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Wilson, Gretchen

Gretchen Wilson


Singer, songwriter



At a time when female vocals in country music were mostly the province of divas who wore designer clothes and aspired to pop sophistication, Gretchen Wilson put the music back in touch with its "redneck" roots—to use the term that Wilson took to the top of the country charts. Country radio in early 2004 was ruled by Wilson's hit "Redneck Woman," an anthem whose lyrics, co-written by Wilson, dedicated themselves to "redneck girls like me." That single and the album that followed, Here for the Party, were among the fastest-selling recordings in country music history, and some observers thought they signaled a change in direction for the genre as a whole.


Wilson's songs were filled with images of small-town life, and she lived the life she sang about. Born on June 16, 1973, she grew up in tiny Pocahontas, Illinois, about 35 miles east of St. Louis, Missouri. In one of the songs on Here for the Party, she sang of her desire to make "Pocahontas proud." She may have inherited some musical talent from her father, a musician, but he left the family soon after she was born. Wilson was raised by her mother, living in a succession of rented mobile homes. Often the pair stayed one step ahead of landlords trying to collect overdue rent payments.


"I thought everybody was redneck when I was a kid," Wilson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I thought everybody had a single mom who worked two jobs and had peanut butter and jelly three nights a week for supper." Wilson often looked after her younger brother, Josh, and she told the New York Daily News, there was "tension between me and my mom because we were so close in age. We were almost like sisters. By about 12, I felt like the grownup in the house." Wilson's mother often worked as a bartender, and Wilson had to drop out of high school to join her at Big O's Tavern when she was 15. She worked as a cook while her mother tended bar.


That might seem to be a rough situation for a 15-year-old, "but this was a tiny bar where everyone knows everyone and the whole family is there because there's nothing else to do in town," Wilson told the Daily News. "It was almost like a day-care center." It also gave Wilson the chance to sing the Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline country classics she loved in front of a live audience. Sometimes she billed herself as Country Cutie. Within a few years Wilson was singing with two local bands and was appearing at venues as far afield as the suburbs of St. Louis.


In 1996, at age 22, Wilson left Pocahontas with $500 in her pocket, to seek fame and fortune in Nashville. She quickly had to return to bartending in order to make ends meet, but she began to find a place in the industry by singing on demo tapes—recordings of songwriters' compositions that are used to pitch a song to a particular performer. She began knocking on music label doors, trying to get signed to a recording contract herself, but she met with universal rejection. "I'd go to these showcases and the labels would say to me, 'I'm sorry, but that's just too country,'" Wilson told the Daily News. "How can you be too country for country?," she mused.


A relationship with boyfriend Mike Penner produced a daughter, Grace, and Wilson thought of shelving her goal of stardom. But she found her way into a creative community, the Muzik Mafia, which enabled her to revive those dreams. One person who had helped her during her early days in Nashville was John Rich, formerly a member of the group Lonestar, and a Nashville nonconformist who would later form the duo Big & Rich with another songwriter, Big Kenny (Kenny Alphin). Rich was one of the organizers of the Muzik Mafia, a loosely connected group of performers who came together in Nashville clubs for weekly stage shows, spreading the location only by word of mouth.

The Muzik Mafia featured an extraordinarily diverse collection of musicians, including a six-foot-eight African-American rapping cowboy. "You never know who is going to show. … It's like Fellini in Nashville," John Grady told the Star Tribune. Wilson fit easily into the Muzik Mafia group, and Rich encouraged her to try her hand at songwriting. He told the New York Times that "Gretchen's voice just pulverized me," and the two began working together on songs. One night the two were watching country music videos that featured a succession of leggy, fashionably dressed female singers. Wilson expressed the feeling that she'd never be able to carry off an image like that because she was a redneck woman. Rich picked up on the phrase, and the future hit "Redneck Woman," with its anthemic "hell yeah" refrain and its wealth of redneck detail, was finished in under an hour.

New music in hand, Wilson auditioned for the Sony label and its new president, John Grady, who had been on the job for only three weeks. She was backed by several members of the Big & Rich band. Sensing a major hit in the making, Grady signed Wilson to Sony and released "Redneck Woman" as a single. The results were immediate and startling. In April of 2004 the song reached the top ten on Billboard magazine's country chart in near record time, and then ascended to the top spot. The release of Wilson's CD Here for the Party was moved forward twice, and it sold 227,000 copies in its first week, easily topping the country album chart and challenging R&B artist Usher for the pop album top spot. It was the best opening-week performance a country album had ever achieved. Wilson gained attention from far beyond the usual country sphere, as "Redneck Woman" became the subject of a feature on National Public Radio.

Wilson's songs couldn't really be classified as traditional country; they had big rock beats and showcased up-to-the-minute production electronics. Yet listeners sensed Wilson's rural roots, and that was the way Wilson wanted it. "I was determined to put together a record that was real," she told the Boston Globe. "I talk all the time about my idols being Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker and Patsy Cline and people like that. And I knew when I listened to a Loretta Lynn record that I was going to hear stories that were real. I hung on every word that came out of her mouth because I knew that she had lived that."

The Wilson phenomenon continued unabated through the summer and fall of 2004, as the dance club hit "Here for the Party" nearly matched the success of "Redneck Woman." ("I may not be a 10, but the boys say I clean up good," Wilson sang confidently.) Wilson toured major arenas and prepared for major changes in her life. "I have probably made and spent a quarter of a million dollars in the last four months," she told the Star Tribune. "That's more money that I could ever think about four months ago. All of a sudden, I have a corporation. I have people that work for me that I don't even know." But success didn't seem likely to change Gretchen Wilson. "I'd still rather go fishin' and drive a four-wheeler than go to the mall any day," she told the Daily News. "This is just who I am." In November of 2004 Wilson won the Country Music Association's Horizon Award, given to the top new artist of the preceding year, and she was named Best New Artist at the 2004 American Music Awards, beating heavily favored rapper Kanye West.

For the Record . . .

Born on June 16, 1973; children: Grace.


Performed in bars near hometown of Pocahontas, IL; moved to Nashville, 1996; became involved with Muzik Mafia circle of performers and artists; signed to Sony Nashville label; released Here for the Party, featuring hit song "Redneck Woman," 2004.


Awards: Country Music Association, Horizon Award, 2004; American Music Award, Best New Artist, 2004.


Addresses: Record company—Sony Nashville, 8 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37212. Website—Gretchen Wilson Official Website: http://www.gretchenwilson.com.

Selected discography

Here for the Party, Sony, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Boston Globe, May 30, 2004, p. N1.

Daily News (New York, NY), June 13, 2004, p. 14.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), August 21, 2004, p. Arts-6.

Denver Post, August 8, 2004, p. F1.

Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2004, p. E1; September 22, 2004, p. B11.

New York Times, June 17, 2004, p. E1.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), August 16, 2004, p. D3.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), September 3, 2004, p. E1.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 2004, p. F1; May 27, 2004, p. 23.

USA Today, April 5, 2004, p. D4.


Online

"Gretchen Wilson," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (October 26, 2004).


—James M. Manheim

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