Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

Eddie Van Halen donates guitars to public schools

Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art



gretchen-wilsonTwelve red plastic cups. A bottle of Jack Daniels on the table. It’s less than ten minutes till show time, and Gretchen Wilson is doing the pouring herself. Her band, managers, a CMT crew and I circle her in a cramped, plain trailer backstage. We stand there shots in hand, watching this musical rebel’s ritual. Gretchen raises her cup, makes a quick toast and we tip ’em back. It’s time to kick some ass. “There goes the neighborhood,” she says as we head for the stage.

For the first time all night, and for just a few brief moments, Gretchen is able to breathe. She bows her head and rests her hands on a railing behind a tall curtain. With lights flashing all around her, intro music blaring and energy in the air, she allows herself to soak it all in – a few seconds of introspection after an evening of meet and greets, interviews, make-up and chaos. Souls get lost amidst all this attention and pressure, but Gretchen’s spirit is soaring. She’s a proud autonomous woman who knows exactly who she is. She fought like hell to be here, and as she looks up and surveys the massive crowd before her, intensity has taken over her face. I ask her for a high five, she slaps my hand and then storms on stage. 40,000 screaming fans await her first word.

Florence, Arizona, is Gretchen Wilson’s kind of town. Founded in 1866, they call this place “the cowboy cradle of the great Southwest.” But the days of ranching and breaking horses seem like distant memories around here. Instead, a federal prison and a Department of Homeland Security detention center at each edge of town serve as the area’s economy. Living and working in Florence doesn’t look easy. Trailer parks are jammed into each block, and the town’s generally silent streets only have two stoplights.

The door is always open at Gibby’s Bar across from the hardware store downtown. It’s April, but Christmas lights are still stapled to its wood frame. Inside, Loretta Lynn is blaring from the jukebox. The place was made famous in the Sally Field/James Garner movie “Murphy’s Romance.” Most nights locals would pull up a cheap leather bar stool at Gibby’s and gab about a hard day’s work. But country music’s version of Woodstock has rolled into town, and the masses have converged on this desolate stretch of desert 60 miles off the beaten path from Phoenix. The event is called Country Thunder. Reba, Trace Adkins, Big & Rich, 40 other acts and 150,000 campers and concert goers will make the trek to this ranch for the long weekend. The venue itself is the only patch of grass around, surrounded by giant cacti, sagebrush and lots of dirt. There’s a cool breeze blowing, the stars are out and the Godmother of the MuzikMafia is about to get the place all jacked up.

“I don’t know bout y’all, but it’s time for some drinking music,” Wilson shouts to the crowd. Then with hard-charging energy she sings about drinking whiskey, calling out home wreckers and fake California girls. No topic is off limits. But she’s as tender as she is tough – a single mother who sweetly sings “Holding you, holds me together” and dedicates it to her daughter. Gretchen’s music is passionate and honest. It’s a personal diary of joy and pain, ups and downs, struggles and successes. Her messages are believable and there’s integrity in her voice. Longing, lusting, fighting and partying – Wilson has taken mainstream country back to its solid roots of Patsy Cline and Tanya Tucker. While others have pushed the pop genre, Gretchen’s band busts out the steel guitar, mandolin, fiddle and even a banjo. Throw in an electric guitar and it’s an old-fashioned ho down with a rock n’ roll twist. The crowd kicks up its heels to “Here for the Party” and “Rebel Child.”

Wilson also mixes in several songs from her yet-to-be released album, “One of the Boys.” In the title track she sings about how she can do anything a man can do including beat him at pool. It’s typical Gretchen, and it’s also the truth. She delivers it with an in-your-face attitude, and many people smile. But things get sober and spiritual as Wilson takes her first and only seat of the night. In the beautiful ballad “Heaven Help Me,” Wilson raises her hands above her head, sways from side to side and squeezes her eyes shut asking for divine guidance. The hairs on many an arm stand at attention as she shows her vulnerable side. Another new song slowed things down to a sultry pace. “Come to Bed” is about a couple trying to regain the magic they once had. When John Rich, who co-wrote the song with her, joins Gretchen on stage, the emotional duet captivates the crowd. Rich gets a standing ovation, and before he walks off stage, he points to Wilson and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, one of the greatest country music singers of our generation.”

