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Chely Wright leaves her record label and starts exploring a world of opportunities

Story by Wendy Newcomer • Photo by Sheryl Nields
Chely Wright started the summer with a bang. At her fan club party, she shared the stage with her favorite singer, Loretta Lynn, and her favorite actress, Sissy Spacek. She helped raise over $100,000 for her Reading, Writing & Rhythm Foundation. She was named one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People. She was on a roll.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, the announcement came - Chely was parting ways with her record label, MCA Nashville. But the "Single White Female" singer wants to set the record straight.

"My dad called me because Kansas City radio was saying, 'Chely Wright got dropped from her label,' " recalls Chely. "That's not exactly what happened. I guess my ego wants to go, 'I didn't get dropped!' But it doesn't matter. Leaving the label was an agreed-upon decision made months ago between myself and MCA."

In 1999 Chely topped the charts with "Single White Female," but her follow-up singles never reached the same heights. Looking back, she believes being one of many artists on a large roster did more harm than good. And when the executive who signed her, Tony Brown, recently left to start another label, Chely became concerned.

"My frustration came when 'Never Love You Enough' stalled on the chart at 20," admits Chely, speaking of the title cut of her fifth album. "In my mind, there was no reason why that song was not a hit. Then we decided to come back with 'Jezebel,' a sure-fire thing - the song MCA execs said was a guaranteed Top 5 record.' "

But "Jezebel" stalled at No. 23.

"That's when I started to get scared," admits Chely. "That's when my manager and I started saying, 'This probably isn't the home for us anymore.' "

Then came the split.

"I'm terribly relieved and optimistic about new possibilities," confesses Chely. "We've got some great labels that are interested in me and believe I can do more than I've ever done before.

"It's exciting to know that Nashville still believes," adds Chely. "There could be people out there who think, 'She stinks,' but I don't care. A definite formula for failure is trying to please everybody. I listened to the album, Never Love You Enough, the other day and I couldn't be more proud of it. But timing is everything - and we didn't hit a stride with this one."

Chely hit her personal stride earlier this year when she was recognized by the Fund for Advancement of Music Education for her charity, Reading, Writing & Rhythm. "It was humbling and inspiring to be recognized with an award for a charity that frankly, we were told not to start," she explains. "We were told to just collect money every year and give it to City of Hope or T.J. Martell - two charities which I totally believe in and do a lot of work with.

"But I wanted to do a charity just from my fan club and me and see what we could do," she declares. "We figured we would raise about $5,000 a year, but in three years we've raised over $350,000! That's the most gratifying thing that happened to me in the last year."

Perhaps the most puzzling thing to happen to Chely is how she's become both an Internet and magazine sex symbol. Puzzling to the self-described "conservative girl" maybe - but not to her growing number of male fans.

"It's a bit nasty when you think about it," laughs Chely of the possibility that she's posted in locker rooms across America. "But it's OK because my objective is not to be a model or Pamela Anderson. My objective in having people see my face and know my name so they'll make that connection of, 'I think she's a singer' - and then hopefully go buy my album. I know I've purchased records before because of that. So if I have to be a pinup girl to do that, that's OK.

"People who know me well know that I don't take myself seriously as a fashion plate," reveals Chely with a grin, "even though I got the Fashion Plate award from CMT. That was funny because, to me, wearing corduroys or overalls and a T-shirt is heaven.

"Backstage, after I'd won that award, several people with whom I used to work came up to me and said, 'Well, I'll be danged.' And Claudia Fowler, who used to dress me, said, 'Wouldn't you go and get stylish now. When I dressed you, you wouldn't even show your arms or your belly! You wore pants eight sizes too big!' It's funny, because they know how reserved I've always been."

Indeed, a look at Chely's first music video - for "He's A Good Ole Boy" - shows a much more demure image. "Sometimes people accuse me of selling out or changing," confides the beauty. "But everybody changes. My defense is that when I made my first album and video shoot, I was in my early 20s. I was a baby girl. I moved away from Kansas when I was 18, so my exposure to the world had been somewhat limited.

"But now I've had a chance to see the world and experience a lot of different things," she notes. "I'm 31 and I've gotten more comfortable with being a woman. We all want to feel attractive and pretty. And, also, I've recognized the fact that those videos do stay around forever. On occasion I'll see an earlier video and think, 'What was my eyeliner doing?' So I think it's a combination of being more cognizant of myself and being aware about image. This is an image-supported industry."

Chely smiles and reports that her brother is having a difficult time with the sexy photo shoot she recently did for FHM magazine. "He's in the Marine Corps," she explains. "He said, 'God, Sis, you're making it hard on me. There's pictures of you up everywhere in the shop.' "

Yet with her many male admirers, Chely reveals that she doesn't date much. "I'm a difficult person," she admits. "I'm generous with my friendships and my family, but I'm awfully selfish with my time. I think about what it would be like if I had a husband and children, like my sister does. I look at that traditional lifestyle and the template of Americana - how you're 'supposed' to do it. I hope I can fit into that someday or adapt and make that work for me. But I don't know.

"When I want to sit and watch Headline News for four hours straight, I like to do that," she continues. "Finding someone with whom I can spend my quality time and who would tolerate my idiosyncrasies, that's difficult. I've tried it," she laughs, "but you don't see a ring on my finger!"

"I always run people off," she says self-deprecatingly. "People always date me and then go get married. Isn't that weird? Maybe I help prepare them for that mind-set of commitment. Or maybe I just scare them that the dating pool is so bad, as soon as they find someone acceptable they put a ring on her finger. I don't know."

But with Chely's busy calendar, there seems to be no time for dating anyway. Not only is she touring and talking with other record labels, now she's getting ready to film a movie with Oscar-winning actor and director Billy Bob Thornton.

Recounting her first conversation with Billy Bob, she says, "My cell phone rang and somebody goes, 'Chely? This is Billy Bob Thornton.' I thought one of my friends had gotten their boyfriend to mess with me. So I almost said, 'Shut the hell up.' But I didn't, I just said, 'Uh-huh?'

"We ended up talking for 30 minutes. He said, 'I watch country videos and I think you've got a neat connection with the camera. Are you at all interesting in acting?' "

Chely told Billy Bob about her role in the Disney movie Max Keeble's Big Move, and that she was reading scripts. "Then we stopped talking about movies and talked about music. We've started writing songs. We were at Sun Studios recently recording. He's really cool. He doesn't act like a Hollywood star."

Chely's preparing herself to act ... like an actor. "It's going to take a bit more effort for me to get into the fundamentals of acting. For people like Billy Bob or Robert Duvall, it's second nature. They can turn it off and on. I want to make certain that when those cameras roll, I'm not the one holding things up."

As she readies herself for a new challenge, Chely also assures that she will apply even more dedication to her first love - music.

"The fact that I've parted with MCA doesn't change my focus at all," she says with steely determination. "I've had five record deals in the course of my career, so it doesn't matter to me. The law of change is certainly one that's prevalent in my life. I'm not saying it's not scary, but I think change is a good thing.

"People really do prosper when there's change."