Country music is one of the greatest casualties of the culture wars. The vibrant form that once had room for drunken layabout Hank Williams and pot-smoking longhair Willie Nelson has been codified as the soundtrack for red-state America. While its musical boundaries continue to expand, encompassing Shania Twain’s Bollywood dabblings and Toby Keith’s horn-section swing, its subject matter is constrained to an immutable series of tropes: God, the flag, cheap beer, pickup trucks, the troops, and not much else. (Only hip-hop fans are as insistent on their stars’ adherence to a fixed set of options.)
It’s not surprising that it took until 2010 for mainstream country to have its first openly gay performer. Bobbie Birleffi’s documentary Chely Wright: Wish Me Away intersperses the weeks before Wright’s public coming-out—a carefully orchestrated spectacle that includes a Today show announcement and an Oprah interview, as well as the release of a new album and her autobiography—with a history of her life in the industry, from her arrival in Nashville to her eventual No. 1 hit, “Single White Female.”
As Wright describes it, she knew she was gay in the third grade, but the combination of growing up in Kansas and her hopes for success in an industry that had little tolerance for deviation from the norm turned her toward private denial and public deceit, a 20-year period she likens to “an out-of-body experience.” She dated men, including country star Brad Paisley, whom she tearfully recalls freezing out when he began to take their relationship too seriously, but mostly, she hid. A painful archival clip shows her dodging inquiries from Prime Time Country host Dick Clark, her genuine panic visible beneath a facade of nervous tittering.
Backed by an army of publicists and media strategists, Wright plots her announcement with the precision of a political campaign, a process in which Wish Me Away plays an evident, though unexamined, role. But while it’s fascinating to observe the workings of the mammoth apparatus grafted onto an intensely personal decision, the movie’s heart is the moments that take place in private (meaning, in this case, in front of only one camera). Wright’s self-shot video diaries chart her turbulent mood swings as the clock ticks down, showing a palpable fear at odds with her confident stage persona. And far away from the flashbulbs, her sister’s evangelical husband and their school-age children come to their own understandings of who Wright is. It’s a striking reminder that, for all the monolithic stereotypes of who Christians or country fans or red-staters are, their hearts are lost, and won, one at a time.