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A country all her own

Singer-songwriter Gretchen Wilson took on a pop-courting, gun-shy Nashville and won, setting the stage for a new breed of do-it-yourself stars.

January 22, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Nashville — WHEN Gretchen Wilson reached for a paper cup during an interview on her tour bus, I assumed she was going to pour some coffee. Instead, she brought the empty cup to her mouth and casually spit into it -- brown tobacco juice.

No wonder record executives in this country music capital all but ducked under their desks when the former Illinois bartender and bouncer came calling time after time only a few years ago looking for a contract. The bigwigs had spent millions trying to downplay country's hillbilly roots by promoting glamorous, pop-minded female singers, such as Faith Hill and Shania Twain, hoping to appeal to the lucrative pop market.

Now, here was someone who'd remind all those pop fans that country music is the land of "Hee Haw" and trailer parks. She was so far from the country diva model that execs might have thought someone was playing a joke on them.

It didn't matter that this wild card had a voice with the purity and power of Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn. In today's cautious country market, even those Hall of Fame members might have a hard time getting a contract -- and they weren't spitting tobacco.

"I did showcase after showcase and the story was the same," Wilson, 32, said on the bus during a break in the shooting of a video for "Politically Uncorrect," a duet with Merle Haggard. "They thought my hair was too dated, that I was too heavy, too old."

Wilson might still be singing for the regulars in dingy downtown bars except that John Rich of the maverick country duo Big & Rich spotted her one night and was knocked out. He eventually teamed with her to write her breakout hit, "Redneck Woman," a raucous, honky-tonk number that is, in part, Wilson's retort to all the polish and politeness of today's female country stars.


You might think I'm trashy,

a little too hard core

But in my neck of the woods

I'm just the girl next door.


The song shot to No. 1 on country charts in 2004 and stirred up Nashville more than anything since the arrival of the Dixie Chicks in the late '90s.

Wilson's debut album, "Here for the Party," has sold more than 4 million copies in the U.S. and her new one, the equally party-minded "All Jacked Up," has sold an additional million since October.

Eager to find Wilsons of their own, execs may now even be ordering spittoons.

"When people first heard 'Redneck Woman,' everybody in the industry said, 'There's no way that's going to fly,' " said songwriter Vicky McGehee, who collaborates frequently with Wilson.

"But the country audience related to her right away. She wasn't the glamour girl. She was drinking a beer in her videos and belching. Now everyone is trying to sign a redneck. You'll see a bunch of girls coming out in the next couple of years that will all look kinda like Gretchen."

And the excitement isn't just over sales. It was easy to suspect "Redneck Woman" was just a clever novelty, but the second album showed Wilson is a remarkable talent, blessed with character and purpose. She has been named female singer of the year by the Country Music Assn. and the rival Academy of Country Music.

Radio programmers favor Wilson's upbeat songs, but she may be the most convincing on ballads, which she sings with a tenderness and ache that makes every line feel seasoned by sleepless nights and hangover mornings.

Wilson is in a long line of mavericks who had to fight the Nashville Establishment. Johnny Cash had to overcome the skepticism of Sony executives before doing his landmark Folsom Prison album. Willie Nelson had to return to Texas before he could ignite the Outlaw movement.

"No one comes right out and tells you to be a puppet," Wilson said on the bus. "But that's what they'd like you to be. When John Grady said he wanted to sign me at Sony, I was shocked. I had given up. He was the first person I met at any label that I felt like he got it.

"I didn't even have to explain myself to him. I didn't have to change my ain'ts into isn'ts."


A farm-to-fame wardrobe

WILSON was a lot like you'd expect from her records, but also a lot different as she stood on the soundstage for the video during the lunch break. She had already been through makeup. Yes, even redneck women want to look nice on television. But she didn't have to leave time for wardrobe.

Instead of the flowing gowns often favored by female country stars in videos, she wore the same T-shirt and torn jeans that she put on at her ranch before driving her pickup to the video shoot.

That all fit her tough-gal image -- along with the bottle of Jack Daniel's nearby. But soon it became clear that "aint's" or other grammatical violations of the lyrics were all poetic license.

Wilson kidded around a lot when she was among friends on the set, but in the privacy of the bus, she was focused and articulate. Almost everything she said was quotable, reminding me of another articulate and focused artist who people had trouble taking seriously: Madonna.

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