The multi-platinum artist and her longtime record label, Sony Nashville, parted ways last year, after having been together since 2004 -- the year the Pocahontas, Ill., native exploded onto the charts with the working-class anthem 'Redneck Woman.' While it was a difficult decision to make -- having together released three albums, 'Here for the Party,' 'All Jacked Up,' and 'One of the Boys' -- Gretchen knew she had to move on from that partnership and take charge of her musical direction. It wasn't easy starting her own label, but she's already been in charge of her publishing and touring companies, so it wouldn't be that much different than what she was already used to doing. And as president of Redneck Records, Gretchen oversees virtually all aspects of the label.
The new single, 'Work Hard, Play Harder,' hit the airwaves this week, with Gretchen's new album, 'I Got Your Country Right Here', due out early next year.
The Boot sat down with Gretchen at the recording studio on her farm in Lebanon, Tenn., to chat about starting her own label. We also talked to the illustrious entertainer about cherished childhood memories from a 'toxic' trailer park, the joys of being a mom, her guilty pleasures and one of the accomplishments of which she's most proud -- the 2009 National Coalition for Literacy Leadership Award she received at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC..
What led you to open your own label, Redneck Records?
Ultimately that was the next step. I had a really long relationship with Sony Records, and in the beginning when I signed over there, it was a really different company. It was a much smaller company, very different group of people. As time went on, businesses do merge and things happen, and then I turn around and all of a sudden, here I am involved with a much larger company than I ever expected to be involved with. We had a really good run – Sony and BMG and myself. I learned a lot of things working with that company, and hopefully, they learned a few things from me as an artist. I think we just came to a point where we knew it really wasn't working for either one of us anymore. The coolest thing about it all was being able to leave with the record that we'd been working on, and that barely ever happens. I found myself with a finished product that I really believe in from the bottom of my soul. I was having a hard time convincing them that it was as good as I think it is. So it was just natural. The next thing was just to figure this out. It was chaos for a couple of months because there's a lot that goes into starting a record company. It's not just something you just say, 'Oh, I'm gonna start a record company called Redneck Records.' It's been a huge crash-course learning experience for me, but I'm happier than I've ever been to have this kind of 360-degree control of my career, and to be able to just go with my gut on so many things.
How has your job as a musician changed now that you've taken on a new job as president of your own label?
All aspects ... all aspects of media, all aspects of publicity, all aspects of promotion. Whether it's online or radio or tour or whatever. I oversee all the financial responsibilities, which is something I've been doing for my other companies like my songwriting company and my touring company for a while. Charlie Daniels and his wife Hazel told me a long time ago to take care of my own money, so I've been doing that ever since I could get my hands around it. Every question that gets asked about Gretchen Wilson needs an approval from Gretchen Wilson -- it comes directly to me, instead of someone else having to guess or decide for me. And I'm learning new things that I can do every day that my hands were tied on before. If, for instance, the homeless shelter desperately needs something, I can run in here to my studio, pick up an acoustic guitar, record a song, throw it up for a dollar a pop on my website and donate all the money to that charitable thing, whatever it is. These are things that I could not do before because the music wasn't mine only. And there were too many other people involved with the actual money. I'm freaking out every day going, "Oh my gosh, I can do that now? Really?"
Your new single, 'Work Hard, Play Harder,' seems more relevant now than ever.
I love to be able to work my butt off in the studio and then go out there and hit four nights in a row on tour, then come back here again to the record company and make four or five decisions. Then I want to go home and play tickle on the couch with my little girl. And maybe that's my "play harder." I work my butt off so that I can have that time. When I get to that time, the phone is off, the door is closed and locked, and I'll be back with you at 8:00 AM. I started thinking, "What the hell am I doing all this for, if it's not for these moments?" Because I'm gonna turn around real quick and my little 8-year-old is gonna be 14 and she's gonna be coming in from school, slamming the door with the "Keep Out" sign on it, going, "Hey! I don't want no part of you." Maybe I'll actually have a love life or something when that time comes around, but until then these are my few years that I'm gonna have her completely to myself, so my playing harder right now is probably a little different than what people think. But don't get me wrong, I can still get down with the best of 'em, but I just don't do it as often as I used to!
How would you describe your work ethic?
My grandpa had a saying, "If you don't go to bed completely exhausted, you've wasted a day." And that's something he really instilled in all of us, his children and his grandchildren alike. It's a sense of pride. It's a feeling to know that you've accomplished something and you've done something worth doing in a day. I like doing stuff with my hands, as well as my mind. I love being in the studio, and to create and to write songs, and that was a later in life learning thing for me. I didn't learn to write songs and produce records until I was in my late 20s. But I like to build things. People probably think when Gretchen Wilson isn't on tour, she's probably at the massage parlor, or who knows what we think we do, us celebrity people. But I can usually be found at Lowe's or Home Depot picking out material to do some kind of job at my house. People walk into my house and they look around, "Wow! You did that?" I don't mind saying that it might look a little rickety, but I did it myself and I'm proud of it because I did it myself! I have an old road manager that told this story all the time. He showed up one time unexpected at my door knocking, and I flung the door open with a toolbelt on and a drill in my hand, screaming at him, "What the hell do you want? This is my day off. This is an off day. I'm gonna drill you in the nostril if you ask me one question about work!"
