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Pop Music

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

"Gretchen may only have an eighth-grade education, but she's got a PhD in street smarts," her road manager, David Haskell, had told me before the interview.

Wilson realizes many people thought her whole redneck approach was a gimmick -- almost a parody of country stereotypes -- but she says "Redneck Woman" is her favorite song to sing because it is "so true."

"To me, being a redneck woman means being a strong woman," she said, nibbling on a McDonald's Happy Meal she had ordered. "It's about holding your head up no matter what is happening. I know the term used to have other meanings, but to me it's just another way of saying country."

But not everyone likes it. She drew the ire of Tennessee Atty. Gen. Paul Summers with "Skoal Ring," a rambunctious tale about falling in love with a redneck man -- one whose back pocket is marked by the outlines of a round Skoal tobacco can.

Summers complained in a letter to Wilson and her record company that the ode to smokeless tobacco products sent a dangerous message to her young fans.

Wilson stopped holding up a Skoal can in concert -- which she'd mainly done to make sure everyone knew what she was talking about. But she refused to stop singing the song.

"The song's not even about Skoal," she said disdainfully. "It's about a guy. I would never want to encourage anyone to do anything that's damaging to their health. But, bottom line, I'm just telling my story."

That story, indeed, is as rich as any good ole country song.

Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn talk about humble beginnings, but Wilson may have them both beat. She grew up in Pocahontas, Ill., spending much of her childhood in trailer parks squeezed in between cornfields and pig farms.

Wilson's father split when she was 2, and her mother worked at Big O's, a bare-knuckle bar where songs such as "Redneck Woman" and "Politically Uncorrect" would have been at home on the jukebox.

By her late teens, Wilson was living on her own and managing Big O's, where a 12-gauge shotgun was kept nearby in case of trouble. She earned tips by singing along with CDs.

She got so much attention that she moved to Nashville in 1996, hoping for a record contract, but the best she could do was to get jobs singing on demos -- the informal recordings that publishers make to shop their songs to the labels and other artists. Lots of country singers, including Trisha Yearwood, got their start that way.

At label after label execs liked the voice on the demos enough to check Wilson out, but they just didn't like what they saw. Where was the pop potential?

The person who did recognize her talent and potential was Sony's Grady.

In his office across town, Grady pointed to a huge photo of Cash on the wall behind his desk. He calls the photo his conscience.

"I wanted it there to remind me every day that the man who sat in this chair 50 years ago had the foresight to sign Johnny Cash," said Grady, who was instrumental in putting together the rootsy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack at Mercury Records.

"But I also wanted the photo to remind me every day that years later another man in this chair told Johnny Cash that his music was no longer relevant."

Grady had been recruited by Sony specifically to bring in new blood -- the roster of the once proud Columbia and Epic labels was pretty bland. He'd been on the job only 10 days when Wilson walked into his office and sang two songs.

"All I remember is she had this big, incredible, booming voice," he said. "She filled up the room. It was almost like my teeth were rattling. I identified with her right away because I know a lot of people like her. I grew up in a town in Nebraska as small as her hometown."

About image, he added, "I don't think it's a crime for a singer to be stunning looking. I just think we should be in the business of artists, not image, because images come and go, but artists have staying power."

Another thing Wilson has going for her is that she doesn't have to spend any time on her persona. The phrase you hear about her all over town is: What you see is what you get.

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It's the music that matters

LATER in the day on the set, she was much more eager to talk to her pals and cuddle a friend's baby than check the playbacks of scenes.

She accepts the video shoots and interviews as part of the machinery of show business, but her interest is almost totally in the music. The only thing that seems to compete for her time is her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, whom she even takes with her on tour. (Wilson and the girl's father broke up last year. They were never married.)

"I've read all these stories about I've finally made it and all my dreams have come true," Wilson said, waiting for the next scene to begin shooting. "But I still feel out of place in the music business.

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