The Wright stuff
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
Michelle Wright remembers how she first hit the road, crammed into a Ford Econoline van with a bunch of guys she hardly knew, feeling the sound equipment pressed up against the back of her seat. She toured America from one country bar to another, the kind of bars that did not hire bands unless they had a female singer. She was the singer: a 19year-old farm girl from Chatham, Ont., who left home in the summer of 1980 and never looked back. She endured bad boyfriends, bad hangovers and bad hair. And by the end of the decade, she had gone through a lot of vans and a lot of drummers. Vans that would not start and drummers who did not know when to stop. There were times when it seemed her career would never get unstuck, like her first shambling tour bus, which she left for dead somewhere in Texas. But for Wright, the road is not what it used to be. Now, Canada’s hottest country music star at the age of 32, she is finally sitting pretty and riding high.
At 11 a.m. on a drizzly morning in Nashville, Tenn., she is cruising through America’s country music capital in a white stretch limousine. She has a full day ahead of her. By the time it is over, she will have dealt with the carpenter and upholsterer who are custom-building her luxurious new tour bus, a boardroom full of adoring record company employees, her Nashville-based management team, a top fashion designer, a personal image consultant, a makeup artist, a photographer, a journalist and a hairdresser-to-the-stars who follows behind her limo in his new Jaguar convertible.
Wright is being groomed for the big time. Following in the cowboy boot steps of Anne Murray and k.d. lang, she is Canada’s new queen of country music. Her third album, Now and Then, is approaching the double-platinum mark with sales of nearly 200,000 in Canada. The album’s hit single, Take it Like A Man, rocketed to the top of the Canadian charts last year and cracked the Top 10 in the United States. Meanwhile, the song’s video, a sultry seduction number, rose to number 1 in America, sealing Wright’s celebrity status. She has also won 23 awards—most recently one from the American Academy of Country Music naming her best new female vocalist. Now, as she prepares to record her fourth album, all the mechanisms are in place for the big breakthrough. Says her manager, Brian Ferriman: “We’re poised to make a significant leap here if we can deliver the right record.”
The calculations that go into composing such success seem to betray the simple, homespun spirit of truck-drivin’ music. But country has changed. It has become slick, sophisticated and urban, and its biggest audience is women. And Wright, with her pixie haircut and cabaret-cowgirl sparkle, is right on the money.
Her music is de-twanged country, cut with knowing inflections of rhythm and blues. She has a husky smoke-cured voice, a supple alto that seems to know what it wants, biting into the country rockers and cozying up to the torchy ballads. She does not write her own songs—not yet—but she makes them her own. And they strike a feminist-Ute balance between yearning for romantic commitment and learning to settle for nothing less: hurtin tunes and recovery tunes.
Wright’s life, meanwhile, has unfolded like a series of country-song clichés: bom to a teenage mother who sang in a band; saw her parents split up before she was two years old; left her high-school sweetheart to hit the road; then hit the bottle after falling for a guitar player who abused and betrayed her. She dates her recovery from a September night in 1987, when she saw k.d. lang perform at an awards show in Vancouver. “Every now and then in my career a light goes on,” says Wright, “and a light went on that night. I said, ‘She knows what she is and what she’s got, and somehow I’m going to find that.’ She was the biggest influence in my career.” Around that time, after an all-night party, Wright woke up with her last hangover. She went into a treatment program and gave up drinking. “I believe I had a spiritual healing,” she says. “I don’t mean to sound weird about it, but I feel I’ve turned my life over to the power of God.”
She found her future in a 12-step program, and her career took off.\
The big break came in 1989 when Tim DuBois, the president of Arista’s Nashville label, caught Wright’s act at a Toronto club. “He said, Would y’all like to have a record deal?’ ” she recalls, mimicking a southern drawl, “and I said, ‘Go on, git!’ ” Two years later, Wright moved to Nashville, where she now owns a house in the suburbs.
