BACK IN THE GAME

Her 'Single White Female' days behind her, Chely Wright returns with a new look, a new commitment to country music and a new vow - to be on top once again.

Chely Wright parted company with her record label, MCA Nashville, in 2002, finished her scheduled tour dates and then did something she'd never done in her 10-year career. She disappeared.

"I had to 're-find' myself," confesses Chely, "maybe even a self I'd never found before, because I'd gone so long in the machine. You know, ten years of making records, doing the videos, touring. There was a new me in there to be discovered. I wanted to see what I would do every day when I got up, with no promise of a record deal, no tour dates - no obligations. I thought, 'What will I do? Let's just see.'

"I got up every morning and ended up in my music room, playing my piano and guitar, writing songs and having the best time I'd ever had. That's where it all began. I realized, 'Yeah, I like country - I don't want to cross over. I do want to be on country radio, and that's it. Do I want to be a pin-up girl? No, it's too hard.' I had to find my voice."

Since she first charted 10 years ago with the 1994 single, "He's a Good Ole Boy," Chely has weathered enough label changes to make many artists want to simply give up. She went from Mercury to Polydor to A&M, back to Mercury, then to MCA - until the bottom fell out of that deal, too.

"I was really content with the fact that I may not make another record," she admits. "I hoped I'd get to because I love the process and I love doing this job. But I thought, 'If I don't get the perfect opportunity, which I need at this point - where I will be a priority and they're not going to put me on the shelf until 2006 - I won't do it. I'll stay at the house.'

"Financially, I'm a low-maintenance kind of girl," explains Chely. "I've never had a credit card. I grew up so poor, I think I saved eight out of every 10 cents I ever made. I was in a good position, fortunately, because my manager and I had always made good decisions based on career and not money. But I was always very careful with my money, and we loved it that I was in a position to say, 'I don't need to tour - I don't have a house payment.'

"So I told him I wanted to take time off and he said, 'You do? That's great - I think you should.' He's probably the only manager in town who was excited for me to be able to take time off. The rest of 'em would be like, 'Where's my 15 percent?' " She laughs. "I vowed to myself, 'I won't come back unless it's the right situation.' "

The right situation came along in the form of new independent label Vivaton! Records, headed member of the band Little Texas, Jeff Huskins, and former MCA executive Shelia Shipley Biddy. Chely met with the small label, initially cautious about signing with them, but curious enough to talk.

"I walked in the door and was instantly struck with this very positive energy," she recalls. "I played Shelia and Jeff two songs that day. One of them was 'In the Back of the Bottom Drawer.' They heard those two songs and said, 'That's all we need to hear - "Back of the Bottom Drawer" is the first single.' "

Chely's album, with a working title of The Metropolitan Hotel, is slated for a late summer release. The record will showcase a number of songs she's written or co-written. "This album is hopefully one that you'll be able to listen to and know that a 33-year-old woman sat down and really did some digging," she reveals. "I'm not saying I cure cancer in any of these songs. They're not deep, profound Carole King-type songs. I wasn't trying to say anything that's never been said before. But I was trying to say something I had never said before."

Chely admits she learned some lessons from her last few records - lessons based on songs that critics would pick as their favorites and songs that always got the biggest responses from fans. "There was always a direct, common thread in critics' reviews, and the word would be 'honest.' They'd talk about the most honest songs on the record, and they would be the ones I wrote by myself or a song I'd found and sat on for three years."

"I also learned that listeners are smarter than I ever thought," she notes. "If you can't sing it and feel it and put some juice and passion behind it every night, don't record it. Don't put it on your record just 'cause it sounds like radio will play it. But I do think this is a commercially viable record."

Throughout her career, Chely charted several songs but struggled for breakthrough success until the 1999 No. 1 "Single White Female." That song propelled her fourth album of the same title to gold status. However, singles released after "Female" failed to connect as successfully with radio. With her new album, Chely hopes to find the balance between commercial success and critical praise.

"I want to be on radio," she stresses. "I don't want to be one of these ones who says, 'Well I didn't give in and try to get on radio.' I don't want to be in my efficiency-suite apartment eating cat food, knowing that I'm the critics' darling, going, 'Well, by God, I stuck to my guns!' I want to be the CMA and ACM Female Vocalist of the Year. [Chely was named ACM Best New Female Vocalist in 1995.] These are things I dream about. I always have. I think you can maintain integrity, sing great songs and make great records, and still be on radio."

When Chely's fans look at the pictures accompanying the new CD and on her website, chely.com, they'll notice a change. Gone is the "glamour girl" look of her previous recent albums. There's a freshfaced, natural beauty in its place - and it's a look closer to Chely's heart, even though she loved the occasional modeling jobs that were offered to her in the past, because they brought her new fans.

"Models now - don't they have to be 15?" she asks with a smile. "I'm too old. Nobody wants me to model anything. But being in this industry does give me opportunities I wouldn't otherwise have. I like to look at every possibility and say, 'How can I increase my audience? How can I get more people to know my name on a different level, so that I can drag them kicking and screaming into the record store and get them to buy my record?'"

Also on the back burner is Chely's acting career, which she says she's more dabbled in than pursued. "I've done a few acting things," she states. "I've read a few scripts. Is that my passion? No. But if I get a really cool part as a jacktooth crack whore on Law & Order, I'll do that," she adds with a grin.

Chely's currently on a radio promotional tour, reintroducing herself to the folks at radio who've played her records in the past. "I'll be hitting all the markets I can," she explains. "It's been a while since I've been able to go out, shake hands and hand a record to a program director. I really look forward to that."

She also looks forward to what lies ahead. "I want a No. 1 record," she boldly declares. "My last album debuted at No. 4," a reflection of extremely strong sales in its first week of release. "I would like to have at least a No. 4 debut. I would like to be most added on our first add week," referring to the term for country radio "adding" a new single to its musical rotation.

"I like my gold record. It's pretty," she says. "But I want a platinum record. I would like to have a CMA and ACM nomination for Female Vocalist of the Year - not this year but next year. I can't be nominated for the Horizon Award; I've already been nominated for that too many times!" She smiles. "Maybe the 'Antique of the Year' award, if they start giving that out. Or 'Slowest Bloomer.' "

After a decade in the business, Chely's learned to look at her struggles as learning experiences. She's determined to stay in the game and has the stats to prove she can. "I've had a song on the chart every year for 10 years," she says proudly. "I don't know of many acts in my position - who had a couple of hits, a gold record and sold a few but never quite hit their stride - who have lasted 10 years. That's neat.

"And it's also a testament to a lot of different people believing in me at different times. From Harold Shedd to Barry Beckett to Buddy Cannon to Tony Brown, Ed Seay, Dann Huff, Paul Worley - these are different people who have produced me or signed me to their record labels. That's pretty cool that when one person can't work with me anymore, I just reach out and there's another hand.

"It's kind of like walking on floating logs across a lake. I put my foot down and there always seems to be another place to step."

-- Story by Wendy Newcomer

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