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Making her mark

| Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Well, yeah!

Anybody who's listened to country radio lately, and a lot who haven't, knows the two hottest words on country radio right now.

Those would be the hook of newcomer Gretchen Wilson's white-hot debut single "Redneck Woman," in which the Illinois native boasts, "I ain't no high class broad/I'm just a product of my raisin'/I say 'Hey y'all' and 'Yee haw' " before letting rip the song's rowdy sing-along chorus of "Hell, yeah!"

Unlike most women in country in recent years, Wilson doesn't look like she just stepped off the cover of Cosmo, doesn't sing to soccer moms and doesn't pine for champagne and roses. In Wilson's world, a cold beer will do just fine.

That pretty much makes her country music's anti-Faith, a fact she celebrates in the title track of her first album, "Here for the Party," when she sings, "I may not be a 10, but the boys say I clean up good."

That album just entered at No. 2 on the nation's pop chart after selling 227,000 copies in its first week in stores. That's the highest entry for a debut album by a country artist since SoundScan began monitoring U.S. sales in 1991. Previous highs were Billy Ray Cyrus, Wynonna Judd and LeAnn Rimes, who entered the pop chart at No. 4 with their first efforts.

All this makes Wilson the buzz of Nashville right now. Her songs are steeped in the working-class world she grew up in, living in a succession of trailer parks with her younger brother and their single mom, and the everyday lives she observed while supporting herself as a bartender in decidedly unglamorous locales.

"It's a song about me and the women I grew up around," Wilson, 30, says of "Redneck Woman" a few minutes before making a promotional appearance at a Wal-Mart store in Tampa, Fla. "I sat down with (songwriting partner) John Rich to write a song one day, and we were sitting there and CMT (Country Music Television) was on.

"We watched videos by two or three different females and I said, 'John, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do that. Look at them -- they're all so slick. That's not who I am.' And he asked me, 'Who are you• And I said, 'I guess I'm just a redneck woman.' And that's what inspired it."

Exactly what does being a redneck mean to her?

"It's just being real, being yourself," she says. "A redneck woman doesn't have to have the fad clothing, she doesn't worry about getting her fingernails done and having pedicures in the top salon. A redneck woman is hard-working, she's raising a family and holding down a job at the same time and is proud of who she is, no matter what."

The sentiment has thoroughly galvanized country fans and radio programmers.

"This is the first record in a long time where programmers just liked it, saw their phones explode when they played it and got great listener reaction without doing a lot of research first," says R.J. Curtis, operations director for L.A. country station KZLA-FM. "People just went by their gut, played it and played it a lot."

Adds Lon Helton, country music editor for Radio & Records magazine: "Like most things that have hit big -- like Randy Travis in the '80s and Garth (Brooks) in the '90s -- she's just very different from the majority of (what's) on radio today, and that just screams through. When something's that different, it either does nothing or it's huge."

As much as she contrasts with the glamorous likes of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride, Wilson may be nearest in temperament and appeal to Toby Keith, the Oklahoma singer who's reached a broad audience with a testosterone-rich style of country in the Hank Williams Jr. tradition.

Wilson's in-your-face music was rejected by most talent scouts in Nashville after she moved there in 1996 in hopes of finding some role in the music business. Meanwhile, she kept working behind the bar, occasionally joining the house band to belt out a number or two.

That's how she met songwriter-producer Rich, who began collaborating with her on songs they honed at a weekly gathering of a group of musician friends that came to be known as the Muzik Mafia. At least two more of its members, Big & Rich (Rich and partner Big Kenny) and James Otto, have landed major-label contracts as well.

The Muzik Mafia's outsider attitude may have its closest link to the '70s "outlaw" movement that included Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and others who didn't fit Nashville's country mold of that time.

"It's sort of a hopeful sign," says Billboard's Nashville charts editor, Phyllis Stark, "that a grass-roots organization could be producing the kind of music that the Nashville establishment hasn't been able to, or hasn't chosen to."

Last year, shortly after Sony reorganized its country division and installed John Grady as president, Wilson's luck with record companies changed.

"She walked into my office and sang three songs one day," Grady says. "I'm a long way from a genius, but I knew she had a great voice, one of the better ones in country music today. I'd listen to her sing anytime, any place. When the novelty of 'Redneck Woman' wears off, the fiber of who she is and dreamt of being will come through, and the depth of her music will separate it from flash-in-the-pan status."

The high points of "Here for the Party" are the up-tempo honky-tonk numbers, from "Redneck Woman" and the no-holds-barred title tune to the Tanya Tucker-like sass of "Homewrecker" and the autobiographical "Pocahontas Proud," about growing up in Pocahontas, Ill. Wilson sounds less at home in ballads, most of which she didn't write, but succeeds in invoking '70s-era George Jones in "The Bed."

"I don't know too many country people who can relate to a lot of the lyrics that have come out over the past 10 years," Wilson says. "I know I couldn't. A lot of record executives thought my lyrics were scary -- not scary like people wouldn't like them, but because they thought it hadn't been done before.

"The truth is it had been done," she says. "It's just that it hadn't been done in a long time. Loretta (Lynn) did it her whole career. I just tried to put together an album I would want to buy. People where I come from didn't relate to what's out there. I'm trying to bring back the audience that country has lost."

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