To all appearances, Gretchen Wilson went overnight from talented obscurity to phenomenon. Her meteoric rise, the kind experienced by only a handful of artists in the past few decades, was that rare instance where talent and moment meet to form a cultural tidal wave. Still, she knows better than anyone the simple force that fueled it.
"The reason I've been successful is that I've been genuine from the get-go," she says, "and I continue to try to do that. I'm an open book." It helps that the identity she wears so guilelessly is one that resonates strongly with fans of country and Southern rock--the independent, take-no-guff, hard-working and hard-partying country woman. Gretchen's ability to inhabit that persona publicly, as well as her flair for tailoring songs as gorgeously rough-edged as she is, have given her the kind of "I am what I sing" originality few women in country music history--Loretta, Tammy, Dolly and Tanya chief among them--have ever been able to achieve.
Set as it was within the broader scope of the Muzik Mafia, a talented and audaciously original ensemble, and like-minded entertainers from Kid Rock to Hank Jr., her rise was part of a genuine musical and cultural groundswell. Her first single, "Redneck Woman," spent six weeks at #1; her debut album, Here For The Party, sold more than five million copies; she won across-the-board awards including a Grammy and ACM, CMA and AMA nods for best female vocalist; and she toured to large and raucous crowds around the world. Her second CD, All Jacked Up, rode enthusiastic reviews to platinum status as Gretchen's accomplishments continued to stack up.
Over the last three years, she has been featured on “60 Minutes,” “Dateline NBC,” “20/20 Primetime” and CNN’s “People In The News,” and she has appeared on virtually every morning, noon and late-night television show on the air. Magazine covers and major news features could paper an entire wall.
Such is her cross-medium viability that her first book, the autobiographical “Redneck Woman: Stories from My Life,” landed her on the prestigious New York Times Best Seller List. Now, with the release of her third album, One Of The Boys, Gretchen Wilson solidifies her position as one of contemporary country's most original and multi-faceted female artists, a woman in whom ambition and ability come together in every aspect of her career.
"When it comes to the music," she says, "I get involved on a personal level in everything that counts. I'm involved in the writing, recording, producing, mixing, and promoting of the music, down to which photos we pick and how the lyrics are laid out on the paper. I've been very lucky that way from the beginning in that the people at my label, when it came down to it, have trusted me with my gut on the music." Building on that freedom, One Of The Boys is a tour de force, a musical extension of the complex woman sometimes underappreciated by those who only know her rowdy aspects. One Of the Boys cuts a wider swath through both the hell-raising and the softer sides of a woman who has been in the public eye just three short years.
The record's first single, "Come To Bed," details the aftermath of a relationship's fireworks, looking for the healing power of physical contact. "To Tell The Truth" wears its pain on its sleeve, while "Pain Killer" looks at the end of a relationship. "Heaven Help Me" may be the most compelling, the most heartfelt, the most poignant slice of life Gretchen has laid down. Even within the CD's uptempo excursions, Gretchen's softer side shows through, with both the title track and "Girl I Am" detailing a woman's need to feel comfortable revealing herself in all her complexity.
But make no mistake, this being a Gretchen Wilson record, it has more than its share of barnburners. "To be honest," she says, "I wrote songs for this record based on my life but also on my live show. I wanted to be able to play more electric guitar this year, to rock a little harder. I open the show with a Les Paul on now, which is pretty rock 'n roll, and you've got to have those kind of songs." She's got plenty, from "You Don't Have To Go Home" and "Place In The Whiskey," which bring rowdy slices of the night life to bear on the project, to "If You Want A Mother," sure to put any less-than-equal partner on the defensive, and "There Goes The Neighborhood," with its light look at rural redneckization.
Overall, One Of The Boys is as strong and authentic a musical statement as Gretchen has ever made. "I didn't put a song on this record--didn't even record one--that I didn't think was a great song," she says, "and I believe that lyrically and emotionally they're as true as anything I've ever done. It's just like pages out of a diary--they're really true stories and emotions and feelings and things that happened." Part of its strength lies in Gretchen's ability to dedicate more time to the writing and recording of this project than either of the others. She also drew on the strengths of some of her most cherished songwriting collaborators. The result, she says, "is the most important record I've ever made. It solidifies me as a songwriter, at least to myself, and I'm very hard to please. I am my worst critic."
The album comes at a time when she is more contented with her personal journey as well. A single mother, after splitting with the father of her daughter Grace, she has drawn her family around her on her property outside Nashville, and has found herself more able to enjoy domestic life amid the whirlwind that can still be her professional life.
"I'm as happy a person as I've ever been," she says, "and I attribute that to everything I've absorbed and learned and gone through in the last few years." Still, as the head of a major business enterprise, the focal point of a huge touring company, and a major modern media star, she has come a long way, in both her personal and artistic lives, from Pocahontas, Illinois, where she was born to a 16-year-old mother. With her father out of the picture, she got much of her grounding from her grandmother, who also introduced her to what stability the youngster knew and to the classic country of Patsy Cline, among others. Amid life's uncertainties--trailers, moving to stay ahead of rent collectors, taking care of her younger brother, bartending at 14 alongside her mother--she found release in country and rock music. She was on her own by 15, managing Big O's, a bar outside town, and singing for its rough-and-tumble patrons. She sang along to CD's for tips until she was old enough to join a cover band and sing as far down the interstate as St. Louis.
Dream and talent combined to send her in 1996 to Nashville, where she put her bartending skills to use in Printers' Alley, sitting in with the band now and then. It was there that John Rich and Big Kenny ran across her. Rich battled his way through her natural skepticism to convince her he could be helpful as she sought recognition as a singer. She began singing demos and became part of the fledgling Muzik Mafia, singing on Tuesday nights in ever-bigger clubs and pitching herself to record labels.
She garnered little interest until an epiphany in front of a TV screen at Rich's place before a writing session. Realizing she was simply not the kind of country singer so common at the time--"the Barbie doll type"--she focused instead on what she was and, with Rich, wrote "Redneck Woman," which would help turn the corner and become an across-the-board phenomenon. As she has turned that moment into a nuanced identity and a long-term career, she has grown into the woman she dreamed of while she served drinks at Big O's. It has been an adventure.
"I feel like I've grown so much spiritually, emotionally and professionally in the last couple of years," she says. "Everything has evolved and I'm more in the moment now than I used to be." Beyond career and family, Gretchen has maintained an active charitable role, performing recently in clubs and small theaters to raise money for organizations like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Children's Miracle Network. As the scope of her life continues to grow, the young woman from the tough background looks to find her ultimate place in the larger scheme of things.
"I think sometimes that I haven't even found my purpose yet," she says. "I think sometimes this is a stepping stone and there's something greater still for me to do. I'm not sure what, yet, but a lot of it I think comes from this overwhelming sense that my grandma knew something I didn't know. I know what her purpose was now. She never even could find her natural parents, but her purpose was to make me who I am, because I didn't have anybody else who molded me. She was it, and I know I have a greater purpose than all of this too, and I have a feeling that somehow she'll be the one to tell me."