With her 2010 LP Lifted Off the Ground, accompanying memoir Like Me and subsequent documentary film Wish Me Away chronicling her coming out as a lesbian, Chely Wright – more accurately, country radio – effectively closed one chapter of her musical career.
While it took six years, during which time she and her girlfriend, music executive Lauren Blitzer, were married and Wright gave birth to twin sons, Wright has finally re-emerged with I Am the Rain, the follow-up to Lifted Off the Ground. Released last month, I Am the Rain scored a Top Ten Americana debut and landed at Number 13 on the country chart, her second-best peak behind 2001’s decidedly mainstream Never Love You Enough. Beyond its impressive chart action, however, the real triumph of I Am the Rain is the creative growth the artist demonstrates throughout.
The LP, driven by raw, emotional lyrics and a refreshingly experimental approach to country music, was produced by Joe Henry, who previous projects include Grammy-winning works by Solomon Burke and Carolina Chocolate Drops and LPs by Bonnie Raitt, Teddy Thompson and Allen Toussaint. One of the obvious templates for I Am the Rain was Rosanne Cash’s extraordinary career-shifting 1990 album Interiors. But unlike Cash, whose self-penned, often uncomfortably introspective chronicle of her own crumbling marriage to Rodney Crowell formed the basis for that collection, Wright, who lives with her wife and sons in New York City, tempers the darker themes on her album with character-driven story songs, whether inspired by her years as a touring musician or springing from her vivid imagination.
In Nashville for a recent in-the-round acoustic performance at the Bluebird Café, Wright sat down with Rolling Stone Country for a conversation on the challenges of creating music to be savored in a fast-food world and why she believes Donald Trump has “no redeeming qualities as a human being.”
I Am the Rain evokes Rosanne Cash’s ‘Interiors.’ How intentional was that?
I aimed high with this record. Interiors, [Crowell’s] Houston Kid, that’s what I was aiming for. I wanted it to be looked at as a courageous step to work with Joe Henry. It’s not McDonald’s. It’s not fast food, and I say that with the understanding that some of the records I made in the past could easily be compared to that. I like to think if one dug a little deeper on each record they’d find something that wasn’t commercial and fast-food.
The woodwind instruments are one of the most striking differences from your previous records. It has a very earthy vibe to it. How comfortable were you with that becoming the landscape of the album?
Part of that ongoing dialogue Joe and I were having was about the sonic landscape. I told him I wanted to experiment with some sounds that I hadn’t used before. He said, “That’s really great … what do you think of woodwinds?” I said, “I would love it!” He said, “My son, Levon, is actually a pretty gifted multi-instrumentalist.” He really is. Joe said what he wanted to do, rather than have Levon come in and do overdubs, was to track as part of the structure of the band. That does something very different.
In addition to the Milk Carton Kids, you’ve got Emmylou Harris singing with you on the record. What kinds of things did she say to you about her own process in the studio?
What she said was, “I just want to get where you are, emotionally.” That vocal [on “Pain,” one of the record’s standout tracks] is so haunting and so perfect and so Emmylou Harris, it’s … I don’t think I can even articulate it yet. Talk to me in 10 years and I’ll be able to extrapolate what that means to me. I stared at Emmylou’s face on many vinyl recordings for the better part of 15 years when I was a kid living in my parents’ house. I don’t even know how to process it.
“Pain” is a very powerful song about how pain can almost become like another person who is always with you. What inspired it?
I wrote it when we were mixing Lifted Off the Ground, on a guitar that used to be Dolly Parton’s. Dolly left it on Porter [Wagoner]’s bus in the Seventies and Porter gave it to me years ago. It’s a gut-string guitar and has appliqué flowers on it. I wrote it as an exercise of discipline from Rodney. We were working on my last record and he said, “I want you to go write something and drop the metaphors.” Because I was writing things like “Object of My Rejection” and “Damn Liar” that were perhaps one step away from what was really happening to me. Because that felt safer. He said, “Don’t parse words, just write about what you’re feeling.” I said, “Well, what I’m feeling is I can’t even hide this pain anymore. It’s metastasized to my skin and my eyeballs. It’s now showing itself.” We have this deal with pain that we hide it. We don’t want anyone to know we’re having it. Then, when it breaches that trust, that’s when it’s out of control. The line where I kind of knew I was perhaps in the right direction was, “Pain, pain, you have been a most destructive loyal friend, you never left my side, not even once.” That’s what I had been experiencing with my sadness.
Your mother passed away after a brief battle with cancer in 2014, and you’ve been very open about the difficult relationship you and she had, especially when she wasn’t coming to terms with your being gay. Where were you in your relationship as she neared the end of her life?
