Just over a year ago, Gretchen Wilson looked into the abyss. Her third album, One of the Boys, had tanked, its singles stalling at 32, 35, and 53 in Billboard. The label team that had guided her 2004 debut CD Here for the Party to quintuple platinum sales had largely been swept away in the wake of a corporate merger. She had asked in mid-2008 to be released from her Columbia Records contract, but Joe Galante, chairman of parent company Sony Music Nashville, had declined, saying he wanted to launch one more album. Singles from that project had also gone nowhere and its release was in limbo.
Even when things went right they went wrong. After the label placed her "Work Hard, Play Harder," in a promotional spot for Saving Grace, the Black Crowes sued, alleging she and co-writers John Rich and Vicky McGehee had ripped off the verse melody from their "Jealous Again." And Wilson's sprawling 300-acre Lebanon, Tenn., estate and the 30 people who made up her band, crew and staff, once symbols of just how far she'd come, were rapidly draining her resources.
"The lowest moment I've had," she says, "came in January of last year when I had to take 12 of my employees off of salary. I hadn't had a hit song in three years. The economy the way it is, the money going down, down, down, I just couldn't afford them anymore, and I realized, 'Wow. It's all fading away here. What are the chances I'm going to be sitting here next January letting the rest of them go and closing up?' I had to face that that was a possibility. And I had never been so broken up as I was when I had to have that meeting with them, because I just didn't want to fail them."
The pain and uncertainty would last for six more months.
"I saw her at a gig in Cincinnati on the Fourth of July," says Wilson's publicist, Craig Campbell, who was part of her original Columbia Records team, "and it was the most down I had ever heard her. She was frustrated. She thought she had turned in a good album and she was bummed about everything."
"I don't remember a regional rep from the label present at a concert for the last two years," she says. "I had regionals there with other new artists but they weren't there for me. That's a stab. That hurts."
About that time, though, Galante reconsidered, and Sony and her management team worked out a mutually agreeable split. A little more than five years after "Redneck Woman" catapulted her from obscurity to magazine covers and concert fees that sometimes reached $250,000 a night, Gretchen Wilson was back where she started — without a record company.
But when Campbell talked to her not long afterward, she was, he says, "on top of the world." The reason lies deep within the psyche of a woman who escaped small-town poverty with sheer determination, a great singing voice and the ability to capture a lifestyle in words and music — and who is now willing to risk everything in exchange for the chance to control her own destiny.
If Gretchen Wilson succeeds in the comeback she is mounting as president, owner, chief investor and sole artist of Redneck Records, she'll be able to trace her psychic turning point in part to an outhouse.
"I bought one of those books like Feng Shui For Dummies," she says, "and I went totally into it, changing stuff around in my house. The book convinced me that my view from the front porch needed to be clear and pretty, so I tore down a shithouse that was sitting in the front of my yard. It made my view better. And then I got that call that I was released from my record deal. You think I'm joking? Ha! I'm going to blame it on feng shui!"
She later addressed the moment from another angle.
"I was down," she says. "I mean, I was depressed, but I don't know how to quit. I'm out there, I've got mouths to feed and I'm just going to work as much as I can. Then my release from the label really just came out of nowhere. I kind of felt like I was about to hit the bottom and God reached down and put his hand on me and said, 'All right. I can see how much you can take now. Let's give a little back.' It was a joyous day. I know a lot of people would be like, 'You just got dropped!' But I already knew what I wanted and what I needed to do."
After some of the best and worst that life with a major entertainment corporation has to offer, Wilson wanted the chance to run her own business. She weighed the freedom and the risk — it is her money that is on the line — and decided to roll the dice.
Born to a troubled 16-year-old mother, Wilson began to fend for herself in rough bars at the age of 14. She dipped snuff, drank whiskey, and was raising her own daughter with her then-boyfriend after a failed early marriage when fame hit. She was 30 by then and had long since given up on trying to follow trails — musical or otherwise — blazed by the Shanias, Faiths and Martinas of the world. As the song says, "I ain't never been the Barbie doll type."
Wilson's hunger for renewed success is not just a desire to cling to the spotlight. Her career is much more than simply her own ticket out of the world of rough edges and limited opportunities that is Pocahontas, Ill.
"This thing has affected my whole family," she says. "We were all lost. There were some on drugs and some alcoholics and some living from friend's house to friend's house, and to be able to offer a second chance at life, at real living, to my family members, that's part of what keeps me fighting every day."
Cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws and others moved to Nashville to live near her and work in her organization, overseeing everything from the house and grounds to her fan club. The music is key to their continued prosperity, and the single Wilson chose to launch her career on Redneck Records is "Work Hard, Play Harder." To do so, she settled the lawsuit with the Black Crowes' Chris and Rich Robinson.
"I could have won and kept their names off this song," she says, "but it would have been too late to include it on the album had I fought it."
Released last October, "Work Hard, Play Harder" began a slow but steady ascent, reaching the Top 40 on both the Mediabase and Billboard charts just three weeks ago. Wilson knows that moving the song into the upper reaches of the charts — and giving her debut Redneck album, I Got Your Country Right Here, slated for release March 30, a real shot at success — involves wooing key reporting stations, those whose playlists affect the charts. She has thrown herself whole-heartedly into the task, but she remains painfully aware that given her sometimes thorny relations with radio, it will take everything she's got.
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