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'Redneck Woman' singer bounces back

by JANIS FONTAINE New York Times News Service on April 23, 2013 11:00 AM

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Gretchen Wilson believes she’s right where she’s supposed to be.

“There’s a song on my (new) record that says, ‘I don’t regret a single moment, it’s been a hell of a ride, it took a while to get here, but I’m right on time,’ and that song is the reason I titled the record ‘Right On Time,’ because that’s exactly how I feel right now.”

The album is a delicious mix of blues, rock and Wilson’s raspy, pitch-perfect vocals.

“I feel like this is a new beginning for me,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier that people are excited and interested about what I’m doing, and, at this stage of my career, to still be doing what I love.”

Once a white-hot superstar, Wilson went from obscurity to America’s obsession on the back of “Redneck Woman,” a song that became her moniker.

“‘Redneck Woman’ did what no one ever thought it would do,” Wilson said. “The way my career broke out, it was just unheard of. I was not prepared for it. I had only ever had maybe $1,000 at the most in my bank account, ever. If I wanted to, I could be chasing that the rest of my life, but there’s only one song like that. I felt like we were pressured to make another record just like that and we came as close as we could with ‘All Jacked Up.’”

Still, Wilson’s popularity waned, giving way to country-pop princesses Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Her record label merged with a larger label, and they basically shelved the rough-around-the-edges Wilson.

“No one ever says that to you out loud, but you pretty much see you’re getting pushed aside, but you’re still under contract. People think a seven-record contract means seven years, but it doesn’t. It means seven records and if you’re not making records, it means forever and ever and ever. You’re sitting there, but you’re not free to go make music anywhere else.”

At first Wilson felt powerless. She quit fighting. The people she had worked with at the pinnacle of her career were gone and new executives who didn’t know her had taken over. Wilson wasn’t an artist any longer, she was a commodity. Finally, she rebelled.

“There are two kinds of people: Some don’t want to know what’s going on, they just like it the way it is, and then people like me, who say ‘Wait a minute here, what exactly is happening?’ I got very uncomfortable that people I’d never met were speaking for me, making deals for me, even closing deals for me.

“It became unnerving, and detrimental to my business. Getting away from the major label and starting Redneck Records, doing things at my pace and having complete awareness of everything that’s happening from every aspect was exactly what I needed to do. I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been.”

“Redneck Woman” was released in March 2004, when Wilson was just 30 years old. She turns 40 in June. Her daughter Grace will be a teenager this year.

“I think I crammed a lifetime of stuff into those 10 years,” she laughs. “I look in the mirror some days and I feel better about what I see than I did 10 years ago. It’s funny how I used to be so afraid of the wrinkles and the lines and of aging. Now I look at it as something deeper: wisdom. And maturity. I think we get better as we get older.”

Wilson’s financial struggles — you can’t sell any records when you’re not making any — certainly accounted for some of those wrinkles. She was forced to downsize, selling the farm she owned outside of Nashville shortly after the death of her beloved Uncle Vernon. The 340-acre property in Lebanon, Tenn., had several houses and employed more than a few family members.

“There are times when I feel like (I’ve let them down), but we’re a close family and I’ve had them say to me that we understand how hard it’s been and don’t think we don’t appreciate what you’ve done for us.

“Sometimes when I’m singing on these records, I feel like I’m not singing for me, I’m singing for my whole family. Sometimes I feel like the voice for so many more people than just me.”

She’s also an eternal optimist.

“I always feel that the best is ahead. I’m not positive what my purpose is yet. Somehow I feel like it’s something beyond music and that music is just a stepping stone. I have this deep feeling it has something to do with charitable work and children and women.”

Wilson has already raised more than $1.5 million through her performances for children’s charities, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, according to LooktotheStars.org. She’s also an advocate for adult literacy, having earned her GED in 2007 at age 34.

“I’ve done a lot of work with Susan G. Komen, and a charity here in Nashville called Our Kids. I try to keep my eye on what’s important. I believe charity starts at home and you need to take care of your community. If you’re going to step up and speak out, do it for something that makes a difference to you and the people around you.”

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