As the limousine rounds a corner, Wright points out the window to a cheap motel called the Shoney Inn, a way station for the crooners and strummers who flock to Nashville to seek their fortune. “We stayed here more times than I can remember,” she says. “When I first came here I went to the Hall of Fame and all the stores, and fantasized about being part of this business. I
still get a big buzz when I get in my car and drive to the office.” The office belongs to the Savannah Music Group, a management company set up by Ferriman. A 42-year-old former musician from London, Ont., he has been guiding Wright’s career for eight years. Sitting across from her in the limo, Ferriman is tall (six feet, five inches) and rangy with an earnest manner and a goofy, bucktoothed smile. But beneath the facade is a shrewd businessman who seems keen to dispel country music’s parochial trappings once and for all. Driving through Music Row, the neighborhood where Nashville’s record-industry offices are ensconced in residential-style cottages, Ferriman points out two steel and concrete hulks under construction—new country headquarters for Warner Bros, and MCA. In North America, country music has grown into a $3-billion industry, and Ferriman (who was doing business in Hong Kong last week) seems eager to take it to the world. Wright looks wistfully out the window. “This street’s got such character,” she says. “I hope they don’t spoil it.”
The limousine’s first stop is the bus company that is custom-building Wright’s new tour vehicle, with her initials scrolled in swirly let-
ters on the door. First, she visits her old bus. It is a cozy affair, with a TV lounge up front, a ninebunk dorm in the middle
Michelle Wright has travelled a long, hard road on her way to the big time
for the band and crew and a bedroom in back for her and her boyfriend, the band’s 32-year-old bass player, Joel Kane. The bedroom has its own VCR, stereo and fridge. Wright rummages around in a tackle box of earrings and puts on a fresh pair.
The new bus is a work in progress. Inside, it is just a plywood shell. Wright heads straight to the back, to the eight-byeight-foot bedroom that she will share with Kane.
“I’ve got a big closet here for me and a little
one here for Joel. Oh, this is fabulous. I wonder about a night table.” “We can do a night table,” says the carpenter.
“And I need a place to put the kitty box.” (Wright travels with two cats, Marge and Homer.)
“We can actually build a kitty box to match.”
As the conversation turns to shelves and lighting valences, Wright stares at the fridge and wonders about getting rid of it to make more room. But first she calls Kane on the cell phone. Kane, who still drinks, says don’t lose the fridge. Before leaving the bus, Wright takes a look at the lounge area. Could there be headphone jacks above the seats, so band members can watch TV without keeping others awake? The carpenter makes a note of it.
Wright and her retinue move on to the garage, where they take a peek inside a luxury bus used by country star Barbara Mandrell. It looks like a Las Vegas hotel suite, all chrome and mirrors and snowwhite walls, with a spacious bathroom that has a shower. Wright makes a beeline for the bedroom, where she finds the perfect night table, with retractable drink holders. She flops down on the fold-out bed. “This is exactly the bed I want,” she says.
In the upholstery department,
Wright sifts through fabric swatches and approves the color scheme. Variations on dusty rose and wedgewood blue. Teal-green leather for the lounge chairs up front. “That’s not too girly,” she says, in a tone of mock affectation.
“The boys won’t want to feel they’re in a girly bus.”
Ferriman checks his watch. Time to leave for the record company. There, a group of 20 Arista staff—all young women—are waiting in the boardroom. When Wright walks in, they greet her with a collective shriek of “Sur-
prise!” and give her a big plaque mounted with a list of her awards
engraved on brass. No one notices that “academy” is spelled
“acadamy.” As Wright delivers a thank-you speech, tears dissolve her mascara. Hugs all around.
Next stop: a boutique owned by Manuel Cuevas, the celebrated designer of western clothing whose clients have included Dolly Parton, Dwight Yoakam, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash—and such rockers as John Lennon and Keith Richards. He is the Armani of rhinestone-cowboy chic. And Wright owns 10 of his glittering bolero jackets, which sell for about $4,000 each. Cuevas greets her warmly and has her try on a few of his new designs. She is crazy about them, but any decisions must be approved by her image consultant, Joan Lacey.