Her encore is the screw you anthem “Redneck Woman.” The song is meant to empower and unite. It takes a racist ideology and turns it on its head, giving the socially stereotyped a reason to be proud. It says that working hard and living modestly are nothing to be ashamed of – no matter what side of the tracks you call home. It was Wilson’s first single and instantly gave her trailer cred and suburbia support. And judging by the boisterous “Hell Yeahs!” shouted by the audience on command, the message is still resonating.

Before the show, I had a chance to talk to Gretchen about her new album, true love, art, her family and the future of country music. She’s incredibly open about it all. There’s no shame, and certainly no apologies for the way she lives her life. She looks stunning tonight in a black bustier, tight jeans, a rhinestone belt and steel tipped cowboy boots. For a woman with such powerful pipes, she’s incredibly petite. Don’t let her size fool you, though – she was born country and isn’t afraid to take off her earrings and teach someone a lesson. In spite of her success, she still shops at Wal-Mart, has been known to have a dip of tobacco and loves her pickup truck as much as any man. Rumor has it, she also cooks some mean pork chops. Like most of us, Wilson has loved, lost and struggled to trust. But she’s also spent much of her life watching abuse, overcoming addiction and breaking down stereotypes. Her life story is an education in toughing it out.

She was born dirt poor in Pocahontas, Illinois, population 727, and was forced to move every four months or so from trailer park to trailer park in the rural Midwest and Little Havana, Miami. Gretchen was forced to grow up fast and absorb the constant cultural shock. “I had a lot of ups and downs during my childhood,” Wilson says. “I really feel like I raised myself.” She didn’t have a good relationship with her mom and dad, instead her role models were strong, salt-of-the-earth women. They worked hard and did their best to raise their families. Her aunt, Vickie, welded airplane parts at a sub-factory in St. Louis and took her niece to the dirt track on Friday nights. Grandma Heuer worked 50 hours a week waiting tables while Grandpa drank. No matter how hard it got to put dinner on the table, these women never allowed themselves to be weak.

While nothing was ever handed to Gretchen Wilson, she was born with a gift. She began singing around the house when she was three. At four, she was giving impromptu concerts in the middle of a K-Mart “Blue Light Special” aisle. “My mom would have me sing everywhere: parking lots, a tavern, if there was a band setting up, she’d ask if I could sing a Hank or Patsy song with them.” Wherever she performed, the crowds clapped. Wilson dropped out of school in the ninth grade. Plan A was becoming a professional singer. Plan B was a backbreaking life of bartending. Getting from out behind the bar and into a recording studio would be a fifteen year struggle.

gretchen-wilson-2“When I was shopping my record deal, you needed to be 20 to 23,” Wilson says. “You needed to be really, really cute and about five pounds underweight. And the voice was optional, they could manufacture that in the studio if they needed to. That really pissed me off, to be honest with you. When I grew up and fell in love with music, I was listening to women like Patsy. And let’s face it, she was not thin. Really to me she was beautiful because of who she was inside. To me, it was about the way I felt when I listened to her sing. I really feel like music should still be that. It should be about the music.”

Those early years in Nashville were tough. She’d married and divorced, drank too much and felt that she couldn’t trust a soul. Finding real love seemed out of reach until she experienced a blessing in disguise at age 27. “I found love in the truest form when I had my daughter, Grace,” Wilson says. “She is the center of my life.” The kid is already showing off some pretty impressive genes. “She is definitely a performer, of all sorts too,” according to her proud momma. “She sings, she dances, she acts and she directs. She can play musical instruments and she’s playing Bach on piano. She’s amazing and she learned all this stuff on her own. She’s picking it by ear just like I did.”

