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Standing up for soldiers with ‘Bumper of My S.U.V.’
Tuesday, December 14, 2004 Posted: 10:26 AM EST (1526 GMT)
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Billboard) — Leave it to sunny Chely Wright to turn an ugly situation into a popular — and meaningful — song. Now, that song has helped her land a new label deal.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Wright — an established singer and performer — was driving the Nashville streets when a motorist in a minivan behind her noticed the Marine Corps sticker on her bumper. Wright’s brother is a Marine who sent her the sticker before he shipped off to Iraq.
The agitated woman began honking, swerving and flicking her lights. “I look in the rear view, and she’s flipping me the bird, hard,” Wright says. “I thought I cut her off, because I’m a really bad driver.”
When the woman finally pulled up next to Wright and motioned for her to roll down her window, she gave the artist an earful of opinions about the war in Iraq.
“Your war is wrong,” Wright remembers the woman screaming at her. “You’re a baby killer.”
She went home and immediately wrote a song about the incident, “The Bumper of My S.U.V.” She put a demo of the song on tape, then tucked the tape in a drawer and promptly forgot about it.
“Obviously, I didn’t mean for it to be a single because it’s 4 1/2 minutes,” she notes. “I just wrote the song to get it out of me.”
A longtime supporter of the U.S. troops who has traveled to far away military bases to perform with the USO and the group Stars for Stripes, Wright was preparing to make another trip to Iraq when she remembered the song. She threw the work tape in her bag as she was packing.
She taught her band the song, and they played it for the first time for the troops in Iraq this year. “Obviously,” she says, “they loved it. That was the first time in my career I ever lost my cool onstage. I was crying. Generals were crying. My band was crying.” So they performed it every night during their tour of Iraq.
Wright says hundreds of enlisted men and women she met asked her to record the song and send it back to them so it could be played on the American Forces Radio and Television Service station Baghdad FM.
Wright has been without a label since her abrupt split with Vivaton Records earlier this year. Still, she says, she couldn’t get the troops’ request and her promise to record the song out of her head. So back in Nashville, she booked some studio time, recorded the song and sent it off to Baghdad FM.
Then, Wright says, “here’s where it gets weird.”
An MP3 of the song made its way back from Iraq to U.S. country station WGNE Daytona Beach, Florida, which began playing it. Next, WGAR Cleveland added the song, and from there it began spreading to other radio stations strictly by word-of-mouth.
Wright has no promotion team behind the single, and no indies are working it. Yet it continues to climb the chart. “The Bumper of My S.U.V.” is currently No. 44 on Billboard’s airplay-based Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.
A veteran of several major labels, Wright recalls being charged astronomical amounts to ensure she received radio airplay for her songs. “We’re not doing any of that.”
Wright put the single up on her Web site and began selling it. Half the proceeds are earmarked for Stars for Stripes, an organization that, like the USO, provides entertainment for troops overseas. She has also made the single available at retail on her own Painted Red Music Group label.
She recently shot a video, which features her performance of the song on the Grand Ole Opry intercut with footage shot during her visits with the troops in Iraq.
Now, Wright has signed with Dualtone Music Group, an artist-friendly independent label in Nashville. In partnership with Painted Red, Dualtone will release Wright’s next album, “The Metropolitan Hotel,” in February 2005.
The album is the one she recorded for Vivaton, then bought back from that label when it was never released. “The Bumper of My S.U.V.” will be added to the album.
Since the song first began generating airplay, Wright has been concerned that it not appear that she is exploiting patriotism for money. “My initial fear was that someone would say ‘OK, another country singer writing a song about the war.’
“There are a couple of people who will want to believe this is my last-ditch effort to get on country radio,” she adds. “It wasn’t. I haven’t (just) been doing shows for the troops since 9/11. I’ve been doing it my entire career … I guess I felt qualified to come home and write that song to that lady” in the minivan.
The paradox of this song becoming a hit is that Wright is not necessarily a supporter of the situation in Iraq. “I’m very confused about this war,” she says. “I have questions, but I get to ask them because I’m free.
“Nobody is pro-war,” she continues. “Good God, what kind of an idiot is for war? But as long as we’ve got men and women on the ground risking life and limb to protect my freedom and to protect that lady’s freedom to flip me the bird, I feel an obligation to take 10 days out of my busy life pretending to be a country music singer” and go perform for the troops.