Never underestimate the power of good timing. When Gretchen Wilson finally landed a recording contract after years of laboring in obscurity, country radio was more hostile to female artists than at any point in its modern history.
When her debut single “Redneck Woman” was released in 2004, Martina McBride was the only female artist who was consistently hitting the top ten with her singles. Two years earlier, when country sales had skyrocketed thanks to massive sales of new albums by superstars Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill, all of the credit for the boom was given to post-9/11 anthems by Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Darryl Worley. Country radio shunned Hill, Lee Ann Womack and SHeDaisy for their crossover sounds, and when Natalie Maines uttered her innocuous comment about President Bush in March 2003, the Dixie Chicks were instantly removed from country radio playlists. They were the only female act that was regularly having singles nearing the top of the charts. When “Redneck Woman” finally hit the airwaves in the spring of 2004, women hadn’t been so scarce on the country radio since the early sixties.
As soon as Wilson’s debut single was given a few spins, the phones lit up. “Redneck Woman” took off like a rocket, soaring to #1 in only a few weeks. Specific enough to become an anthem for the rural southern women it describes, but universal enough to have appeal to all listeners who color outside the lines, the song was so popular that Wilson’s debut album stunned observers by selling more than 200, 000 copies in its first week.
Wilson became a media star right off of the bat, and her success raised the profile of John Rich, the former member of Lonestar who was launching his own act, duo Big & Rich. As both acts found success in 2004, the MuzikMafia – a confederation of country artists that included Wilson, Rich, Cowboy Troy and current hitmaker James Otto – gained widespread attention. Wilson quickly scaled the charts with three more hits from the project: “Here For the Party”, which reinforced her wild child image; “When I Think About Cheatin'”, a classic country ballad that elicited praise from Loretta Lynn; and “Homewrecker”, which channeled Lynn herself. By the fall of 2005, Wilson had won a Grammy, and both new artist and female vocalist awards from the CMA and the ACM.
Needless to say, expectations were high for her sophomore project All Jacked Up, and initially, those expectations were met. The album sold quickly out of the gate, but the strong support she had seen from radio began to quickly fade. The title track stopped at #8, and was criticized for taking the “Redneck Woman” image into parody territory, finding Wilson losing her front tooth in a bar fight and crashing her car while driving drunk.
However, the second single “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today” should have been a smash, by all laws of logic and reason. Wilson had just won the CMA Female Vocalist award, after performing the song to a hearty ovation on the show. She had a top-selling album, and the gorgeous ballad followed a formula that had always worked in the nineties: “Popular female singer + Awesome Matraca Berg song = Big Hit.” Instead, the song became her first to miss the top ten, peaking at #22.
By that time, country radio had moved on to Carrie Underwood, the American Idol winner who was topping the charts for the longest stretch since Faith Hill in 1999. Two more Wilson singles, including a duet with Merle Haggard, peaked in the twenties. Wilson took her time preparing her third album, One of the Boys, and although it sold well enough to top the Country Albums chart and reach the top five of the overall album chart, radio was even less kind, as three singles missed the top thirty completely. The 2007 album faded from the charts after just 24 weeks, selling a little more than 200,000 copies during its entire chart run, roughly equal to what her first two albums had sold in just their opening weeks.
So to quote a song from Wilson’s quintuple platinum debut album, what happened? It’s easy to just say that Wilson got typecast and the novelty wore off, but radio didn’t play the songs that went against type any more than they played the ones that reinforced her image. What happened to Wilson is the same thing that happened to the female artists she replaced on the radio dial: radio lost interest, and moved on to the next big thing. Currently, the only female artists getting regular airplay are Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, three acts that are all on either their debut or sophomore albums.
Fans of those acts should take note: country radio has become very fickle with female artists, with not a one getting the core artist treatment that countless male acts get, from George Strait to Keith Urban, Toby Keith to Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw to Rascal Flatts. Four years from now, we may be asking the same question of Underwood and Swift that we ask now of Wilson, and the answer will likely be the same.
- “Redneck Woman”, 2004
- “When I Think About Cheatin'”, 2004
- “Homewrecker”, 2005
- “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today”, 2005
- Here For the Party (2004)
- All Jacked Up (2005)
- One of the Boys (2007)
- CMA Horizon Award, 2004
- Grammy, Best Female Country Vocal Performance – “Redneck Woman”, 2005
- ACM Top New Artist, 2005
- ACM Top Female Vocalist, 2005
- CMA Female Vocalist, 2005
Recently The Poetry Society of Oklahoma awarded me First Place for my poem ODE TO GRETCHEN WILSON. I would like to somehow get this poem to her. Perhaps she could make a song out of it. If you can help, please do.