Gretchen’s big break came during a chance encounter at the bar where she worked. Each night, she’d come downstairs from pouring drinks and sing a few songs with the house band. Big Kenny and John Rich (of Big & Rich) were sitting there one evening, not sober, and were blown away by what they heard. Rich couldn’t believe this woman didn’t have a record deal, so he tried to talk to her, but Wilson wasn’t interested. She thought he was just another big talker trying to swindle her out of something, but Rich kept after her and eventually earned Gretchen’s trust. Wilson joined Big & Rich and some of their other singer, songwriter and musician friends and formed the MuzikMafia. The loose-knit group jam every Tuesday night at a place called the Pub of Love. In front of that very honest group, Gretchen found her original musical voice. “I used to judge how good I was based on how much like other people I could sound,” Wilson says. “I think a lot of singers do that. It wasn’t until I met up with these guys in the Muzik Mafia and met my closest friends in Nashville, that I realized I had to find my own voice, because we don’t need another Patsy Cline. And they’ll tell you that right to your face down there. I think it took me a little while to get used to really being that honest out loud.”

Much like the Beat Movement in San Francisco in the 1950’s and ’60’s, the MuzikMafia gave artists of all kinds a venue to perform and a chance to bounce ideas off each other. The group insisted on doing things their way, and in the process revolutionized the country music industry. “You know you don’t stand over a painter’s shoulder and tell him what colors to use,” Wilson says. “That’s the philosophy of the MuzikMafia. None of us were willing to allow people to tell us exactly how we were supposed to make our music. We were writing it and we were feeling it and we were living it. To me, that makes it very, very personal, and I didn’t want anybody to tell me that I couldn’t put an electric guitar in a country song. And Big & Rich didn’t want anybody to tell them that they couldn’t put a screamin’ fiddle in a rock song. Hell, we brought a black rappin’ cowboy into country music. That hasn’t happened since Charlie Pride. We’ve made a lot of noise and hopefully we’ve changed a few things.”

Finally, on her ninth try to land a deal with a record label, Sony Music liked what it heard and handed it Gretchen a contract. Now it was time to write, sing and record an album. One afternoon, Gretchen and John Rich were watching CMT and just lounging. Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride videos came on back to back to back. Rich looked over at Gretchen in her wife beater tank top and sweatpants. She had no make-up on and a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other, and Rich made the obvious point that she didn’t look like those ladies on TV. Gretchen said, “I guess I’m just a redneck woman.” Ninety minutes later, the song wrote itself and sent her career through the stratosphere.

Wilson’s first album “Here For the Party” said, “The hell with who you want me to be, I am who I am and that’s okay.” It sold nearly five million copies. Her sophomore album, “All Jacked Up,” also went platinum. Both debuted at number one on the country charts and she picked up several CMA and ACM awards as well as a Grammy along the way. The plot of Gretchen’s autobiographical music career thickens with the release of her third album May 15. She co-wrote nine of the eleven songs and helped produce the whole thing. “From start to finish, from pencil to paper to the final mix, I was involved in this record,” Wilson says. “I think it’s the best record I’ve made so far. I describe it sort of as my diary set to music.”

Because she stayed true to her authentic self, Wilson has opened doors for a new generation of country singers who don’t fit a certain contemporary mold. She’s also given a face and a sense of pride to a culture that luck forgot, and serves as a reminder of what hard work can achieve. For families that send their babies off to war, work all day in a field or at a factory, and care about the cents at the end of their paycheck, Gretchen and her music offers hope. Despite her fame, Wilson still drives a pickup with a cooler in the back to buy pop, beer and ice at the local gas station. She still goes to the ATM when she needs money, and buys many of her things at the Super Wal-Mart near her Tennessee ranch.

Gretchen’s tour bus rolls out of Arizona tonight headed for Nashville. The trip will be long, but the music will never stop. The band started a road trip tradition long ago, where they play acoustically until the wee hours of the morning. They drink some, laugh a lot and sing everything from stripped down country to Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. After all, for Gretchen Wilson it is, and always will be, about the music and nothing else.

When life comes fallin’ down on me, I’ll do the best I can.
And I never make apologies, cause I don’t give a damn.
I guess I’ll always be the girl I am
– “The Girl I Am”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

Leave a Comment