Bobby's One Hit Wonders: Volume VI: Chely Wright - Single White Female
By: Bobby Peacock
When I first became a chart watcher, I was often surprised to find out just how few or how many significant hits any given artist had. And one of the bigger surprises for me was Chely Wright. Out of her 15 chart entries, only one made it into the single digits: "Single White Female," which wedged its way into the penthouse right after Lonestar's monster hit "Amazed" finished its eight-week stay.
Despite her one-hit wonder status, Wright, like so many other artists, got bitten by the music bug at an early age: she played piano in her childhood, and even "Taps" on the bugle at her local American Legion branch. From there, she performed on the Ozark Jubilee in Branson, and then to Opryland USA. Her first record deal came in 1993 with Polydor Nashville, a label which never made much of a dent on the charts. Unlike some of her labelmates, Wright was at least able to make the charts with the three singles from her debut Woman in the Moon, even coming close to Top 40 with the Alan Jackson co-write "Till I Was Loved by You." Despite her meager chart performance, she was named Top New Female Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music.
She was also one of the only Polydor acts to see a second album, albeit barely — 1996's Right in the Middle Of It came a mere two months before Polydor Nashville was renamed A&M (also losing its vice president in the process), and only eight months before that division closed entirely. As a result, its singles went nowhere. Now, Wright's early material for Polydor certainly was not lacking, as she posessed a strong, twangy voice, and the production was both traditional and modern. (In particular, check out "The Last Supper," in which she implies that she is preparing a poisoned meal for her unfaithful husband.) I feel that a different label could've made something of her early on, even among the heavily crowded market that was the mid-90s.
Except for Toby Keith, most of the A&M/Polydor label never found another label. Wright was one of the lucky few who did, as she inked with MCA Nashville in 1997. Let Me In was a modest success, as it got her on Top Country Albums for the first time, and the insistent "Shut Up and Drive" made #14. It was followed by the somewhat generic "Just Another Heartache" and the tender "I Already Do," the latter of which may have been just a little too stripped-down for late 90s country radio's sugary confections of the time.
1999's "Single White Female," from the album of the same name, became that long-anticipated breakthrough hit. Now, 1999 was not a year for the neo-traditionalist. It was a year where the biggest hit was a power ballad; Mark Chesnutt, once a neo-trad torch-bearer, had a #1 with a cover of Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"; Brooks & Dunn was covering John Waite; and 'N Sync made (mercifully) their only appearance on the country charts. "Single White Female" had a poppy melody, for sure, but it was comparatively more organic with its heavy focus on acoustic slide guitar, not to mention the underrated Trisha Yearwood on backing vocals. Also of interest is, whether intentionally or otherwise, the contrast between the song's content and style: though she claims to be "so shy" and hoping that her personals ad will capture the attention of the man she wants, her delivery is anything but shy, her sass completely undiluted.
The mandolin-driven "It Was" came next. Like its predecessor, it bridged old and new: it had a few traces of pop synth, but they were balanced out by prominent steel and mandolin, not to mention the unmistakable Vince Gill on backing vocals. But in mere months, the pop side of country only grew larger and larger, leaving artists of Wright's caliber in the dust. She did try to keep up on 2001's Never Love You Enough, even launching the album with the heavily-overproduced ballad of a title track — but if anything, this album came across as calculated and lacking in the traits that made Wright a distinctive artist (outside "Jezebel," which sounds much like Miranda Lambert would if Jay Joyce produced her).
Ever since, Wright has been a sporadic, but still present, purveyor of music. She actually got into the Top 40 in 2004 with the excellent "Back of the Bottom Drawer," a sharp lyrical observation of the detritus from a prior love that she just can't bear to throw away. A year later, "The Bumper of My SUV" saw airtime, even if most of it came from members of her fan club (alegedly) posing as military relatives to boost the song. These two songs appeared on her more introspective The Metropolitan Hotel, which was followed a good 5 years later by the harder-hitting, depression-fueled Lifted Off the Ground on Vanguard Records. Right in between, she wrote a memoir, and became the first major country star to come out as gay (even starring in a documentary - "Wish Me Away" on this subject).
But most importantly, I feel that she's fully come to terms with herself artistically. Radio may not play the more challenging fare of her last two discs, but I'm sure plenty of fans will.