Ode to Gretchen Wilson
My old gray truck won’t go no mo.
The window’s broke and I can’t shut the do.
The horn won’t toot, cause the battery’s dead.
The tires are all flat and ain’t go no tread.
But I need another junker
like a hole in the head.
I need another junker
like a hole in the head.
I saw the big sign — it was red, white, and blue.
I had to have wheels — what else could I do?
The salesman had a dimple and he grinned when he said,
You better buy this Plymouth Dear, you’ll look great in red.
And I knew it wasn’t right for me and I fought it,
But he was a smooth-talking son of a gun and I bought it.
Oh, he was a smooth-talking son of a gun and I bought it.
It was Saturday night and getting sort of late
The dimple-man called and asked for a date.
The place where we went wasn’t dying, it was dead.
And all he really wanted was to get into my bed.
But I need another husband
like a hole in the head.
Oh, I need another husband
like a hole in the head.
Now this story’s not so long — it’s a fact I do regret.
The dimple-man is gone and I lost another bet.
He took the Plymouth with him, and the note he left just said
When you buy another car, my dear, shut your eyes and use your head.
At the very beginning,
I knew he wasn’t right for me and I fought it,
But was a smooth-talking son of a gun and I bought it.
Oh, he was a smooth-talking son of a gun and I bought it.
© Kenneth Shelby Armstrong
her career is really interesting. when redneck woman was out, who would have thought that she would be where she is now.
I never understood the popularity of Gretchen Wilson, but then I was never in her demographic. However, I am really sad that country radio doesn’t support the women as they should. It’s disgraceful at the same time it’s bizarre. Country’s biggest artists in the past decade have been women – Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood. These women didn’t sell 1 or 2 million of their albums, they sold multi-millions. Even the Chicks who play banjo and fiddle sold over 10 million of their first two albums and over 6 million of a bluegrass album! Does that not tell radio something?!
As a woman, I relate to very few of the male country artists out there. What am I supposed to do with “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” or “International Harvester”?? Given that country radio’s demographic is primarily women, I don’t understand their reluctance to play women. We deserve better than this!
The only great thing to come out of country radio’s stupidity – and the fact I’m not a fan of Sugarland or Carrie Underwood – is that I’ve been forced to look outside the country mainstream for new acts/music. Thankfully I’ve found Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, Miranda Lambert, Elizabeth Cook, Loretta Lynn, etc. Everything they come out with is better than anything on radio.
Overall, although I’m not a fan of Gretchen’s, I will continue to hope that radio does play her in the future, if only to pave the way for future female artists.
I don’t know what I am suppose to do with “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” or “International Harvester” either.
Kevin, I think you’re hanging too much on radio. Gretchen’s talent is greater than her recent struggles but was never commensurate with her meteoric rise. Let’s start where you argue that radio had already moved on: her performance on “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today” sounded forced and revealed some significant artistic shortcomings and was not deserving of that lyric. “All Jacked Up” was forgettable and formulaic, “Politically Uncorrect” was just plain bad and “California Girls” was an odd choice for a single release. Furthermore, both All Jacked Up and One of the Boys made major artistic swings and sounded like they were overcompensating for a perceived need for up-tempo songs (All Jacked Up) or ballads (One of the Boys). Radio probably has something to do with the rapidity of Wilson’s decline, but she’s nowhere near on the top of her game anymore and probably doesn’t deserve to be a Carrie or Martina level radio star.
I think the fact that radio jumped ship on Wilson fits into a larger pattern that they’ve done with other successful female artists who’ve sold big numbers. Before it happened to Wilson, it happened to Lee Ann Womack, Faith Hill, SHeDaisy, Deana Carter and the Chicks. Even Shania Twain didn’t get airplay that matched what her albums were selling, at least with the “Come on Over” and “Up!” projects. I think it’s an interesting pattern. You can look at each artist individually and say why it happened to that particular artist, as you do very well with Wilson, but this fate doesn’t seem to fall on the male artists of the same stature. I’m not a big fan of Wilson’s music, but it’s at least on par with, if not better than, what Rascal Flatts has been sending to radio. That’s the larger point I was making with the post.
