By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

May 13, 2004

To a skeptic, the only question about rising country-music star Gretchen Wilson was whether, outside a recording studio, she could really sing. The answer, to borrow a phrase from her hit single "Redneck Woman," is: "Hell, yeah!"

The pride of Pocahontas, Ill., filled the Pageant on Tuesday night to celebrate the release that day of her debut CD, "Here for the Party." She had lots of family and friends on hand. Considering her tiny hometown about 40 miles east of St. Louis has only 700 or so souls, they all might have been there. Wilson, 30, dressed in a black camisole, blue jeans and boots, went about her business efficiently, making the night about the music rather than show business.

"This is a dream come true for me," she said early on, "to come back to the biggest city near my hometown." Later, she choked up briefly after introducing some family members, and it was clear that the emotion, like much of her music, was real.

Wilson sang all but one of the 10 tracks from her CD in a short, 40-m inute set that was presented free to folks holding tickets distributed by country radio station WIL-FM (92.3). The rocking, anthemic "Redneck Woman" came in its CD position - No. 2 - and by then the crowd had already heard it twice thanks to a half-hour's worth of videos that preceded the show. But that didn't dampen fans' enthusiasm for the song's call-and-response "Hell, yeahs!"

Wilson's music straddles the hard-rocking, loud bass and drums of pop country and the hard-core, steel-guitar sound of traditional country. These reflect her influences, which range from Tanya Tucker and Dwight Yoakam to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr. And, perhaps because she co-writes much of her music, she's at home in both camps.

Her voice is strong and clear, and she attacks rockers and ballads alike with Southern bravado, country sweetness and a little bit of soul. She lets her voice do the work without a lot of gimmicks.

Wilson's show followed the pacing and order of the CD, with the attitude of "Redneck Woman" ("Some people look down on me but I don't give a rip/I'll stand barefoot in my own front yard/With a baby on my hip") sliding nicely into the stone country of "When I Think About Cheatin'."

Similarly, the venomous warning to a "Homewrecker" flowed into the strength-at-home affirmation of "Holdin' You," another of several absolutely convincing ballads that would have had people dancing had there been room on the floor for anything but swaying.

"The party starts here" was the slogan for the night, and it really was only the beginning for Wilson. On Saturday night, she'll perform for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. And on May 26, she'll appear at the Academy of Country Music Awards.

"I'm telling you," she told the crowd, "life is good."

Hell, yeah.