Nashville can be a mean town. Just ask Gretchen Wilson.
In 2004, after nearly a decade in Nashville, she conquered the country charts with the album Here for the Party and its hit single "Redneck Woman," one of the defining country songs of the decade, with its insistent boogie rhythm and irresistible "hell yeah" refrain. More hits followed—"All Jacked Up," "One of the Boys"—but Wilson had a hard time coming out from under the success of "Redneck Woman." Each of her two subsequent albums sold less than the one before, and she hasn't broken the country Top 40 in almost three years. She hasn't been in the Top 10 since 2005. This summer, she announced she was leaving Sony Nashville and starting her own label, Redneck Records, to release her new disc, I Got Your Country Right Here, in March.
"It's a lot more of a business than people think it is," Wilson says from the Redneck Records office in Lebanon, Tenn., just east of Nashville. "It's one thing to make it. It's another to stay there."
Wilson acknowledges that her career has taken a surprising direction in the last couple of years. There's a new pop-influenced youth movement in country music, led by Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, and Nashville is notorious for neglecting established artists, even platinum sellers like Wilson, in favor of the next big thing.
"I feel like country music is slipping away from its core," she says. "I feel like there are so many other choices on the radio dial; if you want to listen to pop, you can. But for me, country music means steel guitars and live musicians. That's something I value in country music."
There's also the ongoing implosion of the music industry. When Sony bought out its partner BMG in 2008, the label's various divisions, including its Nashville offices, got a major overhaul.
"The main thing right now is to get my career back on track," Wilson says. "With the Sony BMG thing, so many things changed. I found myself in a whole new building, with new presidents and vice presidents and people I didn't even know. Everything got so crazy. Now I'm going to work on my career and get it where it needs to be."
Nashville is also a complicated town, at least as it stands in for the country music industry. Lots of people, Wilson included, complain that what comes out of Nashville these days isn't "real" country; that overlooks almost 100 years of recorded country music, which has been resolutely commercial from its earliest days. It also ignores just how "country" much of country radio still is, from reliable veterans like George Strait to relative newcomers like Josh Turner and Miranda Lambert. It's a business with a long history and a short memory.
Wilson has her own knotty relationship with country tradition. She got her first break back in 1991, when a Springfield, Mo., club owner heard her singing Patsy Cline covers in a St. Louis bar, and she's had some of her biggest success with throwback barstool tearjerkers like "When I Think About Cheating" and "Come to Bed." She consistently name-checks country singers in her songs—Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams Jr., Tanya Tucker, and Waylon Jennings have all been mentioned—but she's just as likely to make a reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers. She's worked with Kid Rock, who's reinvented himself as a mutant country/rock hybrid in the past few years. (Don't forget that Wilson's initial rise to fame was linked to John Rich, who co-wrote "Redneck Woman" and five other songs and served as an associate producer on Here for the Party. Until a couple of years ago, Rich was one half of the duo Big & Rich, one of the least traditional acts—they've collaborated with Lil Jon—to ever top the country charts.)
"Even though the new album's up and rowdy, it's got three ballads that'll just tear you up," she says. "I can't get too far away from that traditional country sound, but I grew up on AC/DC and Molly Hatchet. From song to song, you can hear a lot of influences. In the little towns where I grew up, there wasn't much of a line separating country and Southern rock or classic rock 'n' roll."
The fallout from Sony had a direct effect on I Got Your Country Right Here, which has been finished for months and was scheduled for release on the label this summer. The first three singles failed to chart before Wilson announced she would release I Got Your Country herself. The two songs currently available, the single "Work Hard, Play Harder" and the title track, which has leaked online, are vintage Gretchen Wilson, fusing big anthems, '70s country, Nashville name-drops, and brassy, sloganeering choruses.
"It feels to me like my live show," she says. "It's almost like the first female Southern rock album. It's lively and rowdy. It's not far off from my first album, musically. I think it's the song selection my fans have been waiting for me to do the last few years.... It's some of the best music I've ever recorded. It's what I've wanted to do the last four or five years but I always had to ask other people for their opinions and approval."