Man, I kind of miss Gretchen Wilson. Sure, her post-Here For the Party (the album) went over the to with the redneck-bar-girl shtick and some sub-par material, but Here For the Party was a such a great album. It was one of the first country albums I (being fairly young) enjoyed all the way through, each and every track. If nothing else, it shows that she has the potential to be great with the right material. And more than that, her story with radio (and the similar stories of so many other women, as you pointed out, Kevin) bums me out, and I’d love to see somebody like her make a strong comeback. Very insightful post, props!
Um, I’m just going to go ahead and re-write the second sentence of my comment since I royally screwed it up the first time:
Sure, post-Here For the Party (the album) she went over-the-top with the redneck-bar-girl shtick and recorded some sub-par material, but Here For the Party was such a great album.
There. I feel so much better.
Part of the problem with radio is that it is always looking for the “next big thing”. It does seem that the distaff artists are more severely affected by this than their male counterparts but I could name you dozens of male artists who had a brief run and then became yesterday’s news (Wade Hayes, Rhett Akins, Steve Bonamy, etc).
Pity not Ms Wilson, she will have an extended run as a concert draw.
I would argue that none of those men (James Bonamy, Wade Hays & Rhett Akins, etc.) fell quite so hard though, because they were never as successful as Wilson in the first place in order to be rejected so forcefully.
I wouldn’t have put Wilson on the list. I don’t think she had any kind of lasting impact on the genre at all.
I think Gretchen Wilson deserves her place on this list. I also think she will have a lasting impact. I predict we will hear a lot more from her in the future too. Artists need time to develop and grow. I personally am looking forward to what she does next.
Gretchen Wilson came along and filled a void for many fans who were looking for a singer that they could relate to that was more like them. Gretchen became a symbol of of a girl who could become a great success and not forget who she was.
I am glad you recognized her!
As sometimes happens with artists, her debut single was so perfect that it sort of ruined her. There was no where else to go.
That said, when I saw her in concert, I was really disappointed. She screamed most of her songs and played odd covers of rock songs.
Just my 2 cents……
I think they best way to explain why Gretchen has struggled with radio is that I think she just made a lot of people very uncomfortable. Example, when Carrie sings “Before He Cheats” its all done with a bit of a wink because we all know that she would never do that–she’s playing a role and we all get that. When Gretchen sings “Homewrecker” we absolutely believe she would do what she sings about and I think thats the twist. She sings songs about drinking, cheating, bar fights, etc.. and she is singing about what she knows. She isn’t playing a role or just doing it for a laugh. She means every word she sings.
It used to always make me laugh when people would write in to Country Weekly and they would almost always say “Why doesn’t she ever wear a dress???”. I don’t think she ever fit the role that most people have in their head of what a woman in country music should look like or act–she wasn’t trying to be a glamazon or look the part of a high fashion model. That was really the whole point of “Redneck Woman”
No matter how far we might have come in country music there are still those double standards. We make heroes of guys like Waylon, Willie, Kris, and so forth but there were very few women who were part of that “Outlaw” movement in country music. It just wasn’t accepted and it still isn’t I’m afraid. Women can sing a drinking song but she better not actually be out drinking and talking about one night stands.
I think for anyone to say that she hasn’t done anything for this genre is completely wrong. When just about every woman was trying to be the next “pop diva” and trying to out glam each other, Gretchen came in and said be proud of who you are and don’t try to be like everyone else. She broke down that door for women who wanted to sing songs that were actually country and not try to be the next big crossover hit. She wasn’t pop and damn sure wasn’t going to be
Also sadly I think some of this also has to do with her age. She got started very late and I swear that radio has turned into “Logan’s Run” for women. If you are over 30 there is some big red light that starts flashing that says your time is almost up. Just think about all the women who just a few years ago were able to have some minor success on radio, maybe not a #1 song but at least Top 10 or Top 20. and now can barely get played.
If anything maybe her lack of radio support will be for the good because she can just do the songs that she wants to and doesn’t have to worry about trying to fit in where she isn’t wanted. Her next album is scheduled for Sept. and I can’t wait.
She was basically just a fad because all she had was country music and they controlled her just like country radio controls Carrie underwood, they write her songs and produce her albums.
To be really big and in control you need to do what Shania did which is go outside nashville and write your own songs and have your own producer and do your own thing.
