Gretchen Wilson set the country music charts on fire with her smash single "Redneck Woman" and her debut album, Here for the Party (2004). The track -- though composed by colleague John Rich (of Big & Rich) -- became an anthem for women all over America. Written especially for Wilson, it is from-the-gut, working-class feminism for the post-feminist age, straightforwardly sung with a celebratory vengeance. As a slice-of-life singer who embodied and brought to life each cut on the album, she became an "overnight sensation." Her follow-up, All Jacked Up (2005), was recorded and rushed out by Sony a year later. Certainly the marketing department wanted to capture Wilsonmania, since her debut sold five-million copies. During the process, Wilson fought for the songs she wanted and got her way, and she co-produced with Rich and Mark Wright. Once more, she didn't write a single track on the set, but made her own song choices. The problem was (and remains true for virtually any artist) that following a debut phenomenon like Here for the Party is not only difficult, it's all but impossible. It went platinum, and concert tours sold out everywhere she played, but didn't hit the same mark despite being a better album song for song.
Since 2005, Wilson has written a book -- named for her first single -- and absorbed the whirlwind of her life in the studio and as an internationally renowned celebrity. Rather than follow formulas, Wilson decided to do everything her way on One of the Boys, and that meant change. Once again producing with aid from Rich and Wright, Wilson shines this time out as a songwriter as well as a singer. She co-wrote nine of the album's 11 songs with Rich, longtime collaborator Vicky McGehee, and Rivers Rutherford. She says in the small note in the booklet that this is the most important recording she's ever made; it's her diary set to music. She's telling the truth. While there are excellent rockers on this set, there are also poignant ballads. One of the Boys (the title track is a great song with an intentionally misleading title) is a true country album. It has steel guitars, fiddles, and mandolins everywhere. It touches the heart of the tradition deeply from the opening cut, particularly in the ballads. Wilson is following her own muse, the one that comes from the lineage of Haggard, Parton, Lynn, and Strait as much as it does Hank Jr., Daniels, Skynyrd, and Kid Rock. The former side of her inspiration comes through loud and clear without sacrificing the persona her fans have come to know and love. This means one thing: that Wilson is the real deal: 100 percent authentic. She has become an artist without compromise, and it's obvious from the first note of "The Girl I Am," the set's opening cut. Fiddles and electric guitars announce her lyrics and it's in the final verse that she lays it out bare: "Sometimes I know there's somethin' missing/Sometimes I want to start again/Sometimes I scream and no one listens/Sometimes I feel like givin' in." There's confession and self-doubt here, but in the refrain she states: "And I never make apologies, 'cause I don't give a damn/I guess I'll always be the girl I am." The end result: she expresses the complexities of being human and claims radical self-acceptance. The artist who revealed herself early on is speaking from the other side, from her femininity and vulnerability, but there's great strength here, too, as the Don Rich-style guitars spit and roll, with a whining pedal steel, and the fiddle accents every line.
This track is followed by the gorgeous "Come to Bed" (the album's first single written by Rich and McGehee). Wilson owns it in her delivery. It's a ballad that lays out the truth in any genuine romantic relationship: that some disagreements, problems, and knock-down drag-out battles can only be equaled by the communication of physical intimacy, the kind expressed by the equality of the lovers' bed. It's quietly dynamic and poignant, yet it's only a small hint of the great treasures to be found here. The title track, a midtempo shuffle, reveals the truth in the misleading title. To an acoustic guitar and mandolin led by a popping electric six-string, the rowdy hell-raiser reveals: "But I still got this little girl inside of me/That likes to be treated like a queen/I know I don't act much like a lady/But I still need to be somebody's baby/You might find me makin' too much noise/But I'm more than just one of the boys." She claims her acumen in playing pool, drinking, and in general raising Cain, but reveals a true vulnerability in wanting to be known in total -- as a woman who is made of paradoxes, as a complex being. Though its beat is solid 4/4, and it shuffles and choogles with drums rumbling to a pumping bassline, this is one of the most naked tracks on this set disguised by the music that contains it. Wilson's rockers follow in "You Don't Have to Go Home," about the desperation, party-killing bummer that is closing time at the local bar. It roils and coils; it's thunderous and hilarious, though true. The killer "There's a Pain in the Whiskey" is an unruly Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque blues-rocker that holds within it a burning truth. "There Goes the Neighborhood" is a modern-day rollicking honky tonk two-stepper, with the roots rocking fiddle and pedal steel-driven "Good Ole Boy" and the hysterically sarcastic "If You Want a Mother" vehicles for Wilson to lay out her strengths. She can write these beer-swillers with the best of them and they are not scored as crowd-pleasers, but as a genuine aspect of the songwriter's -- and singer's -- aesthetic and personal being. These are good-time tracks that offer the side of Wilson listeners know and love.
