Here for the Party
n the mid-90s, while Shania Twain helped spearhead a movement to bring country music to the masses, Jeff Gordon was busy reinventing NASCAR's image as a viable source of Sunday afternoon thrills for sports fans nationwide.
Before the emergence of these uber-polished outsiders, country music and stock car racing had largely been the province of Southerners, perhaps occasionally indulged by the perma-Mason-Dixon populace as an overly self-conscious act of culture-slumming, but rarely more genuinely engaged than that.
Of course, Garth Brooks had been the first country star to truly cross over, but his ten-gallon Okie-bred shlubbiness couldn't possibly translate as the face of a perfectly rootless future. Twain's Canadian-ness, her plasticity, and her ultimate cultural malleability made her the consummate front for country's suburban takeover. Here was someone who wasn't "country" but who made ostensibly country music, making it OK for the Bolton-Dion-James Taylor set to browse the formerly off-limits country bin.
It's the same trick Jeff Gordon pulled off, presenting himself as the product of no other culture than the culture of this minute—the classic pretty boy in a sport of tobacco-stained moustaches and 58 year-old men named Junior. And folks with no one in their families named Bubba ate it up like deep-fried Spam.
It's fitting then that Gretchen Wilson would obliquely but oh-so-knowingly reference Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a track from her first album, because if Shania's really the Jeff Gordon of country music, then Wilson's the spitting socio-cultural image of good 'ol boy savior Dale Jr. It's all part of the Southland Reclamation Project (Phase One)—a purists' attempt to win back the soul of sport and song for its progenitors before it's lost to carpetbaggers forever.
Just like Dale Jr., Gretchen Wilson is Version 2.0 of the old-school, a little more gussied-up and pop photogenic than their aesthetic forbears perhaps, but still possessing the unsoftened grit and untouched toughness that were so resolutely smoothed-over in Gordon and Twain’s respective bloodless coups.
Dale Jr.'s got the built-in legacy of his late Carolina-bred daddy's prematurely crash-shortened life and career, but while Wilson may conversely hail from midwestern Illinois, she’s certainly no slouch in the country-cred department either. Shit, her bio alone is the stuff of Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton’s most defiant hard-luck tales, having tended bar at the tender age of 15 in her native Pocahontas, IL with no more than a shotgun for company or protection.
Sure, this isn’t exactly your grandfather’s Grand Ole Opry, as Wilson strays into adult contempo terrain (albeit to dazzling effect) on “Holdin’ You” and the lyrically exquisite “What Happened”. Even some of her country moves are informed by the suburbs, evidenced by Wilson’s riff on Dr. Phil in “When It Rains” as well as the thoroughly modern-sounding marital isolation of “The Bed”. These are arguably the most musically and theoretically thrilling moments on the album, when Wilson grafts the post-modern, pop-cultural awareness of the “new” country onto the deathless tropes and deeply-rooted traditions of its earliest incarnations.
Of course, you could well argue that’s just what Twain has already accomplished, moving classic C&W into the 21st century, but her music lacks the sense of a firmly established continuity with the past, a thread woven from Kitty Wells and Rose Maddox to Loretta, Dolly, and Tammy Wynette, naturally resolving itself in the form of a true stylistic and spiritual inheritor to their legacies (though Lord knows Van Lear Rose proves Lynn’s not about ready to give it up just yet).
At the same time, Wilson’s not as duty-bound as all that, and her irreverent rough handling of the country music canon less bespeaks a lack of historical awareness than it does a sincere desire to shake off the shackles of supplicant devotion and mimicry. Hence her crucial shout-out to ‘ol Bocephus on the massive hit single “Redneck Woman”, cannily separating herself from the Dixie Chicks and their pledge of allegiance to daddy Hank on “Long Time Gone” (again, it’s all about inheritance for Wilson). The Chicks anthologize Merle Haggard on the same song, and Wilson likewise pays tribute here as well, though interestingly it’s in the form of quoting Hag's most rancorous far-right rallying cry, “The Fighting Side of Me”, on her own “Pocahontas Proud”.
One thing Wilson did pick up from Shania Twain is fun. “Redneck Woman” and the title track could be Twain songs but for a few critical socio-economic and recreational indicators, their big drums and even bigger hooks being transparently pop. Ditto the Dixie Chicks doppelganger “Homewrecker”, the letter-perfect honky-tonk sing-along “When It Rains” and even the self-made resiliency of “Pocahontas Proud”. It comes off, though, as less about cloistered worship than a real-world application of the life-affirming principles first put forth by the aforementioned iconic women.
Which brings us full circle to “Chariot”, the song where Wilson alludes to Dale Jr. and the truest distillation of her boundary-busting, Everywoman talents. It’s rollicking, unrepentant, completely outrageous, Wilson day-dreaming about drag-racing the titular vehicles in heaven with her Cherokee great-great-grandfather while simultaneously worrying about the parental repercussions of getting tossed out of the choir. Then comes the real kicker: there’s a #8 painted on the side of this here chariot, and you’re thinking it’s because of Dale, Jr. when Wilson hits you square between the eyes—it’s “the age when I gave Jesus my life”.
Earnhardt’s boy is nice and all, but it’s going to take friends in higher places to win back country music for the Redneck Woman.