Shania is the biggest and greatest country female of alltime because she took charge and changed the face of country music and she doesn’t need country airplay to sell tens of millions worldwide.
Shania Twain is a one in a millions artist that comes by and creates her own sound and music and takes it worldwide far beyond country music. Nashville has no control over her and she has the money,power and status to make the kind of music she wants on her own time.
I have to agree with things that JT says, I know the place where Gretchen grew up, and it is basically a stop on the interstate, not much there and she is basically being who she is and staying true to herself. And I am from a small town that if you blink twice you will miss it and there are things about her music that I love because it reminds me of home. And she has a had some wonderful slow songs, but country music today is so wrapped up in female artists like Carrie Underwood, that they are looking past the artists like Gretchen.
I am not sure that I would have put in in this spot, but then again, this is not my list….
Never been a fan of Gretchen’s and never will! She is everything she totally sings in her songs and it’s a big turn off! I sure wouldn’t want my daughter to be like her. She drinks, chews/dips, leaves her child a lot or so she says on the program I saw her in on CMT. I think of a woman as having class and I do not think Gretchen has any…..sorry, if I’ve offended anyone, but this is what I think of her. I would not want a Mother like her or a sister or a friend….sorry! Call me old fashion or whatever and that’s ok!
Age probably is a factor – it is very difficult to keep a radio-hit career going for male artists, too, Alan Jackson and George Strait notwithstanding. Look at the top 10 from ten years ago and see how many are still having hits on a regular basis.
Even when icons such as Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers do have a hit, it is a blip rather than a progression
I guess that 2 is bigger than 0 though. I’d add Brooks & Dunn to the list as well off the top of my head.
The fact a true country artist like Gretchen would be replaced by pop divas like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift is not surprising these days considering the direction mainstream country radio has been heading. Gretchen has held to her guns and released singles with a traditional country sound to radio programmers who don’t want a traditional country sound from female artists (or even new male artists for that matter). Top 40 country radio is now looking for the next Carrie or Taylor and Gretchen Wilson types need not apply, although I’ve been surprised at how well Ashton Shepherd has done on radio.
I’ve tuned out of Top 40 country radio due to the popularity of artists like Carrie and Taylor. The replacement of “bona fide” real country artists with pop artists has already gone way too far and I don’t see it ever turnung around…
Rick, you are wrong. Country industry has been trying to find the next Shania for over 15 years but nobody comes close. Even American Idol singer Carrie Underwood has tried to copy Shania and even mentioned her in one her cross over song.
The problem is that Shania is bigger than country music and is global and has the money and power to do what she wants.
All these acts like Underwood and Swift after under control by Nashville.
There are no megastars in country music anymore like a Shania or Dolly who tracend genres and don’t need country radio.
Thats why there are so many who can’t wait for Shania to return with new music and a new world tour, she is an original icon.
These days all you see are manufactured Nashville puppets who will be thrown away when the next new thing comes along.
Something about Gretchen Wilson makes me want to comment a lot…it’s probably the fact that she got huge not too long after I had just started getting really into country music. I agree with Matt C. that Wilson’s slip in singles quality was probably a huge part of her decline. I think “All Jacked Up” was a sub-par single that the country audience and radio were willing to forgive her for – hence it still going top 10 – but “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today”, though lovely, was WAY too low-key (and yes, perhaps too traditional) to get people excited about her again. And then the singles just became bad. I liked the stuff off the One Of the Boys album a lot better, but again, none of those singles was big or triumphant enough to rekindle the excitement. Still, the fact that that album managed to go Gold with so little radio support tells me she may still have enough of a real fanbase to pull off comeback if she can come up with just one completely kick-ass (in quality, not in overdone attitude) single. And here’s hoping Ashton Shepherd learns from Wilson’s career trajectory.
As for all of the talk of “pop divas”/”Nashville puppets”…I honestly don’t mind either Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift; one is a promising new vocal talent, the other a promising revival of the popular songwriter in country music. The fact that their music has pop appeal doesn’t make it inherently bad or even inherently less country; I just wish that radio believed enough in women in general enough to allow these “glamorous young blonde” types to co-inhabit the airwaves with less conventional artists like Wilson (at her best) or Shepherd or any number of ladies whose singles aren’t fairing half as well.
Here for the Party was one of my first country albums. Man, it was such a great record, even if a bit immature at times. Still, she grew up extremely poor and was supported by a single mother. Now, she’s rich and making a name for herself