Music

Gretchen Wilson: All Jacked Up

Roger Holland

Gretchen Wilson is precisely the sort of potentially great performer that country music needs.


Gretchen Wilson

All Jacked Up

Label: Sony Nashville
US Release Date: 2005-09-27
UK Release Date: 2005-10-10
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Kanye West will doubtless assume that I don't like black people but, for me, Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" was the definitive American pop phenomenon of last year.

There may have been better debut country singles released -- Rachel Proctor and Julie "Not Julia" Roberts leap to mind, but Wilson's song was above such trivial comparisons. A shameless rallying cry to the redneck and blue collar Americans so often ignored, marginalized or just plain patronized by post-millennium popular culture, "Redneck Woman" captured the imagination of millions and worked the crossover trick in hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. Carpaying her diem till the pips squeaked, Wilson rush-released her debut album Here for the Party to surf her wave, worked her thing like a government mule, and finished 2004 as the top-selling debut artist in any genre.

All Jacked Up is Wilson's traditionally difficult second album, and it was recorded well in advance of its release. Keen to avoid schedule gridlock, Wilson took to the studio even before her breakthrough year was over, laying down tracks in between award ceremonies, Christmas specials and Superbowl appearances. When it was eventually released at the end of September 2005, All Jacked Up sold a quarter of a million copies in its first week, topping both the County Albums Chart and the Billboard Top 200. Clearly then, Gretchen Wilson is no common-or-garden, here-today gone-tomorrow, overnight sensation, and it's pretty damn clear why.

When she sings about shopping at Wal*mart, tending bar, tailgating, and even her frankly disturbing familiarity with Charlie Daniels songs, Wilson's constituency knows she means it. Man. Every single last word. Rendering Shania and Faith Hill all but irrelevant, Gretchen Wilson strikes a chord deep within a community that responds as much to her personality and authenticity as to her music. The Ramones said it best: Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us.

Unfortunately, All Jacked Up is everything you might expect from a hurried follow-up to a record setting debut. Shunning ambition, it aims for consolidation. There's no standout anthem here, but there are still one or two moments of high quality to savour. Worryingly, however, none of them were written by Wilson or her team of collaborators.

Consider Jim Collins and Matraca Berg's "I Don't Feel Like Loving You Today". It's a slow, sad, gentle country ballad illuminated by some gorgeous pedal steel and sung quite beautifully by Wilson. And it's head, shoulders, genitals and kneecaps above her own heavy-handed, near power-ballad "Raining on Me" -- a song that wasn't considered strong enough for Here for the Party.

Actually, it's hard to find a Wilson and team original on All Jacked Up that would've made it onto her debut release. The title track is an awkward attempt to recreate "Here for the Party". "California Girls" is better, but nothing special. And the honkytonkin', product-placin' "One Bud Wiser" and "Skoal Ring" are both good tunes ruined by awful lyrics. "Skoal Ring" is especially risible, although it does deserve mad props for getting the line "he's a long cut man" onto country radio.

The most interesting song on All Jacked Up is another third party creation, "Politically Uncorrect". That's right, UNcorrect. A 10-year-old number that no one else in Nashville wanted to record, it's the perfect positioning statement for Gretchen Wilson, placing her firmly and explicitly on the side of the culturally and socially disregarded without ever committing her to a stance of any kind. As if we needed telling, Wilson is for the working man and for single moms. She is also for "preachers who stay on their knees", for sinners who come to Jesus, for farmers and -- big surprise -- she supports Our Troops, while remaining expediently non-committal on the conflict in which they're engaged. Finally, of course, Gretchen Wilson is for the Bible and for The Flag.

The great Merle Haggard contributes a few lines to "Politically Uncorrect", thereby placing Wilson firmly in the first division of country by association, but the clear standout on All Jacked Up is still "He Ain't Even Cold Yet". Written by the unlikely rhyming duo Lawson and Rawson, this intelligent old school country lament was recorded by Ken Mellons on his 1995 album "Where Forever Begins", but Wilson's stunning performance elevates the song to the highest levels and reveals her as an interpretative singer of great guile and potential. A quality that is underlined by All Jacked Up's "hidden" track, a Billie Holliday number called "Good Morning Heartache", that is played live and straight down the line to display a further soulful dimension to the Redneck Woman's voice.

It's quite clear that Wilson can sing, and that she can carry a show and an audience, and that she has it within her to become important in people's lives. Hopefully posterity will show All Jacked Up as an inevitable momentum-maintaining placeholder in an otherwise stellar career, because Gretchen Wilson is precisely the sort of potentially great performer that country music needs.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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