Yet it's in the haunting and utterly moving ballads that Wilson's bounteous gift is unwrapped in full. "Heaven Help Me" is a prayer sent in a place of solitude and the hope for deliverance. It's a confession and a plea: "I have wounded those who love me/And refused to take the blame/I have hidden all my demons/But I cannot hide my shame...." Requesting faith, wisdom, and assistance, she pleads: "Heaven help me, because I can't help myself." This is the most nakedly confessional song ever recorded by Wilson. With its interweaving of acoustic instruments and pedal steel, it's a ballad for the ages. It's a prayer for anyone who desires to be set free by heaven from the bondage of self-sabotaging character defects. Likewise, "Pain Killer," a cut Haggard himself wishes he could have written, is a slow barroom weeper. Wilson sings of knowing of only one thing that will eliminate her loneliness and suffering: "I need a pain killer/Just one night of sin/Someone who will hold me tight/And get me over him/And it'll taste bitter/But stranger set me free/I need a pain killer/ Before this pain kills me." Not simply a request for sex, it's a plea that rips the skin off the singer's body and gets to the sinew, blood, and bone of the truth, which is need and escape -- if only for a moment -- from a pain that isn't dissipating anytime soon. Her soulful voice is underscored by a high lonesome steel and snare-drum shuffle -- this kind of vulnerability is so well hidden by everyday life, the revelation deepens the wound.
The album's final cut, "To Tell You the Truth," is simply devastating. Introduced by a shimmering acoustic guitar, it speaks from the well of secrets -- the human heart, cracked, broken, and bleeding -- as the protagonist is being torn apart by the lie she relives every day. The music is uneasy; it swells, thunders, whispers, and intones, struggling with itself as the singer struggles with the breaking of each morning. Guitars and drums collide in the refrains, as the bassline keeps it on the ground; each of the instruments, from keyboards to fiddle and mandolin, convict the singer as much has her words do: "It all comes up with the morning sun/It all comes down to the said and done/You know sometimes I pray for rain/I think somehow it hides my pain/To tell you the truth would set me free/I'm livin' a lie, and it's killing me/What I really wanna do/Is just talk this thing through/But it'd hurt you/To tell you the truth." The band crashes into the final verse when the truth comes out: that she won't be able to do things any differently on this day, but who knows about tomorrow? The sheer craftsmanship in this song is a feat of inspiration. Everything in it tries so hard to hold a line as hard as the singer does. But there's a tempest inside them both and the music reveals that pressure. It ends the album with a series of questions that aren't answered. The double is the metaphor on One of the Boys: the private versus public persona; the sinner who wishes to repent and become, if not a saint, then at least someone she can live inside without shame; the woman who can drink, smoke, swear, and game like a man -- though "the feminine" needs to be fed, caressed, nurtured, and recognized. Then, at the end there's the liar, the one who hurts desperately; she knows the truth and wants to tell it because it would set her free, but she doesn't for fear of damning the other to the pain she knows it would cause.
One of the Boys isn't only the most diverse record from Wilson thus far, it's her most adventurous. It reveals so much, yet leaves the listener yearning to know more because it asks profound questions. Its songs are tight and wonderfully produced; these songs embrace the modern guise of the current country scene, even as the writing and singing put her squarely inside the music's grand tradition. She's offering the listener so much more of herself than she has before by admitting that she's still trying to find her way in truly dark times as well as joyous ones. This is a portrait of an artist who arrives here fully mature, with a clear vision and an uncompromising sense of direction. One of the Boys is the record Gretchen Wilson has been waiting to deliver since she came to Nashville, maybe since she dreamed of becoming a country singer and songwriter. We all benefit from her restlessness and her relentless pursuit of excellence. This is as good as it gets right now; it'll be the country album to beat in 2007.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo