some people were like, ‘Who’s she? She’s not even big enough anyway; it doesn’t matter.’ These were people with whom I’d worked very closely, whom I worked very hard for, busted my ass for. But they can’t take away what I did.”
Wright admits the negativity was frustrating, but she’d braced herself for it.
“If any of them had taken a moment to think, ‘I’ll bet that was hard for her; I’ll bet that was tough’…” she says, adding about “70 percent” of her peers did that — but “very quietly. I wish they’d publicly said something affirming of me and the LGBT community. They’ve had a while to do it. Some have, finally. I know Reba said something affirming of marriage equality. Carrie Underwood did. That’s important.”
While Wright felt ostracized, she says coming out came with liberation.
“You walk into a room, and you own it. You get to walk in: ‘You don’t get to wait until I go off to get a drink to make a joke behind my back — yes, I’m gay,'” she says. “People really respond to confidence. Shame is an ugly thing.”
For more on Chely Wright, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.
Over the past six years, Wright says old friends in country have come around in accepting her.
“I think I have a lot of respect,” she says. “There are a couple of negative things that were said about me to other people, or on an email that got forwarded to me, and it’s funny: I notice two years later, they friend me on Facebook or send me a long, beautiful email. It takes people some time to map out. A lot of people go, ‘That took some courage.'”
Focusing on Family
But tragedy struck one year later, when she learned her estranged mother, Cheri Smith, was sick.
“We had a very strained relationship for the past 20 years, especially after I came out,” Wright says.
All of that changed when she learned her mom had been diagnosed with cancer and only had weeks to live.
“I got word that she wanted to meet my wife and kids. Without blinking an eye, my wife said, ‘Let’s get tickets; let’s go,'” Wright recalls of packing up and visiting her mother in her native Kansas. “There’s something really great and beautiful when two people are estranged, if there’s a lot of love there, not a lot has to happen for the barrier to be knocked down. It got fixed: It was a fix that told me God put a hand on what was happening because she would only be alive 14 more days. We both recognized that beautiful gift of reconciliation.”
How Music Healed Her Relationship with Her Mom
Having made up, Wright and her mother spent her final days reconnecting.
“She said, ‘Show me what you’ve been writing,’ and I played her a few things, including a demo of a song that I’d written called ‘At the Heart of Me,'” says Wright, who had to return home to New York for a quick work trip. “She said, ‘Send me a copy of that so I can listen to it.’ So I sent it to her husband Larry, and the next day I called to check and see how she was and asked if he got the song I sent. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, she stayed up all night listening to it. I bet she listened to it 300 times. She loved it — she cried.'”
In retrospect, Wright realizes she wrote the poignant song about her feelings for her formerly estranged parent.
“It’s kind of weird and spooky. What I’m saying in the song is everything I would I have wanted to say to my mom,” says Wright. “I wrote it two weeks before I found out she was sick.”
Today, Wright says reconciling with her mom motivated her to release another album.
“I always write, so the way I decide to make a record is like having an itch, an aura, a feeling,” she says. In the hospice, “It occurred to me: ‘It’s time to make a record.'”
Wright’s mom died shortly after that revelation — but her spirit lives on in her favorite song of her daughter’s, “At the Heart of Me,” the third track on I Am the Rain.
“I can’t sing that song live because I know how attached she was to it,” Wright says. “Of the 60 songs I could have played her, there’s not another one that perfectly stated what I felt.”
In addition to sparking Wright’s creativity, her mom’s death also gave her new perspective.
“We get older, and you’ve got to recalibrate stuff,” says Wright, who found a new appreciation for her wife and kids, who are now 3.
“They’re so cute. They’re neat little people,” Wright says of her twin boys, who have an affinity for Thomas the Tank Engine and superheroes. “When we’re reading or playing guitar — they love when I play guitar for them — not a lot of things matter more than that moment. Life is good.”