“Redneck woman” Gretchen Wilson said that she showed up to change the game. Making a handful of hit albums, and millions of dollars, all within a few years despite her non-traditional country image as just “one of the boys.” Yet, Wilson’s time in the sun was soon eclipsed by other country stars, and after several big changes in her career, Wilson found herself back outside of the music world she spent her entire youth desperate to break into. The story of the rise and fall of the country music tough gal, Gretchen Wilson, is full of fame, fortune, and heartbreak.
Gretchen Wilson’s Youth
Wilson was raised by a single mother in a tough, but loving situation that would inform much of her music. In the tiny town of Pocahontas, Illinois, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, Wilson, her mother, and her little brother lived in a series of mobile homes and trailer parks. Wilson would often care for her brother while her mother toiled away bartending at the Big O Tavern. Eventually, Gretchen herself dropped out of school to work at the bar as well. Wilson has stated that the Big O had a generally family-friendly atmosphere in which everybody knew everybody and people took care of their neighbors. This was the down-home small town scene that Wilson would one day capture in her music. After Wilson started regaling the bar-going locals with her own renditions of country classics to standing ovations, she knew that she wanted to join the ranks of her idols Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn in the country music hall of fame. So in 1996, the young woman gathered up her possessions and the few dollars she had to her name and moved to Nashville.
Gretchen Wilson found a home with a country artist collective known has the “Muzik Mafia.” The Muzik Mafia, founded by the famous country duo Big & Rich, was based on a simple premise: local artists would regularly come together for public jam sessions without any hint of competition or greed, only love and cooperation. These Tuesday night jam sessions took off, growing in popularity, as the members experimented with styles and genre mixing, playing everything from rock to country to R&B to reggae. There was even a nearly seven foot tall rapping cowboy in the gang. The collective have since hosted mic nights and jam sessions with artists as diverse as Kid Rock, Bon Jovi, Jewel, Bobby Brown, and Sisqo. According to Wilson, one night when she and John Rich were watching music videos of flashy, glamourous country star women, Wilson commented that she would never make it big like them, because she was just a “redneck woman.” Rich realized the power of the idea, one which many Southern gals could relate to, and Wilson’s first hit single, “Redneck Woman” was born.
Gretchen Wilson and Redneck Woman
Wilson leveraged her new sound into a deal with the Epic Records branch of Sony Music Entertainment and the rest is history. “Redneck Woman” took off like a rocket. The Grammy-Winning 2004 song topped the Hot Country billboard and made it to number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, in which it competed successfully with mainstream pop superstars like Outkast, Kanye West, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, and Usher. The corresponding album, Here for the Party, debuted in the top position on the country charts, reaching as high as 2nd best-selling album overall on the Billboard 200. The album was also huge in Australia. With a clear country meets rock & roll message, “I’m here for the beer and ball-bustin’ band,” Wilson’s album was influenced by Hank Williams Jr., Heart, and Kid Rock. The album also included a tribute to her birthplace with the song “Pocahontas Proud.” Wilson toured the hit album opening for Brooks & Dunn and Montgomery Gentry. It would eventually be certified as quintuple multi-platinum by the RIAA, indicating more than five million albums sold. The woman who had once bartended with a shotgun at her side for safety was now an international phenomenon.
Gretchen Wilson’s second album, All Jacked Up, was successful in its own right. Dropping in the fall of 2005, the title track would set a record for the highest debut for a female artist on the country charts, starting at No. 21. The album itself had a wildly hot debut as well, appearing in the top No. 1 slot on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart, knocking off Ten Thousand Fists by the Chicago alt metal band Disturbed. Ultimately, the album was not quite the hit that Wilson had seen with Here for the Party though, moving only about one million copies in the U.S. The record was reportedly rushed, following hot on the heels of Here for the Party, with Wilson being forced to write much of the material on the road. Critics had nothing bad to say about Wilson’s vocal work, but the instrumental arrangements of the album itself were considered subpar. In the album’s lyrics, Wilson took up the red banner of the culture war by combating Hollywood body images, applauding soldiers, cheering on true Christians, and celebrating Skoal. This championing of Southern ideals would pay off big time for Wilson, who was invited to sing the national anthem at the Republican National Convention a few years later, in 2008. Wilson’s cover of Heart’s classic femme fatale anthem, “Barracuda” was also briefly used as Sarah Palin’s theme song on the campaign trail.
Wilson’s next two albums, appearing at an even more rapid fire pace, failed to return the artist to her former success. 2007’s One of the Boys was followed closely by I Got Your Country Right Here in 2008. The first topped the country charts and even reached No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200, but it failed to go platinum with singles never breaking into the top 30. After I Got Your Country Right Here was repeatedly delayed and its lead singles debuted to even less enthusiastic fanfare, Wilson announced that she was breaking up with Sony, unsatisfied with their handling of her affairs. At that point though, Wilson could afford to launch her own label, Redneck Records. I Got Your Country Right Here dropped on Redneck in March of 2010. Though it would only sell about 50,000 copies in the following few months, Wilson taking control of production meant that she could carve out a larger slice of the pie for herself anyway. Still though, Wilson’s overnight success story was drawing to a close.
Where is Gretchen Wilson Now in 2018?
Three albums released in 2013 received largely positive reviews, but failed to capture the attention of even the country market, none of them breaking into the Billboard Top Country Albums top twenty. Only one was an album of original material, the other two, a covers album and a Christmas album, were both considered nothing more than novelties for an artist of Wilson’s stature and failed to advance her career. Wilson also contended with a lawsuit concerning her first big Redneck Records hit, “Work Hard, Play Harder,” which the Black Crowes claimed copied some of their own written material. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money and the Black Crowes were given future songwriting credits for the track.
Wilson’s time at the top appeared to be largely over. As the Washington Post suggested in their review of Wilson’s Greatest Hits album, there was never a real drop off in quality as far as Wilson’s work went, and it was only a shift in country attitudes that did in Wilson’s career. Wilson’s popularity was always premised on the idea that an “everywoman” could be just as fun, appealing, and musically powerful as the once ubiquitous hyper-feminine country divas. Considering that Gretchen Wilson’s fame was upended by a new series of poppy, sequined sex-symbols like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, perhaps the rough and tumble country woman was no more than a passing fad for most country fans. Wilson remains faithful to her chosen path however, stating that, “everything happens for a reason. God’s got the upper hand and… I take it day by day and try to be the best singer, songwriter and person I can be.”