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After years of being rejected by Nashville, 'Redneck Woman' Gretchen Wilson finally becomes a force to be reckoned with.

It's 8:25 on a cold night in DeKalb,Ill. As screams from 8,000 fans at the Northern Illinois University Convocation Center become near-deafening, Gretchen Wilson and her musicians, called The 3/4 Ton Band, huddle beside the stage, drinking shots of Jack Daniels from red plastic cups.

It's opening night of the Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson: The American Revolution Tour. Two of Gretchen's buds, James Otto and Jon Nicholson, from the Nashville music collective called the MusikMafia, kicked off the show.

And now the crowd is chanting for Gretchen.

It's a dream come true for this tough-and-tender singer, who, after almost 10 years of being turned down by record labels, was beginning to wonder if stardom would ever come her way.

Then she hits the stage to an explosion of applause and cheers - and her dream takes another big step.

"I thought a lot of times about changing," admits the small-town girl from Pocahontas, Ill., just before going onstage, "and trying to figure out what they wanted." She's referring to the label execs who'd listen to her sing, then say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

"I'd hear, 'We're not looking for a female right now - sorry that you came in and spent time with us.' Or 'We already have a long-haired brunette, we don't need two of them.' It's sometimes kind of ridiculous what you hear.

"The only thing I really learned from all that was, at the end of the day, it didn't work for me until I stopped worrying about what shoes I was wearing, how much makeup I had on or if I had any makeup on," she declares. "I started thinking, 'What if I get a record deal and they don't really like who I am, and they do tweak and change, and they do pick the songs themselves - what if I am successful like that? And what if, 20 years from now, I'm sitting around by myself thinking about how it might've been if I had done it a little more true to me? I pretty much decided I didn't want it unless I could be myself, and be honest and real.

"And, I really tried not to wear my heart on my sleeve, because I realized there could be 10 different reasons why it just wasn't gonna work out that time. The only answer I had to have was 'No." That's pretty much what it always was, until that last one."

- Wendy Newcomer

To read more about Gretchen Wilson's launch to fame, pick up the new Country Weekly on newsstands today!