REDNECK WOMAN

Gretchen Wilson has gone from nobody to Next Big Thing as her hit blazes up the charts and takes over video channels. So, who is she?

It's only fitting that Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" video has been monopolizing airplay on CMT lately. After all, the video channel inspired the song in the first place.

One day, Gretchen - then a struggling singer with no record deal - visited her friend John Rich, half of hot duo Big & Rich. While John was making coffee, Gretchen watched TV in the living room. Seeing the smooth, slicked-up women on the screen disheartened her.

John walked in and saw the look on her face. "What's the matter?" he said.

"I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to do this," she replied, pointing at the television. "I'm not polished, perfect and slick. I'm not one of them."

"What are you, then?"

"I don't know," said Gretchen. "You tell me."

"I think you're just a redneck woman!" said John, only half-kidding.

The two had a laugh - and decided that was a pretty good idea for a song, one that would celebrate all the perfectly imperfect women in rural areas like Gretchen's tiny hometown of Pocahontas, Ill.

The result: "Redneck Woman" is the fastest-rising debut hit since LeAnn Rimes' "Blue" in 1996 - and the video has pushed those fashionable females right out of the way to take over CMT. "I had no idea that there were this many rednecks!" laughs Gretchen. "I knew there was a lot of 'em scattered around, but not this many."

Gretchen and company spent two days filming the video in and around Nashville. The first day - which she calls the "glam day" - covered the performance segments, but the second day was more to Gretchen's liking. That was the day she spent driving a four-wheeler in the mud.

"They did my hair and makeup at 9 a.m., and by 10 after 10 I was covered in mud!" she says delightedly.

Also popping up in the "Redneck Woman" clip were a couple of legends mentioned in the lyrics: Tanya Tucker and Hank Williams Jr. Tanya agreed to take part after Gretchen sent her a copy of the song, while Hank Jr. was drafted for the shoot by Gretchen's buddy Kid Rock - who is also in the video.

She invited the country-lovin' rap-rocker to take part on the first night she met him, at John Rich's 30th birthday party. "I played him my song, and he said, 'Man, that is off the hook!' " she remembers. "I said, 'Yeah?' I didn't know how to take that. He said, 'No, in a good way. It's like, Loretta Lynn off-the-hook!' "

While the video has made Gretchen a lot more fans, the most important one is at home - her 3-year-old daughter, Grace Frances Penner. "She gets a big kick out of it," reports Gretchen. "She comes running from the other side of the house whenever she hears it come on, screaming, 'Mommy's on TV!' "

Gretchen herself is pretty excited about her newfound fame - even if she's a little disoriented these days.

"I'm doing great with most of the stuff," she says. "What's hard to get used to is all the people around all the time, doing things for me that I've always done for myself. I'm being catered to and pampered - not that I'm complaining, I'm just not used to it!"

Nonetheless, Gretchen welcomes her success.

"Every day is bringing better news and bigger things," she says. "Everybody is asking me, 'Are you ready for this?' and I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? I've been ready all my life. Are you ready for this?' "

-- Chris Neal

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