In an unimaginably good place. The mother-child relationship has been written about for years in prose and poems and music. It’s the most emotionally charged relationship a human being can have, and sometimes the wheels go off the road. I feel lucky, as did my mom, that we had such a beautiful ending. There wasn’t a word that was left unspoken. It was a genuine reconciliation and it was really beautiful. Had she had a heart attack or died in a car wreck, I wouldn’t have had that. All three of us kids are really grateful. I mean, I hate it that she got cancer and died. But we all acknowledged, including my mom, that we all received a gift at the end.
You cover the somewhat obscure Bob Dylan song ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time.’ How did that come about and how reluctant were you to even attempt it?
Dangerous waters to cover that song! [Laughs] Like when I covered “C’est La Vie” [the Chuck Berry original also covered by Emmylou Harris]. Ed Seay, one of my old producers used to say, “We’re either gonna be heroes or goats.” When I covered that I knew it would immediately, without fail, be compared to Emmy’s cover. Sometimes you’ve got to do something bold and daring. The idea was Joe Henry’s. I hadn’t done a cover in a long time and I thought maybe somehow that might make somebody take their eye off the ball of what I wanted to say. But when someone I’ve entrusted gives me a bit of homework to consider, I have to do it. We added a few signature licks to make it my own and added the Milk Carton Kids. How great are they? A good friend of mine says it feels like you wrote that song, it just sounds so good on your voice. I went home and grabbed my guitar and started playing it and it just felt so good on my throat. I said, “I feel like Bob wrote this for me.”
And unlike other women who have done versions of it, you didn’t change the pronouns. So, just as Dylan did, you’re singing it about a woman.
I know, right? I was talking to my friend about it and he said, “I think your lesbian fans really like that song for that reason, that you’re clearly singing about a woman.” I said, “Yeah, and there’s something a little blasphemous about changing a single lyric of Bob Dylan’s.” I love doing the song live.
How do your twins respond to your music and your whole creative process?
They’ve just always heard me pounding away on a guitar in the other room. They’ll knock on the door and say, “Mama, guitar?” They want me to bring my guitar out and they have little guitars. We’ll sing, “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “ABCD,” as they call it, “Wheels on the Bus.” They’re in a music class as well and have been since they were under a year old. They love it. The good thing about our apartment in New York City is that music is everywhere. It won’t be strange to them to grow up to learn that that’s my job. They were at a playdate at a friend’s apartment, with their little girl and the friend’s mom had bought my record and was playing it over the Bluetooth and the boys said, “That’s my mama.” I wish I could say I’m their favorite. I am not. They like Adele better than anyone.
You’re very active on social media, where so much of the current conversation is the presidential race. When you get someone who vehemently disagrees with you, how do you respond to that?
I have a circle of people in life that represent every political ideology, every religious practice. I see it all on my Facebook. I don’t delete people. It was my commitment to being on social media. I can handle it. There are some things that people write that aren’t even personally directed toward me, but some of their political things where they think Obama is a Muslim, that he’s in bed with the terrorists, it’s mind-boggling. I can’t turn it off. I have to watch what they’re saying. Because it further informs me. What kind of a person would I be, what kind of an artist would I be if I turned all that off? I need to have that perspective and that balance.
Some really smart, well-educated people in my life are supportive of Donald Trump. I have to force myself to listen to their arguments. Otherwise I could dismiss them and say they’re crazy, they’re not thinking. I know they’re thinking and their rationale is telling them that Hillary Clinton is not to be trusted and that she lies. All I know is she has been a 45-year public servant. There are a lot of people that have been spinning a narrative for a long time to make people say she can’t be trusted. When you really sit down and do the reading on both sides, I think if somebody really commits themselves to finding the truth about Hillary Clinton, they’re going to find that, no, she’s not perfect. Has she covered her ass sometimes? Probably. I think every politician has done that. But I cannot for the life of me see a merit in supporting Donald Trump. Not just as a politician. He has no redeeming qualities as a human being. The salient point I want to make about Donald Trump is he is not a good person. Should he get into office, I’ve got to assume that Congress will keep him in check. We have a legislative body that would be helpful, and I believe he would have people around him that will say, “No, you can’t actually kill the terrorists’ families. There’s a thing called the Geneva Convention.”
The thing that’s most troubling about him is his willful ignorance and his lack of curiosity. Our Constitution and our Bill of Rights provide for all of these beautiful, well-earned, fought-for provisions and he is bastardizing every one of them. He is not a good and decent person. And I say that respectfully to my friends who are supporting him. They get a vote, I get a vote and we’ll see how the cookie crumbles when it counts. The GOP created this monster. They gave him the keys to the car and now he’s hot-rodding down Main. They built him. He didn’t start it; he’s just taken it to an Olympic level of hatred and lack of decorum. But I think at the very heart of who he is, he’s a scared, probably neglected person. I think something happened to him to cause him to be so nasty. I’m sure it was a relationship with one of his parents. It always is.