Gretchen Wilson at Home in Wilson County

"Redneck Woman" makes Motherhood job No. 1

Story by Ken Beck

Like the title of her big hit song, Gretchen Wilson is a redneck woman, but first and foremost the country music star is a devoted mother. Her 9-year-old daughter, Grace, rules the roost, although Wilson calls the shots in her home and in her business.

"Redneck Woman" make motherhood job No. 1


Gretchen Wilson at Home in Wilson CountyLike the title of her big hit song, Gretchen Wilson is a redneck woman, but first and foremost the country music star is a devoted mother. Her 9-year-old daughter, Grace, rules the roost, although Wilson calls the shots in her home and in her business.

“Pretty much every decision I make is based on her and how it will effect her, all the way down the line,” says single mom Wilson about her thirdgrader. “My booking agency books me around the Wilson County school schedule as much as they can. I haven’t missed a school play yet. Really, yeah, my daughter is the boss. I just don’t tell too many people that.”

Living on an expansive farm outside of Lebanon, Wilson shares her spread with family members that include her Aunt Vicky, Uncle Vern, cousin Matt, her brother Josh and his wife Amy and daughter Eve. There are high hills, rolling pastures, a big pond and woods along with several log cabin homes and a recording studio. Enjoying the outdoors, Wilson has 20 quarter horses and two miles of riding trails on the backside of the property.

Around the house are pets like a Great Dane named Baby, a Pomeranian named Faith and a chinchilla named Chingy, along with micro frogs and hermit crabs with no names. It’s Wilson country in Wilson County, and while she does work here, writing and recording, it’s also where she hangs her many hats at the back door and relaxes and rejuvenates. She has lived in the county for 10 years and on this piece of ground for six. After renting in Mt. Juliet for four years, she sent her mom on an assignment: find me a house. “My mom started looking around all over Wilson County. She knows what I like and who I am. She knew that I wanted some space and some land. She found the house that I live in, but it only had 15 acres with it when I purchased it,” said Wilson one morning in January from her Redneck Records Studio, a cabin on high ground. “I basically came out here with a landlocked piece of ground that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to add on to, but it worked out that I did, and the 15 acres has turned into just under 400 now. I’m blessed that I’ve been able to buy land that is connected to the first piece that I got.”

The singer, 36, who grew up 40 miles east of St. Louis in Pocahontas, Ill., came to Nashville in 1996 and had a feeling this was where she would sink her roots. Ask her why and she answers, “Because of the people here in Wilson County. They’re just more like me. I’m always kind of joking and say that Franklin and Brentwood, they might be my tax bracket, but they’re not my people. It’s just different".

“I’ve had the luxury of traveling all over the United States and even other countries, and I just never have found a place that I feel more at home than right here. Plus ya’ll got some pretty good people here.  Having Charlie (Daniels) as a neighbor never hurts anything, and he is a good friend of mine, and I trust his opinion, and he has been like a father figure to me. Not just as a friend but in the industry as well. He and his wife, Hazel, have helped to mentor me and make sure I make the right moves.” While Wilson’s career moves forward with newfound freedom and new projects, priority No. 1 remains parenting, a responsibility difficult for all mothers and fathers but even more so for one who makes her living on the road along the concert trail.

“It seems like when I was on the downslide, I was getting to spend all the time in the world with my daughter, and now that things are looking good again, I’m gonna have to spend time away,” she said. “It’s the only real sucky thing about my job, to have to leave her, but it’s the right thing to do. She’s got her feet firmly planted on the ground here with her school and her friends. She’s better off here than she is on the road, but I’m still gonna miss her every minute".

“I do know how lucky I am that when I get to spend time with her, I get to spend the whole day. Having to spend the night away is really difficult. I still have to hear her say her prayers on the phone before she goes to sleep at night or I won’t be able to sleep myself,” said Wilson, about a tradition that began with her own mother when she was young. The performer estimates she will play 75 to 125 concerts this year, but she coordinates shows so that she will be home for important school activities and is pleased to have found that McClain Christian Academy in Lebanon meets her daughter’s needs.

“McClain Christian Academy is small but just a loving environment and exactly what I was looking for,” said Wilson. “I thought I would home school because of my career and traveling. I realized when she hit 6 years old that it was something she really needed in her life. She needed people her own size to play with instead of band and crew members. . . . She needed someone outside of her mom doing the curriculum. She really needed the Christian studies, the Bible class and things they offer there that a lot of schools don’t.” Wilson has become such a booster of MCA that last year she and school leaders conceived of a musical benefit for the school that was held at the historic Lebanon Mill and featured Wilson along with a number of her singer-songwriter pals. The event makes a return engagement on Saturday, Feb. 27.

Gretchen Wilson with six students from McClain Christian Academy

“This is basically a songwriter pull,” said Wilson. “I think it is really interesting to sit and watch the songwriters perform their songs. It’s totally different than seeing somebody in concert. “The whole vibe of it last year was the flow was great, the sound was great, and people were having a great time. I’m thinking that this year is even gonna be better, that was just a practice run. I think it will probably be an annual thing,” said Wilson, whose new album, I Got Your Country Right Here, on her Redneck Records label, debuts March 30 with 11 new tunes including her current hit “Work Hard, Play Harder.”

