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Gretchen Wilson was born on June 26, 1973, and raised in rural Pocahontas, Ill., 36 miles due east of St. Louis, where numerous trailer parks are clustered among cornfields and pig farms. Her mother was 16 years old when she had Gretchen, and her father, unfortunately, had moved on with his life by the time she was 2. Whenever they couldn't make rent, which was every few months, they packed up what little belongings they owned and moved down the road only to find yet another trailer.
With only an eighth-grade education, she was cooking and tending bar at Big O's, a rough-and-tumble bar five miles outside of town, alongside her mom at age 14. A year later and living on her own, she was managing the roughneck joint with a loaded 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun stashed behind the bar for protection.
The father she never really knew provided her with the musical talent to sing. "My dad just picked around on the guitar and has a quiet voice," Gretchen says. She made it a point to meet him for the first time when she was 12. "His family, I'm told, had a little traveling band. I think it was a gospel band." In any case, from an early age she could sing. Long before karaoke machines, she got up on stage every night at Big O's with a microphone and sang along to various CDs for tips. She soon found herself fronting a cover band and for the first time she felt like maybe there was a life for her outside Bond County. She moved to Nashville in 1996.
Wilson became somewhat discouraged after a brief encounter with a local musician, whom she happened to recognize at a Nashville music shop. She asked for advice, and he said she needed to create a buzz. It would take her four long years to figure out what he meant. In the meantime, she got a job slinging drinks at a bar in Printers Alley.
A few years later, and now with a daughter, she still had no luck in terms of getting a record deal. One Friday night, singer-songwriters Big Kenny and John Rich (of Big & Rich) walked into the bar and heard her sing with the house band. She remembers, "John followed me up to my little cubby hole bar upstairs with his trench coat and cowboy hat and I think his exact words were, 'Hey, how come you ain't got a record deal yet?' I looked at him in disgust ... threw him a business card and a little homemade demo and said, 'I'm busy. I'm working right now.'"
For months he tried getting in touch with her, and for months she ignored his calls until someone finally said, "Look, you should really return his call. He might be able to help you out." He not only introduced her to his circle of friends -- "they started to use me singing on some demos" -- but he also taught her how the Nashville songwriting community really works. She also became a member of the Muzik Mafia, a loose-knit group of singers, songwriters and musicians who get together to jam (and party) every Tuesday in a local Nashville nightspot. It was in front of her peers -- very honest peers -- that she honed her songwriting style. She later signed with Sony Music Nashville.
Her sassy debut single, "Redneck Woman," took off like a bottle rocket -- five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's country airplay chart in 2004 -- leading to a whirlwind, worldwide promotional tour. Her debut album, Here for the Party, sold nearly five million copies. The title track, "When I Think About Cheatin'" and "Homewrecker" all did well on the charts too. As a result of her immediate success, she won the CMA Horizon Award in 2004.
Wilson released All Jacked Up in 2005 and won the CMA female vocalist trophy that same year. A book she co-wrote about her experiences appeared in 2006.