How do you describe the new album, 'I Got Your Country Right Here'?
It's me! Every song on it is one that I truly believe in. And the sequence of this record is perfect, as far as I'm concerned. As soon one song ends, your ears hear exactly what they're begging to hear when the next one starts. I feel like I've invested a lot of time and thought and energy and emotions into this record. I feel like I sang better on this record than I ever have. Musically, it sounds just like it should, just like I want it to, just like my live show. I think that's what's been missing from my albums in the past – that connection with the audience, the live feel and just the raw realness. It's like the first-ever female southern rock album. It's badass. I don't mind telling you that. I love listening to it, and I don't like listening to myself.
There's a song on this record called 'Blue Collar Done Turned Red,' and it's pretty current. There's some angry lines in it, but ... we censor ourselves too much in country music. Other genres don't seem to, the freedom of speech thing works for us too. I'm not saying get vulgar, but you should be able to state your opinion, you should be able to speak your mind in country music just the way they do in other forms of music. We're missing a lot of messages that need to be heard. Songwriting and singing, it's the ultimate form of expression. Music is what feelings sound like. And music is supposed to make you feel and think about things. And if you're censoring what you're saying, you're never gonna get to it.
You've accomplished so much, not only professionally but also personally. You got your GED, and recently you were at the Library of Congress to receive an award for adult literacy.
It was incredible. I got involved with the whole thing accidentally. I just really wanted to finish my education for my sake and for my daughter's sake and for future generations of my family. I'm gonna give you these facts, because I think people need to hear them. It costs less than $300 to educate an adult in the state of Tennessee. It is a proven fact that that an educated adult would then go on to earn more than $500,000 more over the course of his lifetime. Now on a fiscal basis alone, if you're the United States government, why wouldn't you want to invest $300 in the tax money coming off of 500,000 alone? That's just one reason. I'm not even gonna get into all of the other chain-effect things that happen when we have an uneducated adult in this country. Of course, the most important being the children who don't see education as a priority. Let's really look at our country and see how we can start changing things from the inside out and how we can have a smarter America. So I guess I'm just lucky enough that I'm a celebrity that is able to use my face and to lend my voice, and sometimes, unfortunately, what it takes is a celebrity for people to start listening. I didn't need to be honored, although it is one of the things that I'm most proud of. I can tell you while you won't see a whole lot of gold record plaques or platinum record pictures hanging around, you will definitely see my high school diploma and that award for sure.
With all of your accomplishments, when all is said and done, what is the one trait that you hope you've given to daughter Grace?
The sense of self-pride, of accomplishment. I hope with all my heart that when she grows up, she'll -- and this is such a "mom" thing to say -- but that when she grows up, she'll look back and not remember the times when I was working and not there, which are few and far between now, but still she'll remember how hard her mom worked to provide and to keep everything going and to keep everyone happy. I think strength is probably the right word. Strength."
Working as hard as you do, you've got to have some stress-relievers. What are your guilty pleasures?
I've got a sweet tooth. I'm a dough-girl. I like anything bread -- donuts, cakes, pastries. And then I eat at night. I take all my food to bed with me. People are like, "You must work out!" And I'm like, 'Arrrrgh, while I'm watching 'Forensic Files' and 'American Justice.' That's another thing I do. I watch all those crazy shows on the Investigation Channels ...there's like five of those channels, so I'm just constantly watching that crap. I don't watch any of the ones that are made up. I like all the real stories, the ones where they actually found a cat hair at the bottom of the ocean that convicted the guy, you know? I just love seeing how forensic evidence convicts bad guys even when they think they've gotten away with it ... I love it! I probably could've gone into something like that had I not [gone into the music business].
Where does the late-night eating and TV-watching come from?
I think the staying up late and eating and watching TV comes from my grandma, because we did that together. That's what we used to do. We'd just stay up and eat cheeseburgers and onion rings, and she'd just cook all night frying stuff all night long, frying, frying, frying. Smoking Pall Mall [cigarettes] and frying cheeseburgers. [laughs] We were just talking this morning down at the barn, my whole family, they said, 'Do you remember when Mom and Dad, they'd fry whole catfishes in there and then smoke all them cigarettes?' And my uncle said, 'It was toxic in that trailer. It's a wonder how we lived. It was toxic in there.' And I'm thinking and that's how they used to do it. And now, here I am yesterday watching 'Dr. Oz' telling me never to let my kid get into a bathtub again until I get a carbon filter on my whole house. If they'd told my grandma and grandpa that back then, they'd have said, "Get the hell out of here!"