The music video of the song, currently running on TV, includes cameos of Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams Jr., Larry the Cable Guy and a fellow holding a “Buy America” sign while the lyrics contain words that reflect Wilson’s themes, terms such as redneck, blue collar and working man. Wilson considers the upcoming CD to be the “the album of my career.”

Gretchen in Redneck Woman Studio“This is the first album that I have made that I don’t find myself skipping a track on. I think it’s perfect from beginning to end. There’s not one song on it that I like more than another. They’re all my favorites,” she explains. “I feel like I’m gonna have the opportunity now to show everybody who I really am and really who I always was,” Wilson says as she makes the comparison to Hank Williams Jr. in his early career when he was singing his daddy’s songs to when he began recording his own kind of music. “I’ve always worn my heart out on my sleeve. I never kept anything hidden. You ask me and I’ll tell you. You may not like the answer but I’m about as honest as it gets. But I do feel like musically I’ve been in a box to a certain degree just because of having been with a major label. People out there don’t really know what it means to make records for a major label.

“It really means that you have no control. You’re just a voice, just a machine. Everyone else makes the decisions. I had a part in all of the records that I made but wasn’t able to make a decision without that decision being accepted by other people that weren‘t involved in music. I feel I always struggled to try to do exactly what I wanted to do on tape and now I don’t have to ask. I ask my fans. I ask country music listeners, my family and my friends, instead of people in offices that are looking at numbers.” In the meantime, while waiting on the new album to spring into stores, Wilson’s “Greatest Hits” album came out in mid-January and leaves her with mixed emotions.

“I can’t complain. I wrote seven of the 11 songs on the record. I’m proud of all those songs. I’m proud I’ve been in business long enough to have a greatest hits record. I know my fans have been waiting for new music. The real Gretchen Wilson fans have all those songs already,” she laughs. That Wilson should have a greatest hits album in her mid-30s is nothing short of a miracle. Born to a 16-year-old mother and barely knowing her father, the singer lived a hardscrabble childhood moving from trailer to trailer with her waitress mom. She dropped out of school in the ninth grade to be a cook and bartender at a local bar. But she also sang along to CDs for tips.

As a teenager she found favorites in such female vocalists as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker and the group Heart. “It was always really country or really rock,” said Wilson. “AC/DC, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, everything I could get my hands on. My music collection was crazy weird from Loretta Lynn to Pink Floyd to Skynyrd to Lead Zeppelin.” From the local bar, Wilson migrated to St. Louis where she was discovered by Susie Osburn, who persuaded the singer and her band, Sam-A-Lama, to be the house band at The Townhouse in Springfi eld, Mo., six nights a week. A couple of years later Wilson returned  to Pocahontas, but in 1996 at the ripe old age of 23 she set her sights on Nashville.
While bar keeping in Printers’ Alley, Wilson and her voice attracted the eyes and ears of singer-songwriter John Rich of Big & Rich, who introduced her into his circle of influence, including the Muzik Mafia, a pack of merry music makers who rendezvoused on Tuesday nights in a Music City nightspot. In time the experiences led her to a recording contract with Sony Music Nashville, and in 2004 Wilson’s debut single, “Redneck Woman,” camped for five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, and her rookie album, Here for the Party, sold almost five million copies. Awards followed, including a Grammy and being named the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year.

How does she explain beating a million-to-one odds?

“I’m stubborn. I always had to fight for anything I’ve had. I learned right off the bat that nothing good ever comes free or comes easy,” said Wilson. “I could have very easily gone back home with my tail tucked. There were several doors slammed in my face. Everyone on Music Row turned me down at least once. But I wasn’t going to take that. I knew I had it in me. I knew it was what I had to do ’cause otherwise I was going to be a bartender the rest of my life. I didn’t want that, so I was just determined. Determination and stubbornness and knowing how to fight for what you want.”

While her stubbornness won out, Wilson confesses there was a time when she had just about had enough and was ready to call it quits. And in the minutes of her lowest hour, she and a pal flipped her feeling of defeat head over heels. Wilson recalls the day in early 2000 when she was trying to write songs with John Rich at his apartment, and the TV set was turned on to CMT or GAC. “I was seeing Shania Twain and Faith Hill and all these beautiful, glamorous, flowing gowns and gorgeous hair, all of this. John went to get a cup of coffee, and he came back and saw this look of devastation on my face. ‘What’s wrong with you,?’ he asked, and I said, ‘John, I don’t know. Maybe we should just give up on this whole thing.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Me trying to get a record deal and write songs and this whole thing.’ He said, ‘Why?’

“I told him, ‘Look at this. Those girls are just so perfect and so beautiful and so elegant. I’m never gonna be them. That’s not who I am.’ He asked me, ‘What are you?’ And I kind of laughed and said, ‘I’m not that. I’m just a redneck woman. I’m not an elegant woman.’ And John said, ‘Then that’s what we’re gonna write today. I’m a redneck woman and I ain’t a high-class broad. . . .’”

