It's the song.
"This is a rebirth of my love for the craft and the gift, and for my best friend: songwriting," says Chely Wright of The Metropolitan Hotel. Indeed, Wright's sixth album is a bold, fearless statement of purpose, and a return to the essential bedrock of storytelling in song. It is the culmination of the work she's been doing for three decades, beginning well before radio hits like "Single White Female," "It Was" and "Shut Up and Drive" established her as one of Nashville's sharpest and most consistent singersongwriters; before she came to Nashville in 1989 and sang seven nights a week at Opryland, or put in just as rigorous a schedule doing a show in Branson, Mo., as a teen. It is work that has been going on, in a way, ever since a four-year-old in tiny Wellsville, Kansas, first banged out a melody on the family piano and made up words to go with it.
The Metropolitan Hotel is the rediscovery of a sense of purpose and focus that had gotten a little lost in a flurry of expensive videos, glamorous photo shoots and record-label turmoil. The title pays tribute to the pivotal moment that cleared all those distractions away - a delirious, seemingly endless evening spent in London's Metropolitan Hotel in 2002, during which Wright and a couple of friends played one CD after another, exchanging favorite songs as if they were dearly held secrets. "That night, I got turned on to music again," says Wright. "And I said to my friends, 'If I get to make another record, I have to go back to the reason I moved to Nashville.' I came here because I fell in love with albums - Ricky Skaggs' Waitin' for the Sun to Shine, Randy Travis' Storms of Life, Buck Owens' Live at Carnegie Hall. Those were whole bodies of work that drew me to country music." She chuckles at the memory. "And I said, 'Since this is my place of epiphany, it shall be called The Metropolitan Hotel.'" And so it is.
Like those albums she admired, The Metropolitan Hotel forms a cohesive statement, albeit one that spans the breadth of Wright's talents. There are thumping radio-ready anthems like "Just the Way We Do It" and "I Got Him Ready for You" - the fruits of years spent sharpening her pen in the Nashville hit factory. But at this Hotel's heart stands by far the most daring and intimate work of Wright's career. The blistering "Between a Mother and a Child" explores the conflicted emotions of a child of divorce, while "The River" is a mesmerizing, six and-a-half-minute rumination on small-town tragedy. Both songs (like "The Bumper of My S.U.V.," already a grassroots-driven Top 40 hit) draw power from the fact that each word of them is true, drawn from Wright's own history.
"I wanted to be brave with this music," she says. "My agenda was to be who I am, and who I've been over the last few years is a little bit deeper. My life is as complex as anyone else's." Lately, perhaps a bit more so. She describes the making of her previous album, 2001's Never Love You Enough, as "the most painful experience," and it was followed by a split with her then-record label. She reacted by taking a year off, the first real break she'd had - by her father's reckoning - since age four. "I resigned myself to just being," she recalls. "I stayed in my pajamas, watched the news and was kind of a real person. It was a very good thing for me, creatively." To her surprise, Wright discovered that even with no outside pressure - no record label, no release date to meet, no tour for which to prepare - that she still felt compelled to write songs and make demos in her home studio. "I don't know what possessed me," she says, "but I just wasn't ready to stop." Almost before she knew it, Wright had begun recording the album that would become The Metropolitan Hotel. By the time it was finished, she had written or co-written eight of the 12 songs, and produced or co-produced them all. "My main objective was to have a collection of gems," she says. "I'm most proud of the fact that it's 12 good songs, 12 well-recorded songs, 12 songs I love to sing. I wanted to make a record that told you a story, which is what country music does. You want to hear a story? Here's a story."
And here it is. It's a story of happily dueling lovers, of parents and children warring fiercely and loving deeply, and of lives cut cruelly short. It's about memories worn for warmth or kept safely, secretly in a box. It's about misconceptions and misunderstandings, about loneliness and togetherness. It's about freewheeling fun and the power of music. It's about the song. And it's all going on right now at The Metropolitan Hote.