Lifted off the Ground may be Chely Wright’s seventh album, but on a number of levels it feels and sounds like her first, revealing an artist who has undergone a dramatic artistic transformation, emerging as a singer/songwriter of the first order. But the new album would never have come to be were it not for an equally dramatic personal transformation, which she has candidly and painstakingly documented. Lifted Off the Ground will be released on Vanguard Records May 4, the same day Random House publishes Wright’s autobiography, Like Me.
Though she made her name as a commercial country singer, recording songs from some of Nashville’s top writers—including modern-day classics like "Single White Female," "Shut Up and Drive” and “Jezebel”—Wright had been honing her craft as a songwriter since her teenage years in rural Kansas. She was signed as a writer in 1993 and wrote half of her first and second albums before realizing she still had a ways to go before she was ready to bang ’em out with the big boys. But she kept working at her craft, placing a handful of original songs on each of her subsequent records, and coming up with a Top 10 hit for Clay Walker before penning eight songs on her most recent album, 2005’s Metropolitan Hotel, including the zeitgeist-capturing hit “The Bumper of My S.U.V.” That release followed on the heels of the rarities collection Everything, containing previously unreleased originals.
Through Wright views Everything as a heartening if relatively unsophisticated stab at finding her voice, she now regards Metropolitan Hotel as “a half-assed attempt to step forward as an artist. I chickened out and went back to my old golf swing,” she says with a rueful laugh. Despite her reservations, those two LPs earned Wright widespread critical acclaim—but nothing in her ample body of work hints at the extraordinarily personal and powerful material she pulled out of her innermost being for the new record.
While it’s fair to say that Lifted Off the Ground was five years in the making, the process began with an unmaking—a breakup leading to what she describes as a breakdown on the way to her ultimate breakthrough. The resulting songs required an acutely sensitive producer to blossom into life, and Wright considers herself extremely fortunate to have had Rodney Crowell come into her life at the critical moment. It’s little wonder she calls him “Shep,” short for “Song Shepherd” (in turn, he calls her Richell, her given name, just as a big brother might), because he was with her every step of the way during the course of those five years, prodding her, encouraging her, pulling her back from the edge of the abyss more than once.
The result is a remarkable song cycle of a woman climbing inch by inch out of a deep hole into the sunlight, from the one-two gut punch of the opening tandem of “Broken” and “Heavenly Days,” the latter co-written with Crowell, through the rocking, wicked-clever black comedy “Notes to the Coroner” the crystalline dreamscape “Snow Globe” and the revelatory “Like Me,” to the closing “Shadows of Doubt,” which could serve as Wright’s credo. “Those songs and my bicycle saved my life,” she says, without a trace of hyperbole.
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