Country star comes out of the closet to face the music

By Guy Adams

They are widely seen as God-fearing folk who drive pick-up trucks, vote Republican and are never knowingly seen without a cowboy hat.

It therefore follows, as simple chord follows simple chord, that fans of country music are spluttering into their cans of mass-produced American lager after one of the industry's biggest female stars made a shock admission: "I'm gay."

Chely Wright, a 39-year-old singer from Kansas who has produced seven albums, had two No 1 hits and won dozens of awards, said: "I fully expect to lose my career," adding that she had been keeping the secret for a decade and a half.

Though American pop culture has embraced generations of flamboyantly gay recording artists, from Liberace to Elton John, Wright is the first country star to come out of the closet.

"Historically, country music would rather an artist be a drunk. They would rather you were a drug addict than be gay," she said.

"They will forgive you if you beat your wife, lose your kids to the state, get six divorces, make a sex tape, get labelled as a tramp. Any and all of these is better than being gay."

Wright's declaration, made via a series of TV interviews and a People magazine photoshoot, came as she released an autobiography, Like Me, in which she revealed that the attitude of fellow performers had at one point left her contemplating suicide.

In the book, she recalled an exchange with John Rich, the singer who wrote John McCain's 2008 election anthem: "'You're not gay, are you?' he asked. I said, 'No, John, I'm not.' He said, 'Good, thank God.' And that began a spiral for me. I had a meltdown shortly after that."

During that crisis, she recalled: "I couldn't figure out how to get out of the situation I was in. So I decided to kill myself. I always judged people who had committed suicide, thinking, how non-spiritual. What a loser. But then I found myself with a gun in my mouth."

The big question now is what effect Wright's disclosure will have on her career. It could be disastrous: in 2003, the Dixie Chicks illustrated the perils faced by country stars who offend redneck sensibilities when they were banned from several radio networks after criticising George Bush.

That dispute began shortly after the invasion of Iraq, when the group's lead singer, Natalie Maines, told an audience in London: "We do not want this war." Amid nationwide controversy, she was forced to apologise.

Wright does not expect to be openly criticised but she is concerned about being quietly blackballed.

"I don't think a lot of people will come forward and condemn me. It's the quiet haters that do a lot of damage in the world."

Tonight, she will find out what her fans think, when opening-week sales figures for her new album are released.

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