A few weeks back, my BFF asked me if I was interested in seeing Chely Wright perform at The Open Chord in Knoxville. I didn’t even check the date. I just said yes.
Twenty years ago, Wright was a star in the country music industry. Her fourth studio album, “Single White Female,” went gold, and the title track was one you couldn’t help but hear everywhere. Even if you didn’t know her name, you knew that song. The song landed at the top of the country charts, and it’s still one a lot of folks know today.
Wright had other hits — or at least singles that had moderate success — like “Shut Up and Drive,” “It Was” and “Jezebel.”
Last week at The Open Chord, I had the opportunity to see two female singers at very different corners of the country music spectrum.
The show opened with a group still getting their feet wet, Natalie and the Damn Shandys. Led by Natalie Grunnan on lead vocals and guitar with Rob Wagner and Ben Gotham backing her up, Grunnan offered up a blend of stories, original compositions and a cover or two. Her voice was lovely, and I walked away with a copy of her EP. It was a whopping five bucks, which shows you exactly how young and new to the business the group is.
But, while they might have been young, they certainly had heart. Grunnan played guitar with a cast — courtesy of her dog’s antics — and a soul that seemed much older than her 23 years.
Wright took the stage shortly after and invited Grunnan back up to sing with her. Wright couldn’t say enough nice things. In fact, she proclaimed Natalie and the Damn Shandys were destined for great things. Perhaps, what was most telling, though, was when Wright began talking about one of her idols and influences: Loretta Lynn. Grunnan wasn’t familiar with the queen of country music and couldn’t join in when Wright invited her to help her sing “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” Grunnan’s big influence? Shania Twain.
Granted, there’s 25 years between the two. Yet, I’m smack dab in the middle and can appreciate both, although I don’t think the two are exactly comparable.
Wright’s set was just as enjoyable. It was a quiet, acoustic set, just Wright and one fellow on stage. It was personal, intimate and absolutely fantastic.
The show was just as much storytelling as it was singing. Wright told us about her experience singing backup for the legendary Porter Wagoner and how he gifted her Dolly Parton’s guitar. She told us about her wife, their twins and her long career in country music. She told us about the fear she felt when single after single failed to to get airplay in her early days. She told us about her fear about coming out and the reason she felt she had to be true to herself and her fans.
I’ve seen a lot of shows in my life, but there are few that felt as intimate as Wright’s show did that night. It wasn’t a big crowd, and honestly a good chunk of the folks there were exactly who I expected to see. After all, advocacy and support goes both ways.
Wright may not be mainstream country anymore, but her voice and the feelings she puts forth into each song is still powerful. Honestly, she probably told more stories than she sang songs, but that’s OK. It was a night of emotion and hope. Wright isn’t selling out big stadiums anymore, but she’s found peace with who she is and who she wants to be.
Earlier this month, Wright returned to the Grand Ole Opry stage 30 years after her first performance there. It’d been nearly a decade since she last performed there, but she was welcomed with open arms and love.
Isn’t that what music is all about? Music is about emotion and feelings. Wright’s set may not have included many songs, but there wasn’t a single person that walked away untouched that night.