There was a moment when Chely Wright knew for certain that Never Love You Enough was everything it could be, that it was ready for release to her expectant fans and to a wider country audience waiting to see how she would follow up her breakthrough smash, "Single White Female.
"Months earlier, with ten songs already completed, she had decided to keep working, following an ever-more-demanding internal barometer honed over a lifetime of music making. "I just wanted to make sure it was right," she says. So, in addition to the groundwork she had laid with producers Tony Brown and Buddy Cannon, she recorded some sides with friend and co-writer Brad Paisley, and with producers Paul Worley and Dann Huff, to be sure she had fully explored her own artistic possibilities.
The moment came when she heard the completed work she and Huff had done on the song that would become the CD's title track.
"I knew we had a single in the song 'Jezebel'," she says, "and I knew that Brad and I had done a couple of really cool things, but when I heard the song 'Never Love You Enough,' and then after Dann made the record on it, I was really confident about everything we had. I said, 'That's it. The record's done.'"
As a result, Never Love You Enough -- after 17 months of preparation and recording--is a fully realized reflection of Chely as both an artist and as a person. Meticulously crafted, passionately sung, it is, she says, "sonically more interesting than anything else I've ever done, but it's definitely still me."
It is her particularly in the fact that she wrote or co-wrote five songs on the project--two with Brad Paisley ("One Night In Las Vegas" and "Horoscope," one with Brad and Tim Nichols "Not As In Love"), and one with hot new writer Roxie Dean ("Wouldn't It Be Cool")--and wrote another on her own, "Deep Down Low.
"Her songwriting efforts with Paisley, in fact, blossomed unexpectedly into tracks that became a real key to the project. "We became accidental producers," she says with a laugh. "We had written a couple of songs and just decided to spend a little extra money and go for record quality rather than demos. When Tony Brown heard them, he said, 'We have to put those on the record.'"
Given Chely's songwriting involvement and the striving for excellence that marked the album, Never Love You Enough is the perfect representation of an artist whose maturity, drive and talent have brought her to the forefront of the current musical world and poised her for the success and status she has so richly deserved.
The signs of that success are everywhere. Both her talent and her star power have been on display in a variety of settings during an eventful summer. She was part of a star-studded Fourth of July concert broadcast live on PBS from the lawn of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. More than half a million people watched live as Chely joined the likes of the Irish Tenors, the Pointer Sisters, the Fifth Dimension and the National Symphony Orchestra for the day's most-watched celebration of the country's 225th birthday. For Chely, who has traveled as far as Korea and Japan entertaining U.S. troops, the rain-soaked Capitol celebration had special meaning for her.
"I grew up having great reverence for the military. My grandfather was in the Army, my father was in the Navy and my brother is in his 12th year in the Marine Corps. I was just brought up to respect military men and women--rightly so, because I have a lot of liberties that someone else had to go fight for."
She was part of an equally impressive line-up at MCA Nashville’s recent Label of the Decade celebration at the new Country Music Hall of Fame. As the latest in a series of extraordinary female singers whom have stretched back to Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn and include labelmates Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood, she said the evening held for her "a pretty high chill bump factor."
Chely was also part of the Ralph Stanley "Clinch Mountain Sweethearts" project. Her vocals on "Angel Band" displayed both her appreciation of and aptitude for pure mountain bluegrass, amid a lineup that includes Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Jeannie Seely and Sara Evans among others.
Just as extraordinary has been the good use to which she can put her increasing celebrity, as evidenced at this year's Fan Fair. There, her Reading, Writing & Rhythm Foundation raised $100,000 in a sold-out Wildhorse Saloon show which featured a concert and both silent and live auctions, all involving high-profile friends in the country and pop music worlds. It's a mark of her growing cachet that an auctioned dinner with Chely went for $14,500.
If anyone could be said to have brought a lifetime of musical preparation and experience to a country career, it is Chely. She grew up in Wellsville, Kansas, in a family of players and singers. She can still recall sitting on her great-grandmother's knee as she played an old upright piano during church services or honky-tonks at home. At four, she was taking piano lessons that her parents struggled to pay for on a modest income.
Her early years were suffused with church music, the bluegrass of regional festivals and what came into the house from Kansas City radio stations--"country music," she says, drawing out those four syllables deliberately and lovingly. It became and remains her first love, and she would tell anyone who would listen that she was going to become "a famous country star." Each year, her mother once said, "The world stopped, we locked the doors, sat on the couch, and watched the CMA awards."
At 11, Chely made her first foray into a little club in nearby Edgerton, and by 14 she was traveling on weekends, singing in clubs and honky-tonks in her own County Line Band, which included her father on bass.