Wright meets up with Lacey at another designer clothing store. A former fashion co-ordinator for Bloomingdale’s who now commutes between New York City and Nashville, she is a decidedly urban woman, dressed all in black with a three-tiered choker of costume pearls at her neck. Arista hired her four years ago to improve Wright’s look. Lacey recalls that when she first met the singer “she had on this horrible white cotton skirt and white plastic boots.” Lacey ruled right away that the hair—blond and big with extensions—had to go. “Michelle is so perky and bubbly,” Lacey explains. “That’s why I cut her hair off. She is now extremely consistent. There’s a theme that runs through everything she wears.”
The theme appears to be crisp, tailored and sexy. Dominant but demure. Feminine with a hint of androgyny. Onstage she wears black cat suits, bustiers, bolero jackets and cowboy boots (provided by a boot sponsor)—an image of control with a sprinkling of stardust.
Wright’s new look was considered radical in Nashville, a town that is practically held together by hair spray. When k.d. lang went there to record in 1987, the city’s conservative music establishment bristled at her lesbian, beef-bashing style. Wright is no lang, but her short hair and bustiers were controversial for a female country singer. “People here told me the way I looked would offend women,” she says. “But women really love it. They’re used to Janet Jackson and Madonna.”
For Ferriman, meanwhile, the Wright image conforms to an international marketing plan. “That progressive look is so important in the rest of the world, where country music isn’t as big as it is here,” advises Ferriman. ‘The country and western stereotype doesn’t reflect where country music is in the Nineties.” He says that Wright needs a variety of looks for different “applications,” from award shows to meetand-greet schmooze events. “What’s the application here?” he asks as she tries on a pair of small, sparkly earrings. “They’ll be perfect for
television interviews,” says Wright, checking herself in the mirror.
She is slim now, carrying just 125 lb. on her five-foot, six-inch frame. During the past six months
she stopped eating red meat and lost 13 lb. But she still smokes— some vices are more stubborn than others—and up close, her face shows faint traces of all those years on the road. But it is an attractive face, with sunny eyes, a strong jawline and a mouth that bends up at the comers into a crescent smile.
Wright wears her glamor well. At the end of the day, however, as the limousine takes her home at 7:30 p.m., she seems relieved to shift into domestic mode, throwing on a T-shirt and trading her cowboy boots for a giganc pair of fluffy slippers. She loves working around the house—painting, wallpapering, sewing, gardening. According to one of Ferriman’s staff: “If the bus is coming to pick her up at 10:30 p.m., she’ll be out there with a flashlight, digging in her garden.” The house is a modest suburban bungalow. She has decorated it with folksy giftshop bric-a-brac, including a set of framed pictures that she picked up at K-mart. In the den, Wright sits on the couch in front of a huge, fakestone fireplace, and talks about how she got to Nashville.
Country music runs in the family. Her mother and father both played in part-time country bands. Bom on Canada Day, Michelle is the second of three children raised by Monica Wright, a daughter of Polish parents who now works as a Sudbury real estate agent. Michelle’s father, Jack Martin, is a diesel mechanic of Irish, Indian and French descent. Monica had their first child, Steve, when she was 16 and Michelle just a year later. After divorcing Martin, Monica married Doug Wright, a farmer and carpenter, and moved her family from Chatham to the nearby farm community of Merlin. Michelle was 10.
On the farm, Wright learned the value of hard work. “I always felt we were accomplishing a lot,” she says. “When you're hoeing a field and you’ve covered all these acres, you stand back at the end of the day and realize what you’ve done.” Meanwhile, she listened to country stations and Detroit Motown on the tractor radio. And she learned to play music with her brother—now a Sudbury auto-body mechanic in a garage full of instruments and amplifiers owned by her mother. “We figured out how to work everything,” says Wright, “and we’d play Stairway to Heaven and Satin Sheets and Me and Bobby McGee until the cows came home—literally.”
Like her mother, who had her own band, Wright found work singing with a local country group on weekends. During her first year at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., where she studied counselling for the mentally handicapped, she got her first break. One weekend, her boyfriend begged her to go to a party with him instead of going to her gig. She went to the gig. “And in this little bar in the middle of nowhere,” she recalls, “there was an American booking agent in the audience.”
