Gretchen Wilson, Studiously Redneck

By Dave McKenna
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 15, 2006

Some tobacco industry folks got in trouble in 1990 when R.J. Reynolds was found to have aimed its Dakota brand of cigarettes at "virile females," a demographic that quit high school and got by on partying and attending tractor pulls. Congress got involved, and the smokes were pulled from shelves after test marketings in, among other cities, Nashville.

But maybe all that Dakota research didn't go to waste. Gretchen Wilson's set at Nissan Pavilion on Saturday, culminating the day-long WMZQfest, indicated that Music City masterminds had mined the data from Big Tobacco's failed campaign. These days, she seems as much a brand as an artist.

"Do we have any rednecks out there tonight?" Wilson wailed while introducing the song "Redneck Woman," which she played on a custom guitar with "r-e-d-n-e-c-k" embedded in mother-of-pearl on the fingerboard. Licensed T-shirts in Army green proclaiming a "Redneck Revolution" beneath Wilson's picture were a big seller at the merchandise booth. And Wilson dropped the R-word so much, you'd have thought she was trying to win a bet. (With every dropping, the largely female crowd inside the packed pavilion and on the back lawn roared as loud as a monster truck.)

Wilson, whose 2004 debut CD, "Here for the Party," sold in the multi-millions, is far more harmless than a carton of butts, and surely has her talents and appeal. The drinking songs "When It Rains (I Pour)" and "One Bud Wiser," tunes Wilson co-wrote, were two-steppers that any Dwight Yoakam fan would chug to. And if her bio info of having survived family dysfunction and economic struggles is even half honest, she's worth rooting for.

But while topping the festival and making her first local appearance as a headliner, Wilson chose to aim low. The aura of artifice was as thick as the smoke coming from the Roman candles used during Wilson's curious covers of Heart's 1977 rocker "Barracuda" and Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." When she huddled her large band around a microphone at the front of the stage during a bluegrass gospel break of Bill Monroe's "I'm Working on a Building," everybody onstage appeared to be wearing strategically faded jeans; two members had dungarees worn and sliced in identical spots, as if they'd been to the same rack at the same boutique.

And then there's "Politically Uncorrect," which poses as a song about independent thinking, but its lyrics find Wilson coming out in favor of soldiers, the Bible, farmers, the flag and a handful of other usual suspects. Wilson kept preaching to the choir with her pro-tobacco cut, "Skoal Ring." She said the song has made her enemies, but that she's kept it in her show, "because that's what rednecks do!"

Wilson, whose camisole left uncovered a much harder set of abs than those she started her career with -- she originally was positioned as a sort of anti-Shania -- wowed the crowd with her softest ballad, the Patsy Cline-like "I Don't Feel Like Loving You Today." But the impact of the performance was weakened by her insinuation that the song would have gone unheard had she not fallen in love with a demo version found in "my truck."

Wilson apparently didn't feel like letting the crowd know that the song was actually written by Matraca Berg, a songwriting giant who has bestowed hits on about everybody but the Marlboro Man.

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