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12:00 AM Monday, 8/23/04 |   |

Someday, will Nashville refer to the "pre-Gretchen Wilson" era the same way rock 'n' rollers refer to the "pre-Nirvana" days?

Country music is seeing one of its greatest comebacks, and in a hurry. Wilson, along with Big & Rich, is in SoundScan's Top 10, with Wilson debuting at No. 2. That's the highest entry for a debut album by a country artist in SoundScan history.

It's no stretch to say that Wilson and Big & Rich are changing country music the way Nirvana changed rock 'n' roll. Up until this summer, country music was business as usual, with most songs geared toward urban cowboys, soccer moms and other middle-class folks.

But things rapidly began to change. First, there was Loretta Lynn's commercially successful Van Lear Rose, with a traditional country sound. Then, with only the first few lines of her hit single "Redneck Woman," Wilson caught the attention of a neglected demographic, women who buy their clothes off the rack and are proud of it.

"No, I can't swig that sweet champagne, I'd rather drink beer all night," Wilson sings while proclaiming she has posters of "Skynyrd, Kid and Strait" on the wall. Her first two singles are filled with references to keeping the Christmas lights up all year 'round and driving a pickup. She says she's not a 10, "but the boys say I clean up good."

Her songs are about being true to one's self. They've obviously struck a chord, and Nashville is paying close attention. For the country singer, "Redneck Woman" was just a song about the life she led in Pocahontas, Ill., a town of 700.

"It's kind of strange for me because, I've gotta tell ya, I sat down one day and I wrote a song about myself and women I grew up around and my mom," Wilson told Pollstar. "'Redneck Woman' to me was like a mini-autobiography in a tongue-in-cheek way.

"I've had women walk up to me and say, 'You wrote my anthem song. I know you had me in mind when you wrote this. It's written about me and everybody I know, and I've been a redneck woman my whole life.'

"And I have other women who walk up to me and say, 'I've never been a redneck a day in my life but I'm going out and buying a four-wheel-drive truck tomorrow because the song is just so fun and I wanna be a redneck.'"

Wilson moved to Nashville in 1996 where she tended bar and sang in a house band while her demos were turned down.

One night, John Rich and Big Kenny (aka Big & Rich) came in for cocktails. After they heard Wilson sing, Rich asked why she didn't have a record deal. Wilson thought the guy was hitting on her and didn't take his calls for months.

"Finally, somebody told me that John was actually a really talented guy and a great songwriter and all-around huge talent," she said. "I finally called him back and he introduced me to Muzik Mafia. That was my foot in the door for Music Row."

The Muzik Mafia was a group of musicians who got together on Tuesday nights to play and write music. With Rich's encouragement, Wilson wrote 80 songs while she was in the group.

"John Rich introduced me to his world. It was definitely that simple," she said.

Rich also introduced her to Dale Morris. At the time, Morris was managing longtime client Alabama along with Kenny Chesney and a new signing, Big & Rich. She said Morris was hesitant about taking a new client.

"I think a lot of it, too, is he prefers to work with men because I think he just gets along better with men and he understands them better. He thought I'd be a pain in the butt. But John told him, 'Seriously, you're going to have to meet this girl. She ain't even a chick. I don't know what to call her, but she's not like that at all.'"

Morris met with Wilson at his office; he recalled seeing her sing at a backyard party. They shook hands and made an agreement to work together just days before Wilson went to her Sony Music showcase, where she got signed.

"The great thing about Dale is he doesn't have 15 acts. He's got four and I think you get a lot more attention that way," Wilson said. "Barbara Hardin is my agent. She's been Alabama's booking agent for their entire career, the only act she's ever booked until me."

Wilson is preparing to head out with Brooks & Dunn, and she has no qualms about playing the larger venues. After all, she sang with Kid Rock four times, once in front of 80,000 people.

Meanwhile, she just came back from a European tour and "Redneck Woman" broke while she was overseas. Before she left, only one person recognized her when she shopped at Wal-Mart, but she was stopped five times upon her return.

"It was the first time I was uncomfortable in Wal-Mart."

Wilson said that up until this point, she never had the opportunity to express her thanks to Music Row.

"In the seven years I spent in Nashville, being turned down and being turned away, all of those experiences were a big part of making me who I was the day I walked into Sony for that showcase," Wilson said. "I kind of want to say, you know, thanks to everybody. Every single thing that happened I'm positive was the way it was supposed to happen."


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