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RECORD RACK

One Bud wiser than the last time

September 25, 2005|Robert Hilburn

Gretchen Wilson

"All Jacked Up" (Epic)

* * * *

IT was easy to dismiss this late bloomer from Illinois when she exploded onto the country music scene last year with "Redneck Woman," a hit single that felt too ideal for hard-core country demographics to be viewed as anything more than clever marketing.

But Wilson had one good thing going for her: Unlike so many female country stars these days, this ex-bartender showed no signs of pop crossover dreams. She wanted to be Loretta Lynn or (maybe) Merle Haggard, not Shania Twain or Faith Hill.

And guess what? Her debut album, "Here for the Party," has sold nearly 4 million copies, reminding Nashville that you can do quite well, thank you, without sacrificing your country soul.

The album had some solid barroom tunes, both the rowdy kind that work best just when the bartender can't keep up with all the orders and the melancholy kind that serve as therapy when you're alone at closing time. But it had just as many conventional moments as inspired ones.

This time around, Wilson delivers a knockout as she serves up enough of the rowdy tunes to keep the jukebox pumping most of the night -- most powered by a lively mix of ringing guitars, spunky fiddles and powerful backbeat.

"California Girls" is the radio highlight, an anthem that may be even more on target sociologically than "Redneck Woman." Written by Wilson and John Rich (of Big & Rich), the feisty tune has one of the most irresistible singalong country choruses since Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places."

It's a good-natured slap at Hollywood-model types who strut around in their "size zeros" -- "skinny little girls no meat on their bones, never even heard of George Jones." The rollicking chorus:

Ain't you glad we ain't all California girls

Ain't you glad there's still a few of us left

That know how to rock your world

Ain't afraid to eat fried chicken and dirty dance to Merle.

Speaking of Haggard, he duets with Wilson on "Politically Uncorrect," an underdog, blue-collar salute to God and country similar to the ones Haggard did decades ago.

Wilson isn't an especially distinctive singer, but she is a convincing one in the crowd-pleasing manner of early Garth, and there's humorous wordplay at almost every turn. Another line bound to be a honky-tonk favorite: "I'm one Bud wiser."

Despite all the high jinks on the album (due in stores Tuesday), Wilson proves on "I Don't Feel Like Loving You Today" that she can set aside the rowdiness for a tender, understated vocal that borders on eloquence. She's even daring enough to venture into smoldering Patsy Cline territory with a version of the Billie Holiday hit "Good Morning, Heartache."

Even when the material is a little too obvious, Wilson has a strong point of view and a wry vision. In song after song, she speaks about a world she knows with celebration and warmth that make us care about it too.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). Albums reviewed are in stores except as indicated.

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