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Chely Wright dismissed longtime fan-club president Chuck Walter after accusations that he encouraged members to pose as military personnel or families when making radio requests for her song "The Bumper of My S.U.V." She also shut down the fan club's 17-person volunteer "street team," who were allegedly asked to make bogus calls and send fictitious e-mails to radio stations urging them to play the pro-military tune.
"I am shocked, saddened and deeply upset by this unethical behavior," Chely said in a statement. "I in no way condone or endorse the actions of my fan-club president. Mr. Walter was an unpaid volunteer who acted without my knowledge or direction."
"The Bumper of My S.U.V." has garnered significant airplay nationwide, even without the backing of a record label. Chely, whose brother Chris is a veteran Marine, wrote the song about an incident in which she says she was criticized by a fellow driver for her Marines bumper sticker.
She began performing the tune for U.S. troops overseas in September, and the positive response led her to record it. Radio stations picked up on it, in part as a response to listener demand.
Chely says she only learned of the unethical tactics being used to push the song when contacted by Nashville's Tennessean newspaper. The paper printed e-mails allegedly sent to the "street team," instructing them how to convince radio stations they were actually military members or families who had been moved by "The Bumper of My S.U.V."
The e-mails contained text the members were urged to copy and send to radio stations. "My husband is over in Iraq right now and he is a Marine," read one.
A posting on a private section of Chely's website, allegedly from Walter, suggested that "street team" members call radio stations and "Tell 'em your husband is a Marine - whatever it takes." Another proposed that members log on to military online message boards posing as soldiers to promote the song.
Walter - a friend of the singer who had acted as her club president since 1996 - denied posting messages asking members to lie.
It remains to be seen how the controversy will affect the song's performance. Chely says she is donating proceeds from the sale of the single to organizations providing entertainment to U.S. troops deployed in remote areas.
"I hope that country music listeners will continue to support this song," says Chely, "based on its own merit and the genuine outpouring of emotional response." Chely has secured a record label since cutting the song, and her new album is tentatively set for release in February.