- Chely Wright, serving as grand master of the Chicago Gay Pride Parade in 2010, from the film Wish Me Away, which will be screened at the Rosendale Theater on July 20.
Somewhere along the lonesome road between Hank Williams’s plaintive wails and Faith Hill’s power ballads, country music got tangled in the Confederate Flag. Ditties about honky-tonk romances were soon sharing jukebox space with chest-beating anthems about America, right or wrong. Three decades ago, The Allman Brothers posed on the campaign trail with peanut farmer-cum-Chief Executive Jimmy Carter. Nowadays, Grand Ole Opry stars cozy up to Grand Old Party members.
This cultural shift proved a career-stopper for the Dixie Chicks, whose offhanded comment against George Bush at a 2003 London concert resulted in a national boycott. Other country stars were put on notice: Toe the line or bear the wrath of Republican fans.
Chely Wright ached to be a country singer. As a toddler, she crooned Loretta Lynn tunes on the toilet. By the mid-'90s, she was a Nashville star with number-one songs. But Wright held back one bittersweet melody: her lesbianism, which she had tried for years to pray away. Suppression only deepened Wright’s trauma. Finally, she opted for honesty—and probable career suicide. Wright embarked on a carefully orchestrated campaign to come out publicly. The record of that process is Chely Wright: Wish Me Away, directed by veteran filmmakers and Ulster County weekenders Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf.
Alternately sentimental and harrowing, but keenly observed, Wish Me Away unfurls slowly, like a country neighbor spinning a homespun yarn. But the pace quickens with Wright’s decision to amble—then sprint—towards liberation.
Chely Wright: Wish Me Away will screen at the Rosendale Theatre on July 20 with directors Birleffi and Kopf in attendance. (845) 658-8989.
What about Chely Wright’s story drew you in?
Beverly Kopf: We didn’t know who Chely was, and we weren’t aware of her music. But in 2006, Chely had seen a one-hour doc we produced that aired on LOGO called “Be Real” about young openly gay people making contributions to their communities. At the time, Chely was at a low point in her life and the film really impressed her. A couple of years later, when she started thinking about coming out publicly and being the first in country music to do so, she spotted a poster for “Be Real” on the wall of a mutual colleague, who put us in touch. The evening Chely came to our [Manhattan] loft to share her secret with us was a night that both of us will never forget.
Did she agree to the project from the start, or did it take some time?
Kopf: You have to understand that when Chely walked into our loft and began telling us her story, there were only about a handful of people on the planet who knew that she was gay. So we began developing trust almost immediately.
We sensed the importance of filming right away because the story was unfolding before our eyes. Bobbie picked up the camera, I picked up the boom, and we started interviewing her in the spring of 2008. In a way, those early interviews with Chely (and with her wonderful sister Jeny) gave us tremendous insight and may have helped Chely herself think out what she was about to do. But even though we were building trust, when you’re dealing with a very experienced hider the process takes time. It was a year before Chely shared her private video diaries with us. The fact that [Beverly and I] are in a life partnership, as well as a creative one, may have made Chely more comfortable.
What moment was true gold for your film—the zenith of the narrative?
Bobbie Birleffi: Filming a performer is a challenge, because you are looking for true moments, not “performed” moments. But there is a moment in the film that captures the essence of Chely’s strength. It’s at a photo shoot for People magazine and her publicist Howard Bragman comes in to give her the first copy that she’s seen of her book. The camera captures a moment where she realizes—It is happening—I am coming out—and she tries to hide in the corner, shaking. The camera relentlessly stays on her and we watch as she turns around, wipes the tears away, takes a breath, and faces the camera and the reality of what is about to happen.
What was the biggest challenge of this project?
Kopf: One of the biggest challenges for this project was its longevity and finding funding for it. Because we were keeping Chely’s secret for all those years, we couldn’t apply for foundation grants. Instead, we sought out individuals one at a time, and after they signed a nondisclosure agreement, we showed them a sample tape.
Another challenge was Nashville itself. During filming we tried to get A-list country stars to be interviewed. No one would agree to go before our cameras, though some offered support privately. One manager said, “To be honest, there is no upside, only a downside,” meaning the potential loss of fans. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is still the tone of the music industry in Nashville, even though there are many openly gay men and women working within it. Nashville is marketing God, family, and patriotism, and somehow that doesn’t include being gay.