Sit down to talk with Chely Wright, a gracious, beautiful and talented entertainer, and you expect to explore what has brought her to her latest project. You expect to talk about her past professional successes and her charity. You don't expect to hear a warm-hearted story about big feet - hers and Minnie Pearl's.
Because of her background playing Minnie Pearl at the Opryland Theme Park, Wright was asked to bring her costume and pose for a statue that now sits in the lobby of the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The statue portrays Miss Minnie and Mr. Roy (Roy Acuff) sitting side by side on a park bench. (see picture below)
After what seemed like 200 Polaroid shots taken of the pose, none of which seemed to satisfy the artist, Wright asked, "Can I interject something here?" "You've got me sitting little Sarah Cannon." Cannon, a Ward Belmont Finishing School Graduate, created the warm, wise-cracking, down home character of Minnie Pearl many years ago. Cannon might sit prim and proper, hands discreetly folded in her lap, but not Minnie! Chely demonstrated the way that Minnie would have been interacting with Roy. "She'd have been giving him 'what for!'" Wright changed the pose - toes pointed in, knees touching, hand on Acuff's arm to engage his attention.
Wright chuckles at the recollection of the posing, and goes misty in describing a later time when she went by to "sit with Miss Minnie." The legendary comedian, now ill and aging, pulled Wright close and softly voiced,. "Thank you, I heard what you did." Then with her usual look at the funny side, added, "And I'm glad you have big feet, too, like I do." Wright treasures the times she spent with "Miss Minnie," both backstage at the Opry and later as one of the few who sat with her when she was ill. Minnie's wisdom continues to guide her; Minnie's stories continue to amuse and enrich her.
Wright's journey from a tomboy growing up in Kansas to a country music star and a confidante of one of country music's legends is a journal of perpetual motion fueled by an ever increasing desire to perform and to perfect her craft.
Her early years were influenced with church music, bluegrass festivals and country music on the radio. Singing in honky tonks from the time she was eleven, having her own band when she was fourteen (with Daddy playing bass), a regular on the Ozark Jamboree at seventeen, a cast member at the Opryland theme park at twenty were all part of her entertainment background before she ever signed a record deal.
Her earliest experiences gave her the know-how to deal with the music and the crowd. The "job" aspect of the Opryland work - doing the same show up to 4 times a day, 7 days a week, prepared her for the grind of the road work. She said, there were cast members who knew right off they didn't want to do this for the rest of their life. But there were some, like Wright, determined to have their future in the business, who even spent break moments writing songs together..
The Opry and its performers were a magnet to Wright. She loved to go hang out back stage and listen to the stories. Both Miss Minnie and Mr. Roy, as she affectionately and respectfully referred to them throughout our conversation, sat on-stage during her first Opry performance. Acuff explained, "- Cause you're so 'purty' and we like to hear you sing."
Once she had a record deal, Wright was cautioned by management that it wasn't "cool" to be hanging out at the Opry. But the Opry is in her heart. She's true to her other roots as well. Growing up, she hadn't sought to play in the school band. She feared, that to buy the instrument, she would have to give up the piano lessons she'd taken since she was four. Her parents managed to provide her with a used trumpet and she went on to become an accomplished trumpeter, playing in the jazz, pep, stage and marching bands.
Having the band experience would later influence her to establish her "Reading, Writing, and Rhythm Foundation." The organization provides support to the students of school music programs. The annual charity show at the Wildhorse Saloon is a standing room only sell-out. The show and the accompanying auctions have raised over a million dollars for the fund.
Wright has referred to the country music scene as a train ride for the artist. You're just on board, neither the conductor nor the engineer, often without the songs that didn't make the scheduled departure. The train ride accelerated with her #1 single, "Single White Female" from the album of the same name. Feeling that the ride wasn't taking her to her chosen destination, she stepped off the train.
She spent eighteen months enjoying more time with her extended family, working on her current project and working on herself.
And she's brought together a group of songs that reflects that personal journey. She talked about two songs on the project, "The River" and "Back of the Bottom Drawer," the current single release.
A collection of keepsakes forms the framework for the "Back of the Bottom Drawer" entity. The woman who owns those significant items, chooses to see them as reminders of the experiences that have made her who she is and what she is. They don't represent a longing for the past, but a commitment to "stay right where I'm at."
Wright chuckles, "I actually got a 'Dear Jane' letter like one in the song. When we broke up, my first boyfriend sent me a letter detailing his reasons for calling it off, including 'you're not always right.'"
Even more personal to her is the song, "The River." A place where she and her friends hung out after ball games, where she was baptized, where two of her girl friends lost their lives - "that beautiful river, that awful river."
Wright has been caught before in the label roulette that dogs country music artists. A label shifts trends, folds, gets bought out, loses key players who believe in you, and you find the fast-track train has become quickly de-railed. She finds herself in that position again with her recent separation from Vivaton records, "for creative differences."
Wright has the persistence and stamina of a trained athlete (she is one), the heart of one who cherishes her personal and professional families, and the skill and talent of a dedicated successful entertainer. You know she'll do well where ever she lands and whatever she wishes to do. And you wish for another time to hear more of her stories. Both musically and conversationally, she tells them very, very well.
article by Helen Neal