Richer Life For 'Redneck Woman'

Singer Gretchen Wilson On Life On 'Every Side Of The Tracks'

Not since a coal miner's daughter named Loretta Lynn came down from the mountains of Kentucky has a woman in country music come so far, so fast, and from so little.

In just six months, Gretchen Wilson, a 31-year-old singer from the farm country of southern Illinois, has helped turn the country music world upside down. Her debut album went straight to No. 1, and is the biggest seller of the year for a woman. And that says a lot in an industry where women who sing country music are often groomed to look like supermodels and sound like pop stars.

Wilson hit pay dirt because she's none of that. She'll be the first to tell you she's nothing more than a "redneck" who grew up in a trailer park. And, she tells Correspondent Ed Bradley, she's proud of it.

"Being a redneck is just a way of life. It's where I came from," says Wilson.

"I don't think you have to live in a trailer park to be a redneck. I don't think you have to drive a truck to be a redneck. To me, redneck is a lot deeper than that. It's knowing how to live with what you have, not worrying about having what you don't have."

"Redneck Woman" was her first hit song, and it struck a chord across America, with a message of pride that apparently a lot of people want to hear. With nearly three million CDs sold, Wilson is the country music success story of the year.

"But a lot of people would associate rednecks with racism," Bradley says to Wilson.

"I've never associated being a redneck with racism. I would imagine that there's probably some of the older generation," says Wilson. "That might be, and I wouldn't say racist, but I would say just not knowledgeable. I think my grandpa was a little bit on that side, you know? I love him just the same, but I had to tell people he's just, and I hate to say this about him, but he's just ignorant."

She knows all about what being a redneck means, because she celebrates it in all her songs. She's lived the life she sings about. She's a woman who chews tobacco, and she loves whiskey and longnecks.

Singing about her lifestyle has made her rich almost overnight – but it was a lifetime in the making. She took 60 Minutes in her new tour bus, to where it all started, an hour east of St. Louis, among the small towns and corn fields of southern Illinois.

"I lived on every side of these tracks," says Wilson, laughing.

Her mother was just 16 when she was born and she would be divorced twice by the time she was 20. Her mother worked as a bartender to raise Wilson and her half brother, and they moved around a lot.

"We couldn't pay the bills. You know, we couldn't make the rent. So we'd move," says Wilson. "Most of the time, [we moved to] trailers. They're making trailers a lot better than they used to."

She says she went to more than 20 different schools by the time she finally dropped out in the eighth grade. And she went straight from the classroom to the bar room, playing guitar and singing with local bands. She spent much of her time helping her mom serve drinks in taverns like Big O's bar, which was like a second home to Wilson.

Big O's was owned by Mark Obermark, who now owns another bar called "Hoosier Daddy." Over the years, Obermark has become something of a father figure to Wilson. He and his bar helped support Wilson's family during the tough times, and it wasn't an easy bar to manage.

"Look at the bullet holes on the wall," Wilson points out to Bradley.

Wilson's Uncle Vern worked there, too. He, along with Wilson, were bouncers. He took care of the men, and she took care of the women. And they went through some rough times.

But there was also trouble at home. Wilson's mother had developed an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.

"We all could see the alcohol. I don't think any of us ever saw her using drugs," recalls Wilson. "I think everybody in my family is an alcoholic except for my little brother. I think we were born alcoholics. My grandpa was an alcoholic, and he was a terrible alcoholic. He was the kind that got up at five o'clock every morning and opened a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and drank all day. I think it's in our family to be addictive personalities."

And for Wilson?

"I think I definitely went through stages in my life where I drank way too much," she says. "I've never had any kind of drug problem, and I really attribute a lot of that to being a witness to some of my mom's problems. I could see how hard everything was for her. I was her mom sometimes, and I was taking care of her."

How did she care for her mother? "There were times that, I remember, having to go get her at the tavern. She wasn't capable of driving herself home," says Wilson.

"For a kid who's in school and little brother at home, trying to get to bed for school the next morning, that made me mad. I mean, it pissed me off. I didn't want to get out of bed at midnight or 1 a.m. and go up there and get my mom. I was mad at her."

Wilson realized she didn't want to be caught in that life. She had a dream to be a country music singer, and with the life she'd led, she seemed like a natural. When she was 23, she moved to Nashville to try her luck.

"I just thought it was gonna be go in, play some music and get a record deal," says Wilson.

But it didn't turn out that way. She just ended up doing what she knew best: bartending. But after years of pouring drinks and listening to drunks, she finally got a break. The blues bar where she worked let her sing with the house band.

One night, John Rich and Kenny Alphin, now known as the country music duo "Big and Rich," were there to hear her.

"Her voice was just unbelievable," says Rich. "Just tear your face off."

"A God-given voice and talent," adds Alphin.

When the two approached Wilson, she thought they were hitting on her, and they say she gave them a look. "Gretchen has a look. She looks like she's gonna whip your ass," says Rich, laughing. "I mean, that's what she looks like. The girl has grown up so tough."

Does she still have that look? "I don't know. I probably do," says Wilson. "I don't think I've ever seen it."

Soon, Wilson, Rich and Alphin became friends, and performed Tuesday nights in Nashville with a group of struggling musicians who called themselves the Music Mafia.

At first, Nashville's music industry didn't notice her because she didn't have the glamorous look that was in vogue at the time. She says she was told that her hair was dated, "I was a bit too old; I was a few pounds too heavy."

So what's changed? "Nothing's changed. I'm exactly the same person," says Wilson. "Do I think I look good enough to sing? Yes!"

However, Wilson wasn't sure she could write songs. In fact, she told Rich she didn't think she had a song in her. "I said, 'That's impossible,'" says Rich. "'The life you led, the voice you have, no way you don't have songs inside of you somewhere.'"

So Wilson and Rich wrote a batch of songs, and Wilson got a record deal. That night, they went out to celebrate, and it's a story she and Rich tell in their latest music video. They were outside the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, and someone had forgotten to lock the door.

They decided to go in. "It was empty. There wasn't a single thing in there, except for that guitar sitting right outside [on the stage]," says Wilson. "He hit that chord and let it ring, and it just came out of my mouth, 'If you've got leavin' on your mind.'"

A security guard caught them, but he was so impressed by Wilson's rendition of this Patsy Cline classic that she let her finish the tune before throwing them out.

"It was like an omen," says Rich. "It really was. It was kind of like God just going, 'Boom. You're going to be Gretchen Wilson, the country music superstar.'"

Since then, she debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Album charts, a position she held for a record nine weeks. She's also loved by everyone back home in southern Illinois.

Today, she lives in a brand new house with her mother, who's now clean and sober. It seems like Wilson's hard life is starting to pay off.

"I'm just a simple, ordinary woman," says Wilson. "And I think what I'm trying to say is that it's really cool to be that. I think that's a lot of the reason why people have really connected with me I am just like them. The only difference between me and a lot of the women that come to my shows is I can sing. That's the only difference."
  • Rebecca Leung

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