15 January 2012

"Like Me" & "Lifted Off the Ground" by Chely Wright

Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer
Date of Publication: 4 May 2010
Cover Price: $25.95
304 pages

It's not uncommon for a recording artist to pen a memoir, or to release a companion album. It is, however, unprecedented that a mainstream country music artist would use the tandem to step out of the closet. Some balked that Wright was a "has-been" who was trying to "cash in" on her sexuality for an extension on her 15 minutes of fame. I suspect those people failed to actually read Like Me or listen to Lifted Off the Ground, because they are exemplary works worthy of recognition. It's as though her entire public career existed in many ways just to allow her enough celebrity that she could publish this work.

Of course, my biases are well documented; of being feminist and pro-LGBT, certainly, but also in my undying admiration of soul-baring courage. I was struck while reading Like Me just how often Wright shared a very specific anecdote from her own life, but found it evoked visceral memories of my own. I could share hers, or mine, but I think it's sufficient to note that a well-written memoir does this. It's uniquely the story of the author, but touches on such universal themes that each reader should be able to find himself or herself in the pages.

I was surprised by some of what Wright elected to share. She was particularly forthcoming about her relationship with Brad Paisley, for instance, and there was some attention paid at the time of the book's publication to a passage in which she took John Rich to task for his homophobia. It was not the first time I read of Rich's views to that effect and I've not consciously put a penny in his pocket since.

I have not been in the closet, so I can't speak to how Like Me will resonate with those who have. But I can tell you that even though I'm "straight, but not narrow" (meaning I'm heterosexual, but pro-LGBT), Wright made me feel more sensitive to ways in which we as individuals can make things harder--or easier--on our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Though mine was brought on for wholly different reasons, I certainly connected with her story of suicidal depression. The back cover contains the passage in which she recounts putting her 9mm handgun in her mouth and being prepared to end her life. I wasn't going to use a gun; I had resolved to use a bottle of bourbon and sleeping pills. But I know how that felt to be at that "Oh my God, am I really going to do this?" point. I've written extensively about it in this blog over the last few months. Those who denounce Like Me as self-exploitation have clearly never experienced anything that requires a cathartic release. I have, however, and I get it. I really do. I just wanted to hug her throughout this entire memoir and even knowing she's now happily married to a woman who makes her happy, I still just wanted to reach through each page and reassure her that it would be alright.

Readers will also find some fascinating anecdotes from Wright's extensive tours for the U.S. armed forces. Her devotion to the troops is well documented and by all accounts very much appreciated. The stories she shares in Like Me are as warm as they can be funny or heartbreaking, and this is just as true of her military tales.

Chely Wright is a complex (though, I don't think, complicated) woman. She balks at those who invoke the Bible to crusade against the LGBT community, but will not apologize for her own faith. Some liberal readers may be upset that she continues to be conservative in many key parts of her life; some conservative readers will, of course, have their own obvious qualms with her. I think in this, above all else, she epitomizes modern day America. It can be particularly upsetting to have one's beliefs and experiences held against someone else's rubric and be told, "You can't be/say/think/feel that because then you're not a real [insert group name]." She is exactly what is wrong with our two-party system of absolutes...and she is exactly what is right with our society at large.


Lifted Off the Ground
Date of Release: 4 May 2010
List Price: $12.65


Lifted Off the Ground was written in the aftermath of Wright's near-suicide not with the objective of becoming a commercial album but simply to help her process everything. She wrote every song herself, except "Heavenly Days," which she co-wrote with album producer Rodney Crowell. This album is the product of a woman digesting nearly forty years of turmoil and there is a rawness and vulnerability that make it captivating in the way that only the purist and rarest works of art can manage. Her mood swings wildly from loneliness to anger; from despair to hope; from surrender to defiance.

The most powerful song in the collection is surely "Notes to the Coroner" in which she sings of her posthumous curiosities ("Who found me?") and makes clear that what caused her death was heartache. Not in the typical, hyperbolic song way, but rather that the culmination of her life experiences were literally to blame for her suicide. It is among the darkest songs I have ever heard. I played it five times the night I almost ended my own life. I don't know if I was trying to work up my nerve or talk myself out of it, but I can tell you that I hope you never experience that firsthand. It still scares me.

In one of the reviews I read, someone noted that this may as well be Wright's debut album because it marks such a dramatic departure from the more commercial-conscious work in her discography. I would be lying if I claimed enough familiarity with her work to concur entirely, but the point is well taken. Lifted Off the Ground stands as one of the most human albums in my library. I won't say it's necessary to read Like Me to fully appreciate the songs, but I will say that doing so "unlocked" a lot of the lyrics for me.

Everything (Part II)

Amazon offered an exclusive version of Lifted Off the Ground that came packaged with a DVD, Everything II that contained three different "home movie"-style short films. "My Life" followed Wright around New York and other unidentified places, showing her with family and friends. "The Making of Lifted Off the Ground/Slide Show" is self-explanatory. "I Have the Coolest Job" is a look at touring, with an emphasis on Wright's U.S.O. performances. The DVD concludes with a music video for "Bumper of my S.U.V.," a song released prior to this collection. To be honest, I was disappointed by the video content. Not being a longtime fan of Wright's, I was unfamiliar with a lot of the people who appeared and I felt like I had walked into a private party. Still, I thought I'd mention this for those who may be enthusiastic enough to want to know about its existence. Amazon has been sold out for quite a while now, but you can check the secondary market.

Amazon also has an exclusive bonus track for the album, "Don't Look Down." Oddly, this is only available as an .MP3 download and not included on the CD.

Like Me and Lifted Off the Ground are two admirable and courageous works. My only regret is that I took so long to find and read Like Me. Some have praised me for being so candid and "brave" in what I have shared in this blog. I sincerely appreciate the kind words, but I have to admit that I'm not even remotely on the same level as Chely Wright. I applaud her resilience, her courage and I sincerely wish that she allows herself to finally enjoy the happiness she was denied for nearly forty years.

2 comments:

  1. Now I want to read it, did not know she came out.  Something I think you will enjoy is reading Rob Lowe's 
    "Stories I tell my Friends"  It touched me in so many different ways and just the humanity put in it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I heard good things about Lowe's book. It's on my ever-expanding mental To Read list!

    ReplyDelete