Gretchen Wilson didn't single-handedly turn country music back toward its plainspoken, real-life past. But the resounding success of her debut single, "Redneck Woman," and the album that spawned it, Here for the Party, seems to have convinced record labels this is the direction country should take. At least for now.
Photo Credit: Michael Halsband
Music publishers tell CMT.com that producers and the A&R [artist and repertoire] departments of country labels currently are shying away from the glossy pop sounds of a few years ago.
"There does seem to be at least a slight increase in the demand for songs that are just 'real,'" says Troy Tomlinson, vice president of creative for Sony/ATV Music, Wilson's publishing company. "Post 9/11, we began to see more of a demand for that realness. Then Gretchen [showed] that there was obviously an audience out there that was waiting for something -- and she filled that something."
In describing the music as "real," Tomlinson stresses that he isn't referring only to rough-edged material. "A lot of people would probably say that," he observes, "but that's not what I mean by it. To me, it's this: 'Like it or not like it, this is who I am.' In other words, simply being true to one's self. 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."
But Tomlinson thinks some in the music business are misreading the Wilson phenomenon. "I've heard some people say, 'Well, everybody is going to want Gretchen in-your-face songs now,'" he says. "I don't personally think that's what the change is. I really think the change is more about ... what is important in life and less of the dreamy type [songs]."
Lisa Ramsey, vice president and general manager of Mosaic Music, agrees with Tomlinson's assessment and explains, "Prior to Gretchen, there had been a little backlash to a lot of the pop [sounds in country]. There was a time there when all of the [women artists] were doing that. After Faith [Hill] had a big hit with 'Breathe,' everybody kind of wanted to do that pop/country kind of stuff. ... Then, everybody kind of got tired of it. I felt it starting to happen in the material we were being asked for prior to Gretchen. And then when Gretchen blew up, I think it definitely solidified that [trend]. But it's not just Gretchen. It's like Big & Rich, too."
Ramsey believes labels are becoming more adventurous in who they sign. "I've got a writer-artist named Bobby Pinson that I've been working with for four years," she says. "He's always been very edgy -- a little bit of Steve Earle influence, a little bit of Johnny Cash, a little bit of Tom Petty -- just a raw, edgy, in-your-face kind of guy. We've done showcases and tried to get him a record deal and had people come out to see him -- and now, all of a sudden, everybody's interested in him. He hasn't changed one thing that he was doing. ... I think that when one thing like [Gretchen Wilson] blows up and it starts working, then some of the fear goes away."
Glenn Middleworth, vice president of Famous Music, notes that record labels are not only demanding more from publishers but also from their own A&R departments. "I keep hearing the words 'impact song' more and more," he reports. "They want something that will impact record sales as opposed to just [creating] a radio hit. That means they're looking harder at our songs. It's harder for us to place ditties. They really seem to be looking harder at the lyric [for] something that really says something. The Gretchen Wilson song was so fun and great and unique. It wasn't rocket science, by any means, but it was something that touched a nerve."
Middleworth credits the labels' A&R departments with doing a better job at finding new talent. "For a while there," he says, "they were looking at publishers to act as an artist-development department. We used to try to feed them our artist-writers in the hopes that they would get signed. But I think more label heads are uncovering [artists] that didn't have publishers pointing the way for them -- [acts] like Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich and Julie Roberts." The fact that the industry was losing money on its current acts, he says, made record labels more willing to try something new. "They're looking harder and harder at the talent they sign, making sure they sign true stars as opposed to just pretty faces and then propping them up with marketing plans."
Like the other publishers, Middleworth believes Wilson spotlighted a trend rather than starting one. "It's something that's been building," he says. "We definitely noticed it when we were privy as publishers to hear what the producers were cutting early on, which is always about a year before you hear it on radio. There was a definite trend for more acoustic, more country, more rootsy music than the [adult contemporary] kind of material we were churning out a few years ago. And they were looking for a star, somebody like Gretchen. She was under our noses for a couple of years before we really realized it."
Ron Stuve, vice president of A&R for BMG Music Publishing, says "Redneck Woman" is stirring the same kind of interest in songs that Deana Carter did in 1996 with "Strawberry Wine" and the Dixie Chicks generated two years later with "Wide Open Spaces." Now, he says, the mantra is "uptempo, Gretchen Wilson-type songs."
With rednecks ascending, can truck drivers be far behind?