While the song danced along the charts for months, its message struck a deeper cord in Wilson, and it’s a message that she hopes a lot of women don’t miss. “Women like me need to hear that it’s OK to be you. I know people in my life that work 60 to 70 hour weeks and will work the rest of their lives, and all they will ever own is a doublewide on a halfacre lot, but they’re all right with that. But if that is what their goal is and they’re happy with it, who am I to say it’s not perfect?” Wilson asks herself. Regarding powerful influences in her life, Wilson lights up when she reminisces about her late grandmother. “She was the glue that held this whole family together for a long time. My family has come a long way. We were born with nothin’ and we didn’t really get very far for a long time. We were all kind of lost in our own little ways. We all had our own issues and things to deal with,” she says.

“My Maw-Maw was the one who made sense of it all. She held us all together and made sure we all loved each other no matter what kind of times we were going through. I look back and wish she could see us now. We were scattered. Before we didn’t all live on the same piece of land together. I think what we got here is her dream come true. It’s just sad to me that she had to go before she got to see it.” However, Wilson believes in some unfathomable way that when she looks deeply into the eyes of her daughter, she sees signs of her grandma, who was born in an orphanage and who never knew her parents and “never had nothing in her life.” “But she has come back to earth as a spoiled little rich kid,” laughs Wilson. “That’s just cool.”

While she dropped out of school in the ninth grade, Wilson always intended to complete her high school degree. She finally reached that goal in the spring of 2008. Today, she says, “I’m very proud of the music awards but not as proud as I am of the diploma. “I always felt bad about not finishing school. When I left home I really felt I needed to, and my education was going to have to wait because I had to get out. … Life just happened, time slipped away. It wasn’t until my daughter came around that I really started focusing on it again. Hmm, how can I tell her to stay in school if she can look at me and say, ‘You didn’t think it was very important.’ I wanted to make sure I did the right thing to be a good parent and lead by example,” Wilson said.

“Bernadine Nelson at the adult education center here in Lebanon helped me get my GED, and she is just filled with information about the state we are in in this country. How many people can’t even read their own medicine bottles? . . . It’s devastating really to know how many people can’t read and write in this country and how many people are functioning without an education and how under funded it is,” said Wilson, who serves as an advocate for literacy. “I’ve made a couple of trips up to D.C. I try to go the financial route with them. Why can’t we invest in our own people? It takes a long time for anything to happen in Washington, but I will keep fighting and keep talking about it at every show I have and every chance that I get to bring it up. It’s not just adult education, it’s literacy. … It’s the children, too. If we leave the parents behind, then the children will be left behind. Children follow their parents. We have to have strong adults in this country.”

The Tennessee Association for Adult and Community Education recently presented Wilson a plaque because of her contributions to adult education. “Gretchen’s willingness to tell her audiences about completing her GED (general education diploma) and her encouragement to those in attendance at her concerts that ‘it is never too late to complete one’s education’ is a tribute to her dedication to this cause,” TAACE president Bernadine Nelson said in a statement. On the lighter side of life, Wilson discusses her hobbies and disses the lifestyle of a star on the road.

Gretchen Wilson On The Farm“I like to go four wheeling. I like to ride my horses, but probably my favorite thing to do here at home: I’ve got a covered screen front porch, and I like to sit out there every morning and have coffee and watch the sun come up and just listen to the birds and turkeys and chickens. “It’s very peaceful and quiet and something I don’t get any of  when I’m out on the road. There’s no peace and quiet there. It’s always crazy. I stay on the bus all the time. I don’t ever check into hotels. So I usually wake up to the traffic, and I’m usually parked next to a trash can. “People are like, ‘It must be so glamorous, the lifestyles of the celebrity types out there.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, well, come on along for a ride some weekend. You’ll see how glamorous it is.’” With a slim build, Wilson, a fan of baseball’s Cardinals and football’s Titans, says she doesn’t work out but maintains a high energy level.

“I drink a lot of coffee, and I go 100 miles an hour all day long, and I’ve got stairs everywhere in my house. I don’t have a housekeeper. I’m running laundry up and down the stairs and running after dogs and kids and book bags and glasses. I just keep really busy all the time. I don’t sit down much,” she says, confessing she does have a rarelyused gym in the basement. As for her taste in foods and television, she says, “I like anything bread, dough. I’m a sucker for doughnuts, cake, any kind of carb like that. Potatoes and pancakes. I’m definitely gonna have to use this gym,” she laughs. As for TV, she says, “I’m addicted to all the forensic kind of shows, the ones about real people, Cold Case Files and 48 Hours, where they have the real cases and they really catch the bad guys. It’s pretty much Forensic Files and Raisin Bran before I go to sleep.”

And, finally, revealing a bit more of who she really is, when asked if she were interested in acting professionally, Wilson answers, “I have been asked, and maybe one of the coolest things I ever had to say no to, I was asked to be in a play in New York on Broadway, but it’s very time consuming. I would have had to move to New York. I don’t do good in New York. There’s not even a Wal-Mart there. I don’t know how those people survive.”

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