In seventh grade, the school band teacher called her mother and asked why the talented Chely wasn't in the school band. "We need her," he said. Recognizing the family's financial situation, Chely had been reluctant to ask, fearing she'd have to give up piano to buy an instrument and take up band. Her mother assured her that they would find a way to start her with a used trumpet, and she went on to become an accomplished trumpeter, playing in the jazz, pep, stage and marching bands. "It was a really big deal to me," she says. "It shaped my life in many ways, and ultimately it probably helped shape my career."
The experience is a key reason she founded her Reading, Writing & Rhythm foundation--dreaming it up, logo and all, in a middle-of-the-night burst of inspiration--and why its work, which involves getting money and instruments to school music programs, is particularly rewarding. She wanted to help assure that other children would not have the kinds of doubts and worries about participating in school music programs that she'd had.
After her junior year in high school, Chely worked at the Ozark Jubilee in Missouri, and a year later, on May 12, 1989, she moved to Nashville.
There was nothing easy about those early days. She sang at Opryland seasonally for three years, worked at less-than-glamorous day jobs in between, starved for awhile--at one point she was living in a trailer, with $13 left in her checking account--and strove with a fierce determination toward her first record deal, attending writers' nights and relying on the faith she had learned on her piano-playing great-grandmother's lap.
"She said faith can take you just about anywhere in life. It can help you find your dreams and get you through the hard times. It was part of why I never thought I wasn't good enough and I never thought that it wouldn't happen for me."
Along the way, she formed friendships with other aspiring artists and with Opry stalwarts like Minnie Pearl and Porter Wagoner. Her first breakthrough came as a songwriter when she was signed to a publishing deal--a career achievement of which she is justly proud--and by the time she'd been in Nashville for 3-1/2 years she had her first record deal.
A highly promising newcomer, she was named Top New Female Artist by the Academy of Country Music in 1995. Still, success was slow in coming, and after two albums, the label folded. She had to draw even more deeply on her inner strength. "I said to myself, 'Maybe I can't get on the radio, but they can't stop me from writing songs and from touring,' so I kept doing both, trying to keep a buzz about myself alive until I had an opportunity. And I was prepared when opportunity knocked."
In fact, she had helped bring opportunity's hand to the door, convincing MCA Nashville President Tony Brown she had a real shot at the brass ring. An earlier song of hers, "The Love That We Lost," was the one that spurred his interest, although he says, "I saw the fire in her eyes, so I took a gamble."
It was a smart one. "Shut Up And Drive," from her MCA Nashville debut, Let Me In, became her first top-ten hit in 1997. She opened for Vince Gill and became the only female artist chosen for the Crown Royal Tour in 1999. That year came "Single White Female" and Chely's quick ascension to a new career level.
"Getting that first #1 is something I can mark off my list," she says with a smile. "It's a great feeling to do the show every night and to be able to say, 'You guys gave me a #1 record, and I thank you." Given her drive, her most recent triumphs are simply plateaus rather than peaks, starting points for further climbs, which she plans to make with the same combination of talent and verve that have brought her this far.
"For whatever reason, God put this default setting in me not to be able to identify the possibility of failure," she says. "I've refused to fail at anything. For generations, my family has passed down the notion that if you have a good plan and execute it, you can have a portion of your happiness."
And happiness is certainly a key part of the picture.
"I'm blessed with a great job, with the gift of music, a great family (she talks to hersiblings by phone daily), fantastic friendships and a brand new niece or nephew on the way. You always hope you're growing as a person, and expanding spiritually in your relationships and in your thought processes, and I really feel like I'm in an excellent mindset right now. I think when you get your mind and body and spirit all on the same path, that's when things start to work."
She is an enthusiastic and talented painter, and free time—what little there is of it--might well find her hiking, cleaning and rearranging the house, or relaxing over sushi with a friend. An avid sports enthusiast, she has picked up golf tips from friend Vince Gill and plays every charity sporting event "to win."
These days, the demands of her career keep her on the road a great deal of the time, but she is comfortable with its rigors.
"I operate well on the road," she says. "I've been touring in some capacity since I was 14. I've been out pretty much full-time since 1993 on a tour bus. I think I've got diesel fuel in my veins. I love the smell of a truck stop. And I don't sleep in a stateroom in the back. I sleep in a bunk. Always have."
The groundwork she has laid through the years has set up the success embodied so clearly in Single White Female, and it's something she relishes.
"I think I'm no different from any artist in music," she says. "At least once, you want to see your name up on the top."
Given her talents, her drive and the contents of her new CD, it's a sight she should be getting used to.