He paid Wright $200 a week to sing with a band touring bars in the United States. “I thought I’d do it for a summer,” says the singer. “But once I got out there, it was a whole life change for me. I’d been dating the same fella for seven years, and we were going to have a farm and settle down.”
They broke up soon after she hit the road, where life was anything but settled. At the age of 21, she fell for the abusive, philandering guitar player. “I was very committed and he wasn’t,” she says. “He would have affairs when we were on the road. And every time I dressed up kind of sexy, he would make me change. I wasn’t even allowed to wear nail polish.” The relationship ended after a year. Wright drank, gained weight and became abusive herself—“If I felt like slapping someone around, I didn’t think twice about it.”
But in 1987, the singer entered a treatment centre in North Bay, Ont, and emerged a new woman. Then, on a November day in Kapuskasing, Ont—after four years of “staying pretty much single”—she found herself in a laundromat with her bass player. “Joel and I were just sittin’
there,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘I find myself caring more about you than I probably should.’ We went back to the hotel room, and I said, ‘Listen, I’ve been through it, man. And I’m not going through it any more. I need to know that you’re going to be faithful.’ But I discovered he was quite a gentleman and didn’t have notches on his bedpost.”
A steady drummer was even harder to find than a steady boyfriend. She has gone through 18 of them—four during one especially trying month in Saskatchewan. One quit three hours before her band was set to record a live radio show in Weybum. She drafted a local farmer’s son that night, then flew in a new drummer from Edmonton. She fired him after learning he was drinking Aqua Velva.
A week later she hired a replacement in Prince Albert. “He was a good little drummer,” says Wright, “but he came up to me and said, ‘I’m a good lookin’ guy, you’re a good lookin’ girl, it’s bound to happen.’ I said, ‘Pardon me, get outta my face’—the little sleazeball.” Then there was the drummer with the gong. “He kept gonging it on this slow ballad, and I said, ‘If you gong that thing one more time, you’re fired.’ He came out from behind those drums and chased after me. I had to run off the stage—this is in front of a crowd. I ran behind the bar and the bouncers had to protect me from this guy.”
Hardship, however, strengthened Wright’s resolve to succeed. “Sometimes, if there were five people in the bar, I’d visualize that there were 5,000,” she says. “I believe very strongly in visualization. I visualized my own bus. I visualized the stages and the audiences and the clothes. I always believed that I had too much passion for the music not to accomplish something with it.”
Wright’s resilience finds an echo in her songs, even when she has
Her life has unfolded like a series of country clichés
not written them. In Take it Like a Man, she sings with wry skepticism about meeting the wrong Mr. Right—“I might never have known/If a friend hadn’t brought it to my attention/He’s got a wife he forgot to mention.”
And in He Would Be Sixteen she delivers a moving lament about a mother who had to give up her child for adoption. In response, Wright says: “I’ve received incredible letters, letters that have brought me to tears more times than I can tell you.” But the song provoked hostility in the conservative South. “Doing a song about teenage pregnancy,” Wright adds, “is very unusual in country music.”
The singer’s next challenge is to create her own material. “I haven’t made that great country record yet,” she says, “and I want it to have my songwriting on it.” Recently she holed up in Los Angeles to compose songs with Eric Kaz, who has written for Linda Ronstadt and Michael Bolton. And her next album will be produced by Val Garay, a veteran of 20 gold albums who has worked with Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton—and recorded the 20-million-selling Bette Davis Eyes for Kim Carnes.
Just how big does Wright want to be? “I guess I want to be pretty famous,” she says, “although I know there’s a price to pay. I want to be a millionaire. I want to be able to take care of my family, my mother, my brother and my sister.” In fact, her sister Lori, 21, now tours with her as an assistant. Wright would also like children of her own. And she dreams of a bus, one like Barbara Mandrell’s, that would be big enough for kids and a nanny. For now, however, she seems happy with what she has. “Designing our own bus, that’s so cool,” she says. “And the little headphone jacks for the guys—things like that make life a little easier.” For Michelle Wright, the ride is smoother now. She is holding her own in the middle of the road, heading for the big country. □