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