Gretchen Wilson maintains a glimmer of hope in the future of country music – and she hears it in the music of Harry Styles.
“You listen to Harry Styles’ new album and it is real. There are no machines. You can tell that the band speeds up, slows down. It’s real songwriting, singing and is almost like listening to vinyl in the Seventies. I love it,” she says. “I’ve driven all the way across this country to go to One Direction concerts. I got turned onto them by my daughter.”
It’s hard to imagine the rough-edged, no-nonsense Wilson, who name-checked Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd in her 2004 breakout hit “Redneck Woman,” jamming out to 1D tunes or queuing up alongside excited teens for one of their shows. But Wilson has never been one to do what is expected. And while Styles may not be a country artist, she believes the U.K. pop idol’s back-to-basics approach to music is happening in country too.
“Country music swings so often and every few years it goes back to more traditional stuff. I think kids are going back toward something real, rather than something manufactured. And that is what gives me hope,” she says.
Wilson’s new album Ready to Get Rowdy leans on the classic country and rock sound she’s employed throughout her career, including on her last album of original material, 2013’s Right in Time. That record, however, relied mainly on outside songs. For Ready to Get Rowdy, Wilson threw herself into the creative process, co-writing each of the LP’s 12 songs, including her first session with Eighties hit master Desmond Child (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi) and Steven Tyler collaborator Marti Frederiksen.
“It was the weirdest trio to sit down and write. I am sure they were looking at me like, ‘Oh my god, what do we have here?'” Wilson recalls of the writing appointment that yielded “Bad Feeling,” a duet with Kid Rock that was inspired by the Detroit rap-rocker.
“It was written about him and a situation I saw him in with his now fiancée. At the time things weren’t looking good, and I saw him at an awards ceremony and he was looking like a lost puppy dog. I said, ‘What did you do?’ I never got into specifics with either of them about what happened, but I went home that night and just imagined what was going through his head and her head,” Wilson says of the soulful blues ballad about a crashing and burning relationship. “But that’s not what’s happening in his world – his fiancée has a beautiful rock on.”
For all the rock and even pop influences on Ready to Get Rowdy – the swaggering “Rowdy,” the polish of current single “Summertime Town” – the album succeeds because of its more distinctly country tracks, especially the ballads “Whiskey and My Bible” and “Salt Mines.”
The latter expertly addresses the ennui that can develop over time in a romance, where daily interaction can feel like toiling in those titular mines. The upside? The sex is good.
“It’s about [something] tedious. I’ve written a lot of songs that remind people of Loretta or Tanya. If they were 30, 40 years old and still writing, that song would be them,” says Wilson. “Loretta said stuff like that, like, ‘You’re too good in bed.’ That’s the lyric in the song that makes me laugh. Cause the rest of the song you’re feeling sorry for her; but then you’re like, ‘Oh, but she’s got that!'”
While Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker still inform Wilson’s music, these days she’s often listening to what her now college-age daughter Grace plays: lots of show tunes, Ed Sheeran, Drake and, of course, Harry Styles. Being a mom took precedence for Wilson over her own career, and she’s matter of fact when asked if she worries about losing what’s she’s built in country music.
“Do you know how many times I heard, ‘You’re going to step away for three years? This may not be here for you!'” she says. “But I can go sling drinks at the local tavern and live in a mobile home. I’m just me. And I never let anybody tell me what to do. I do what is right for me and those closest to me.”
Now, however, with Ready to Get Rowdy, Wilson is back in the game, looking to music once again to fill the void when she becomes an empty-nester. She has shows on the books with Frederiksen’s band Loving Mary, who backed Steven Tyler on his solo country project, and is mulling a more collaborative arrangement with the band in the future. Perhaps something similar to what she did with John Rich, Big Kenny Alphin and the members of the Muzik Mafia back in the early 2000s.
“If just being in the Mafia was all that ever happened, that’d be enough. That was making it to us; the rest of this has been business,” she says. “Those were the good days.”
Talking to Wilson, who, on this day, was excitedly getting ready to take her daughter to see the Doobie Brothers and Chicago in Nashville, it’s difficult to think of a more self-aware and in-their-own-skin artist, one who would be just as happy on the stage as she would be in that bar, pouring drinks.
Or fixing tacos.
“In 15 years, I can see myself living in the Keys, having a redneck taco stand and never putting on shoes or makeup again,” she says.
As for missing the music biz? She smiles. “I’ll just hum while I make tacos.”