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Chely Wright navigates at jet speed -- and aims for new heights

Story by Bob Paxman

Chely Wright relaxes on a living room chair and sips on the one cup of coffee she allows herself each day. She's grateful for this moment of downtime from her whirlwind life, where every micro-second seems accounted for. Still, she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm happiest when I'm working and keeping busy," says Chely.

In just the past few months, Chely has performed for President Bush and U.S. troops overseas, flown in an F-16 military plane and written songs with actor Billy Bob Thornton.

She's also celebrating the success of her latest hit, "Jezebel." Chely had a ball playing the title character in the video.

"I would have to say that 'Jezebel' is my favorite," Chely says of the sensuous, exotic video. "It was a different character for me -- kind of a 'bad girl' -- but it was fun."

With a playful chuckle, Chely adds, "People have asked me if it was hard to get into character for that. Well, not with those long fingernails I wore and those tall-heeled shoes! I still love watching it -- which is unusual for me -- because I usually flip the channel when one of mine comes on."

Chely is looking to 2002 as the year she jumps to the next level of stardom.

"I think this is shaping up as a big year. So I'm trying to write more, to get songs that fit me," explains Chely, who wrote or co-wrote five songs on her latest album, Never Love You Enough. "I want to write with people who are interested in great songs."

She's found an interesting songwriting partner in actor, director and screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton. "He loves music. In fact, that was his first love," says Chely. "He has a strong storytelling sense. We haven't finished anything yet, but we're working on some songs."

Chely has finished writing a song with pal Brad Paisley. "It's called 'Horoscope,' which we ended up producing for this album," says Chely. "I think it could be a hit."

But no hit could compare to her recent tour of U.S. military bases. Chely visited Army and Air Force bases in Japan and Korea and performed for American troops there. It's a trip she's made several times before -- but this was one she'll never forget.

"The first time I visited bases in Japan, about five years ago, it was life-changing for me," says Chely. "But it was more emotional this year, because we are a country at war. My brother Chris has been a Marine for 12 years, and my dad served in the Navy -- so I grew up in a military environment. This trip really made me realize the sacrifices these men and women make."

Chely experienced the thrill of a lifetime when she performed at Osan Air Base in Korea. In the audience were President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, among other dignitaries.

"I actually didn't know until the flight to the base that President Bush was going to be there," she recalls excitedly.

After the show, Chely met the president and Secretary Powell. "I was so overwhelmed," she says, still breathless over the encounter. "It's so difficult to articulate how exciting the trip was. I haven't been able to come down, really."

But she couldn't wait to come down after taking a ride in an F-16 fighter jet on the same trip!

"Flying is not one of my favorite things," she confesses with a nervous giggle. "I'm a little afraid of heights. My brother told me to take along a 'puke bag,' which I really didn't need to hear. But this was something I wanted to do."

And the verdict? "It was pretty crazy, like a roller coaster -- only faster," she says. "At one point, the pilot told me to look over the top of the plane, and what I saw was the runway -- that's when I realized we were flying upside down! I had no idea."

Chely amazed herself when she actually took the controls. "I flew the loop, a complete 360-degree turn!" she says proudly. "That's when I almost passed out. It took every fiber of my being to not get sick, but ... I didn't need the bag!"

Still, she won't be changing her tune about flying. "What I experienced in the F-16 will make normal turbulence feel like nothing. But I'm sure that every time we take off, it'll still scare me," says Chely. "Once we're in the air, I'm OK. And I'm really fine when we land."

Usually, she's landing anywhere but her home outside Nashville. "I am there so seldom," she says with a sigh. "Sometimes, I'm amazed that I even remember where things are in the house."

When Chely does manage to grab a few days at home, she's a body in motion -- cleaning house, rearranging furniture and tending to her pet Yorkshire pup, Minnie. What also keeps her hopping is her Reading, Writing & Rhythm Foundation, which buys musical instruments for schools around the country.

Soon, she'll be applying the finishing touches to the Foundation's biggest fund-raiser -- her June 11 fan club party at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon. Chely will be treating her fans to an all-star benefit bash featuring Cyndi Thomson, Carolyn Dawn Johnson and keith urban.

"We did a similar thing last year, and I couldn't believe the success we had," she raves. "We raised almost $100,000, which put a lot of instruments in little kids' hands."

And that's important to her. "When I was in high school, my parents bought me a new trumpet so I could play in the band," she recalls warmly, "and I was so proud of it. I still have it, as a reminder of the sacrifice they made for me. I know how exciting it is to get that first instrument."

Chely stretches out and gazes at the sunshine streaming through a window. In just a few weeks, she'll head back to the road and this calm, peaceful moment will be merely a warm memory.

But that's cool with her.

"I can remember the days of playing a club and worrying that we wouldn't get 50 people to show up," she laughs. "My success has happened very gradually, so I'm not about to take anything for granted. And I certainly won't complain about being busy."

She just doesn't want to get too busy to occasionally stop and smell the roses.

"In the past few years I've tended to get into that work mode a little too much," she admits. "Not that my work doesn't matter, but I have definitely calmed down about it. Now I'm trying to enjoy myself a little more and make more time for my personal life.

"I'm 31 now," she grins, "but I can still learn a few things."