Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties: Chely Wright, “Single White Female”

“Single White Female”

Chely Wright

Written by Carolyn Dawn Johnson and Shaye Smith


#1 (1 week)

September 18, 1999

A formidable talent earns her first No. 1 hit.

The Road to No. 1

Chely Wright was a hardcore country fan from an early age, and her musical talents were evident early on, as she mastered the piano and trumpet as a child. By her early teens, she had her own country band and was playing local shows around Kansas and Missouri.  By her late teens, she was in Nashville, performing at Opryland and earning a publishing deal before eventually signing with Polygram Records.  She released two albums for the label in the mid-nineties, but none of the singles reached the top forty.

Undaunted, Wright signed with MCA Records.  Her third album, Let Me In, featured her breakthrough single, “Shut Up and Drive,” which went top fifteen.  The next two singles, “Just Another Heartache” and “I Already Do,” went top forty.   Wright’s next album, Single White Female, was previewed by its title track, and it became her first and only No. 1 single to date.

The No. 1

The plotline of “Single White Female” is slightly ridiculous.

The mere idea of trying to get the attention of someone on the morning commute by putting a personal ad in a local paper suggests the songwriters have never taken public transportation, where not making eye contact with strangers is an ironclad rule. But hey, these were the days before social media and dating apps, so you’ve got to appreciate the boldness, if nothing else.

The record only works because Chely Wright is a charismatic singer and she’s charming as hell here, making the listener feel like she took the ad out specifically for them. She was in full command of her talent by this point, and her performance here hints at the treasures that could be found on the rest of the album.

It’s disappointing that this wasn’t the beginning of a long string of records that went to No. 1, and is instead my only opportunity to write about Wright at all during this feature.  Be sure to check out “The Love That We Lost” and “Shut Up and Drive” among her early singles, and “The Back of the Bottom Drawer” and “Jezebel” among her later efforts.   Her independent albums from the 2010s are also essential listening.

The Road From No. 1

Single White Female went gold on the strength of the title track and its follow-up, the top fifteen “It Was.”  Her final album for MCA, Never Love You Enough, produced two top thirty hits: the title track and “Jezebel.”  Wright went top forty with her independent single, “The Back of the Bottom Drawer,” from her excellent Everything EP.

Wright came out as gay in 2010, alongside her powerful memoir and brilliant studio album, Lifted Off the Ground.  Other strong releases from Wright in the year since: her 2016 studio album, I am the Rain, and her 2019 EP, Revival.  Wright continues to record and perform, and is also now a well-known LGBTQ activist.  Since she’s now NYC-based, I’m willing to bet she’s not making eye contact with strangers on public transportation anymore!

“Single White Female” gets a B.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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  1. To avoid total despair that reeking winds of change were starting to blow through Nashville based upon the previous two stinker number one hits, Chely Wright snags a long over-due chart topper with this charming, confident, and energetic release.

    There is a lot to unpack here as this is Chely Wright’s only trip to the top.

    For starters, Wright celebrated her only number one on the road with fellow band members, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney. The two of them would later go on to form Rascal Flatts with vocalist Gary Levox. Neat.

    Carolyn Dawn Johnson co-wrote this hit. She was apparently riding the last car on the Canadian train that rolled through Nashville in the late nineties. Born in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Johnson would leverage the success of this single to her own recording contract. Her debut album on Arista, “Room With a View” would be released in the summer of 2001. It would produce hits like “Georgia,” “Complicated,” and “One Day Closer to you.”

    Back to Wright. Was there any other career so filled with such potential and promise as hers? She would record five mainstream albums in Nashville. She worked with a number of different top producers ranging from Berry Beckett to Harold Shedd to Tony Brown to Buddy Cannon to Norro Wilson to Paul Worley.

    I remember seeing her open for Alabama at a Minnesota State Fair show in August of 1995.

    I agree that Wright fully sells this song. She is a quietly gifted vocalist. She is also an accomplished song writer.

    That she included “Love That We Lost” on two different albums speaks to the strength of the Gary Burr and Monty Powel composition. It is still a massive hit waiting to happen. It’s too amazing a song not to finally get the credit it deserves.

    Other performances of hers I love include: “The Last Supper,” “The Other Woman,” “Emma Jean’s Guitar,” “Before You Lie,” “She Went Out for Cigarettes,” “Picket Fences” “Back of the Bottom Drawer,” “Notes to the Coroner,” “Object of Your Rejection,” “Heavenly Days,” “You Are the River.”

    I so wish I knew I would have the opportunity to further comment on her music again down the line.

    If you aren’t familiar with her work, treat yourself to a deep-dive after this post.

  2. What should be truly galling to those who follow these things is that “Single White Female” was not only Chely’s only #1 country hit, it was her only Top Ten hit there as well (unless someone can find another one that I don’t know about); and it actually “crossed over” to #36 on the Hot 100. Its follow-up, “It Was”, got to #11 on the country chart and #64 on the Hot 100.

    In the end, I think Chely got shafted in two ways. The first one was in 2004, when “Bumper Of My SUV” came out, and members of her fan club were reportedly calling into country radio stations to play the song, which was about an actual road-rage incident involving the fact that she had a Marine Corps sticker on the back of her SUV, claiming (falsely) to be either be family members or friends of those serving in the armed forces. Chely summarily fired the fan club’s leader.

    And then, of course, when Chely came out as LGBTQ in 2919, the morality police on Music Row came out to vilify her.

    Say what you will about the uber-conservative political bent that country music and Nashville have historically had, but this went way over any reasonable boundaries and almost certainly turned off a lot of potential country music fans, if not for life, then certainly for a very long time (IMHO).

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