Gretchen Wilson's book expands on `Redneck'

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(Chicago Tribune, Published November 12, 2006


Three minutes and 52 seconds wasn't long enough.

In 2003, Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" gave country music lovers a glimpse into her hardscrabble, downstate Illinois world. But when you've lived a life of extreme poverty and addiction and suffered the whims of a con man stepfather, one song isn't enough to do it justice. So Gretchen Wilson wrote a book.

In a call from her home outside Nashville, Wilson said, "I thought I'd poured my life out in my songs, but I guess I had a few things left to say."

The book, "Redneck Woman: Stories from My Life" (Warner Books, $23.99) chronicles the chaos behind Wilson's rags-to-riches life.

Most people already know how the book will end: well. Wilson's debut single was one of the most requested songs in history. And it took her from a virtual nobody to an A-lister in record time.

But the road to stardom was full of too many stories, too many ugly details and too many hardships for Wilson, 33, to fit into even a lifetime of songs. So aided by best-selling author Allen Rucker, she turned from songwriter into storyteller.

Like `Coal Miner's Daughter'

"This is like `Coal Miner's Daughter,' even a little worse," said Rucker. "It's the kind of life where if it didn't happen, you wouldn't believe it."

The difference here, though, is that "Coal Miner's Daughter" was one of the first country autobiographies to share the struggles of a poverty-stricken family. And Loretta Lynn didn't write it until she'd had about 16 years of stardom under her belt. Lynn was ahead of the trend, so the book became a best seller and the movie a hit.

Now, autobiographies are everywhere, and artists don't write them if they had a childhood full of stability in the suburbs with two parents, a dog, ballet lessons and Sunday mass. The glut of woe-was-me books is wearing on a skeptical reading audience.

But Wilson isn't doing this for pity. She just wants people to know that if there was hope for her, there's hope for anyone.

At age 23, Wilson moved to Nashville to try making it in country music. John Rich, half of the country duo Big & Rich, heard Wilson and took her under his wing. After four years, she got a showcase with a Sony Records executive, and the rest is history.

Rich said her stories will give credence to her music. "Gretchen's lyrics are her life story, but her fans don't know the half of it."

Even seasoned literary agents can see the good in a book like this. "If her story gives people hope, and the notion that they can get out of that life, then it should be told," said Sheldon Shultz, president of Trident Media Group Artist Agency. "But the artist has to have a story that's more than just a narcissistic adventure."

Some industry insiders think Wilson's candor is just what readers need. Beverly Keel, a recording-industry professor in Tennessee, said, "This is a part of her a lot of people would cover up. The way she was raised is a way of life most of America ignores." Keel added that some country artists aren't as honest, and are guilty of revisionist history. "Flaws and struggles are what make country stars more appealing than someone who skates through life, but those stories have to be honest."

`Just about you'

Wilson said all she could do was compare book writing to songwriting. "In a song, you generalize so that listeners can put themselves into the story. But a book is just about you, so it's more detailed," Wilson said. "I hope people will read parts and think, `I know exactly how she felt. I can attach myself to that.'"

Though when you're a touring artist, you can't just sit by the fireplace contemplating your life story. So Rucker boarded Wilson's tour bus and stuck with her for a few stops. "I don't know how we did this," said Wilson. "Allen and I just squeezed it into every occasion we could." Rucker got into her head, and kept her stories in her voice. "I ain't always right about proper English, and he kept it that way," she said.

Rucker found he respected Wilson because of the way she was so grounded in the roots of the music. The Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn kind of music. "For a lot of artists, country's just their avenue to be pop stars," he said. "But Gretchen is hungry enough to stay grounded in this music. She is the reincarnation of Patsy Cline."

And when you're grounded in that life, in crummy apartments, trailers and campers, Patsy Cline can lull you out. Wilson's mom tells the story of taking her to Kmart when she was only 5, and making her belt out Cline tunes under the Blue Light Special. "That's the hillbilly equivalent of voice lessons," said Rucker.

Worst of all, Wilson had no roots. Her stepfather moved the family between Miami and Illinois several times. Ever the con man, he would move when the rent was due. Wilson approximates she went to 20 schools between ages 6 and 15, when she dropped out for good. (A search found at least 16 addresses listed for Wilson's ex-stepfather.)

But Rich feels that Wilson took those hardships and made them into something. "Her image is where she came from," said Rich. "Those rough edges make her Gretchen Wilson."

Some might think that having it rough comes with the territory, so why chronicle the obvious? Merle Haggard lived in an old boxcar during the Depression. Shania Twain's family couldn't pay the electric bill. Tim McGraw had an cruel stepfather. But even McGraw's aunt, Gina Raney, can see the value in Wilson's book. "Everyone has a story," said Raney. "And hers has the potential to touch someone's life in a positive way."

Wilson's memoir has all the makings of a good read: disaster, dilemma and drama. But unlike the confessionals of female country singers who wrote before her, including Naomi Judd, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton, Wilson's finished hers before she made it to icon status.

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