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'Redneck woman' shows her softer side
Singer Gretchen Wilson is photographed in New York on May 10, 2007. (AP Photo/Jim Cooper)

NEW YORK — When Gretchen Wilson finally got her record deal, she told the execs at her label three things they should never ask her to do: lose weight, cut her hair or wear a dress.

A proud, beer-drinking, tobacco-chewing, jeans-wearing tomboy, she wasn’t about to get glammed-up like country’s other female stars to achieve chart success.

She didn’t have to.

With the massive success of her multiplatinum 2004 debut album, “Here for the Party,” and what would become her signature song, “Redneck Woman,” Wilson’s rowdy outlaw persona became her most popular attribute, which she also played up on her second platinum disc, 2005’s “All Jacked Up.”

These days, Wilson is still very much the redneck woman. Her new album is titled “One of the Boys,” and she’s still got that gritty demeanor, grabbing for her can of Skoal before an interview begins.

But she’s also revealing a softer side. Her album features her at her most vulnerable. In an interview, she talks of feeling self-conscious about her looks, overcoming the pain of her tough childhood and the struggles of being a single mom of a 6-year-old girl.

And get this: She’s even willing to trade her form-fitting jeans for a dress (like the sexy black number she wore to the Academy of Country Music Awards in May).

“I am the redneck woman — I am tough … like to stay out and have fun and hang out with the boys — that’s who I am,” says the 34-year-old Wilson, wearing jeans yet again. “But there’s more than that. And I’m hoping that by now, the third record, that with some of the lyrics and the songwriting, that people know that there’s a lot more than that.”

Wilson’s fans have learned much more about the Pocahontas, Ill., native over the past few months. Last fall, she released her autobiography, “Redneck Woman: Stories from My Life,” which detailed her painful upbringing, including a life of poverty, her ogre of a stepfather and dropping out of school after the eighth grade. It’s a book that Wilson had been asked to write repeatedly after she became an overnight superstar with “Redneck Woman,” and one she resisted for a while.

“Management kept coming to me with book offers and movie offers, and I thought, ‘If I do this book,  they’ll leave me alone on the movie offers for a while,’ ” she says with a laugh. “I went into it hoping that I could just get it done as quickly as possible and be done with it, but as I got into it, I really enjoyed the whole process a lot more than I thought I would.”

Before long, she wasn’t just telling her story, she was going through a cathartic experience, exorcising her demons with each word.

“Stories that I’ve known all my life and I’ve lived with … something about seeing them in black and white on paper in front of me … I finally put a lot of things to rest,” says Wilson, who’s studying to get her general equivalency diploma. “I’m better than I’ve been, I’m happier than I’ve ever been, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and I wonder why I spent the last 10 years trying to be something I wasn’t.”

Before achieving her success, Wilson says, she never considered herself pretty or desirable, and she felt self-conscious about her looks.

Longtime friend John Rich of the country duo Big & Rich, who co-wrote “Redneck Woman” with her, says the only change in Wilson has been her outlook on life.

“She’s accepted the fact that people actually like her,” he says. “All the years we were working together before she hit, she honestly didn’t think people liked her. … She was such a guarded, somewhat dark personality of a person.”

Now, Rich adds, with millions of fans and crowds screaming her name on tour, “she’s starting to realize, ‘Wow, people actually like me.’ ”

She also feels more comfortable with revealing more facets of herself on record. On “One of the Boys,” she sheds her hardened image on several songs, most touchingly on “Heaven Help Me,” in which she prays for healing amid a fall. She says that song is particularly difficult to sing live, and among a few you won’t hear her perform at all: “I know I won’t make it through without crying, and you cannot sing and cry at the same time. It’s impossible.”

Rich says Wilson has learned to give fans “a true dose of who she is,” not just a retread of her biggest hit.

And Wilson acknowledges she probably will never have another massive hit such as “Redneck Woman,” which earned her a Grammy: She calls it a phenomenon and one she isn’t interested in trying to capture again.

“From record to record, I’m making the best record I can now instead of what I think I should make,” she says.

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