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'd 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 have 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 this week. "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 doesn't expect to be openly criticised for revealing that she is a lesbian, 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'll find out what her fane think, when opening-week sales figures for her new album are released. She has previously sold almost a million albums in the US, and her biggest single – the now interestingly titled "Single White Female" – went double platinum.
The response from Nashville regarding her sexuality has been eerie silence so far – with one exception. John Rich apologised on air this week for having upset Wright in 2000, and to deny his comments were meant to be homophobic. "I would never pass judgement on any friend of mine. I feel awful that, at this time in Chely's life, my decade-old comment – 'Good, thank God' – was taken the wrong way," he said. "I was clumsily trying to express my relief that even a country boy like me had a one-in-a-million chance of having a beer with a woman as talented and attractive as Chely."Reuse content