In September 1989, Wellsville, Kansas, native Chely Wright made the first of many appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, a venue that would become an important touchstone in her career. But after coming out as a lesbian in 2010, Wright, now 48, went more than nine years without an invitation to come play the hallowed stage. That is, until August 10th, nearly 30 years after her debut.
As Opry member Jeannie Seely introduced her to rousing applause, Wright performed the familiar hits “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female” — the latter of which she ended with a slight lyrical change, singing, “A single white female, looking for a girl like you.” Yet it was the singer’s poignant recollection of her Opry debut that proved most telling. “I played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time 30 years ago this year. I was introduced and brought on stage by the King of Country Music, Mr. Roy Acuff,” Wright said onstage. “And as I walked offstage, full house, flashbulbs were going off, I thought to myself, ‘If I never get to do anything else again, if I never make it in Nashville, I just played the Grand Ole Opry.’”
Two days before her return to the Opry, the outspoken Wright — who released the vibrant pop-edged EP Revival in May — sat down with Rolling Stone Country in the Grand Ole Opry’s former home at the Ryman Auditorium, chosen because Wright’s presence in the hallowed hall is actually witnessed by the throngs who visit there on a daily basis. In 1994, to celebrate the grand reopening of the Ryman, she served as the model for a bronze statue of Minnie Pearl in conversation with Roy Acuff, created by sculptor Russ Faxon. Wright, who performed at the Opryland theme park as “Cousin” Minnie Pearl when she first arrived in Nashville, notes that even while posing for the statue she was compelled to speak up, asserting, “Miss Minnie would never pose that way.”
This is your first time onstage at the Opry in nearly a decade. Do you remember how many times you played it previously?
I don’t know. When I had my records out, anytime I was in town I would say yes every time I could. There were years I played it maybe only three or four times and other years I did 20 shows. When I had my first records out I talked about the Opry so much in my interviews that I had a couple of folks in the periphery of my career that said, “Maybe don’t talk about the Opry so much because it’s dating you.” This was back in the early Nineties. It had been such a big part of my life with Porter [Wagoner] because I was in Porter’s band. I was his “girl singer” as he called me. I spent so much time on the road with the Opry folks that it was just part of what I had to say when people interviewed me. My first record was so traditional that I think they wanted me to appeal to a little bit of a more commercial audience. Eventually my music did point in that direction, but the Opry was identified as part of me. So after I came out, just not being back here I guess I’ve always kind of felt like a part of me was extinguished.
Did you ever feel compelled to call them out on that?
I was never going to say anything pejorative about the Opry, but when the question was asked, “Have you been invited back to the Grand Ole Opry,” all I could say was, “No, not yet.” There were undercurrents that kind of made that sound like a big story. I don’t want to say it wasn’t a big story to me because I hadn’t been invited back to the Grand Ole Opry. It was significant to me. But I know they’ve had openly gay artists since I came out.
With several out artists now making records and videos, and performing on the Opry, do you ever find yourself thinking, “Well, that’s great, but where was all the support 10 years ago?”
Not at all. All of the openly gay artists, the new artists and the ones who’ve had hits before, we’re close. We talk and we’ve been talking since I came out. Ty Herndon and I spent five years together on the phone talking about how to take the steps [to come out], how does he get ready to steel himself. Part of my being out is that I talk about it. Always. If I’m on a plane and somebody says, “What does your husband do?” I don’t just let it slide. I say, “Actually, I have a wife.” That’s the role I chose to take on when I came out. I take every opportunity I have to illuminate or to move the needle a little bit for somebody. I have to do that. I don’t have a lot of sour grapes for people who didn’t speak up; I get it. I hid for 39 years because I was afraid to speak up because I didn’t want to lose fans.
We’re sitting in the Ryman Auditorium right now. What do you remember about your first trip here?
I was 17, working in a show called the Ozark Jubilee. It was between my junior and senior year. I got a chance to audition for a TV show in Nashville on TNN called You Can Be a Star. I took a day off and my folks and I drove overnight to Nashville. I did the audition and we ran downtown because we wanted in here. There was nobody in here but there was a security guy who let us in. My parents said, “Get up on the stage and sing something. That way you can say you’ve sung on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.”
Now, I was never shy and I was never one to not take an opportunity, but I didn’t sing anything from the stage. I also didn’t get picked to be on the TV show. But the very next summer I would be working at Opryland and I would play the Grand Ole Opry four months after I got to Nashville. So the first time I sang on the Opry stage it was real.