Close observers of country music were of two minds when “Redneck Woman,” Gretchen Wilson’s first single, went No. 1 on May 29, 2004, where it would remain for five weeks. It was great news that the song looked like it would sell a bazillion records. But it was somewhat troublesome that it once again saddled country music with the hick stereotypes the industry had worked so long and diligently to downplay.
Not everyone embraced four-wheeling, mud-racing and beer-chugging as social norms. It was one thing for guys like Conway Twitty and the Bellamy Brothers to wax ecstatic about the charms and presumed accessibility of redneck girls, but quite another for women to celebrate a culture that seemed severely limiting for them. One veteran critic harrumphed, “The problem with young redneck women [as Wilson presented them] is they soon become old redneck women.”
But Wilson had the last laugh. The song that the then-30-year-old bartender and single mother co-wrote with John Rich was a veritable rocket to bright lights and big money. It won Wilson a Grammy for best female country vocal and the Horizon and best female vocalist awards from the Country Music Assn.
Better still, it propelled the album it came from — Here For the Party — to platinum certification (for sales of a million copies) within just over a month after its May 11, 2004 release. By Nov. 4 of that year, sales amounted to three million. And by late 2006, total sales had climbed to five million.
So was it redneck culture or Wilson’s in-you-face authenticity that caused such a big stir? Troy Tomlinson, her publisher at the time, thought it was the latter. In an interview with CMT.com, he said, “There does seem to be at least a slight increase in the demand for songs that are just ‘real.”
Tomlinson said he wasn’t referring only to Wilson’s kind of rough-edged music as “real.” “That’s not what I mean,” he continued. “To me, it’s this: ‘Like it or not, this is who I am’ — in other words simply being true to oneself. Like Gretchen, for example. She’s just being true to who she is. She’s not trying to play a redneck woman — she just simply is one. She didn’t have to contrive the song.”
Wilson’s realness would earn her three more Top 5 singles and a Top 10, and her second album — All Jacked Up — would score platinum. But she has yet to repeat the success of her debut efforts.
Since 2010, she has released music on her own Redneck Records label — seven albums to date, including a Christmas collection. She continues to tour heavily.
Wilson was 34 when she completed her high school requirements and has since become an impassioned advocate of adult education. Her 2006 autobiography, Redneck Woman: Stories from My Life, was a bestseller.