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Gretchen Wilson: Country girl at heart

The country music star talks to NBC's Matt Lauer on why being a 'red neck' is a positive, shopping at Wal-Mart, and finding a man with a Skoal ring.

These days, Gretchen Wilson has plenty to be happy about. She roared onto the music scene last year with “Red Neck Woman,” an anthem to beer-drinking, truck-driving and all things country. Gretchen was credited with putting the kick back in country music as her CD, “Here for the Party,” sold close to 4 million copies and topped the charts.  She won awards and she needed to do some explaining about being a “red neck.”

Gretchen Wilson: My definition of "red neck" is country— it’s strong. it’s proud. And it’s just happy. Apparently I have a different view:  It’s pride in yourself—that’s what growing up being a redneck was to me.

And one year after being crowned the new queen of Country, Gretchen has another top selling CD, “All Jacked Up.”

Gretchen’s also enjoying her newfound fame in a new house in Tennessee.

Matt Lauer, NBC anchor: So you’ve got about 70 acres?Wilson: Yeah. Lauer: And how many horses?Wilson: I’ve got 4 right now. I’m getting ready to buy about 5 or 6 more.Lauer: So all this falls in line with red neck women, right? You can still be a redneck woman and have all this?Wilson: I think so. I this is a red neck woman’s dream right here.Lauer: You’re probably right.

32-year-old Gretchen is living a life that may appear more blue blood than red neck, but she insists she’s still a down home woman.

Wilson: I’m just a country girl at heart, I guess. The way I behave, the person I am is never gonna change. That’s just who I am.Lauer: Does it take effort to stay you? I mean first you start with a manager. Next thing you have a publicist. Then you have hair and make up and it’s a short trip from there to demanding only red M&M’s in the dressing room.Wilson: Well, I demand things in my dressing room. But it’s more hard salami and Jack Daniels, it’s not red M&M’s. I’m just different. I don’t think I’ve changed but everything has definitely changed around me. And I’m adjusting, I’m still adjusting.

The adjustment for Gretchen has been huge. She was born in the small town of Pocahantas, Illinois, to a teenage mom who raised Gretchen and her brother by herself, often moving around.

Wilson: My mom didn’t really have any education and she was a cocktail waitress and a bartender.  And her jobs would change. And sometimes we just couldn’t afford to be where we were at.Lauer: When you were moving around Gretchen, to all these houses—I mean these weren’t the houses with big white picket fences and the houses on the hill. They were…Wilson: Trailers.Lauer: And people don’t talk about trailers in a complimentary fashion these days…Wilson: No they don’t. Maybe it’s because people who live in trailers typically don’t earn much money and they don’t have a lot of nice things. A lot of people work their entire lives to buy a mobile home and it’s their home. And if that’s what makes them happy, then good for them.

Gretchen left her mom’s trailer at age 15, wanting to be independent and live on her own.

Wilson: I didn’t finish high school. I barely made it into high school. I started ninth grade and that’s when I quit. So I mean, I’ve got an eighth grade education. And you know that’s not something I’m proud of. I hate that I didn’t finish school.

To make money, Gretchen tended bar in local honky tonks. When not mixing drinks, she’d pick up the microphone and sing. At 23, she moved to Nashville to try to break into the music industry. After six more years of bar tending and singing, she was discovered by two local singer-song writers, known as Big and Rich. From there, she was on the road to success.

Lauer: Was there a moment when it dawned on you that your life would never really be the same?Wilson: I think that moment for me was probably the CMAs. My first appearance on…Lauer: Country Music Awards.Wilson: Yeah. It was such an intimidating moment for me because I was standing in front of all my peers. I was standing in front of the Reba McEntires, Alan Jacksons, and George Straits.Lauer: Let me interrupt for a second, because interesting you say your “peers.” At that point, they weren’t really your peers.Wilson: They weren’t. I was just hoping to be accepted. It was one of the scariest moments I’ve had.

But it’s the fans for whom Gretchen is really singing— fans who connect with lyrics about her life, which she insists is not unlike theirs.

Wilson: When I go and do a show, I don’t feel like I’m different than the people out in the crowd.

Gretchen says she needs to stay grounded, especially for her 5-year-old daughter Grace. Gretchen, like her mom, is a single parent.

Wilson: I demand my time with my daughter. You know that’s one thing, like the bottom of the line. I mean, I’m a mom first and I’ll always be that way.Lauer: So here in the kitchen, it's either where everything happens or nothing happens— which is it? Wilson: Well, I’m not much of a cook.

Gretchen tries to keep home life as normal as possible, even when it come to shopping, preferring chain stores to pricey boutiques.

Wilson: I totally re-did my daughter’s whole wardrobe at Target the day before yesterday.Lauer: And what about you?Wilson: Most things I get at Wal-Mart or Target that kind of thing.Lauer: Is that because it’s the easiest store for you to get to? Let me play cynic: Is that because, hey you walk down the aisle at Target or Wal-Mart and the people who buy Gretchen Wilson albums go, “Look at her, she really does shop there?”Wilson: No, because I hardly ever get noticed.Lauer: How can that possibly be?Wilson: Well, I dress kind of like I wouldn’t dress when I go in.Lauer: So what’s the Gretchen Wilson Wal-Mart disguise?Wilson: Khaki pants, and flip-flops and a hat and you know, sunglasses.Lauer: So you have a shopping wardrobe?Wilson: Kind of.

And Gretchen says, her 4,000 square foot, modestly-decorated home, fits into the guidelines she’s established for her life.

Lauer: In an interview you did, you said you were never gonna buy a house that would be too big for you to clean yourself.Wilson: Right.Lauer: So on weekends when you’re not on the road, you have the little apron on and the dust mop and you go around this and do it yourself?Wilson: I clean constantly.Lauer: I mean, you could hire somebody to clean the house.Wilson: Oh, I know that. It’s just part of who I am. I just, I enjoy it. I enjoy all the simple things about just being normal and regular and just, you know, cleaning the house is just part of life.

It’s all part of staying true to her roots, whether it’s at home, or one the road touring — picking up a pool cue like in her old days, where hustling brought some extra spending money.

Wilson: I made $500 a week playing music, and $1,500 a week playing pool.Lauer: What about pressure in country music — or in the music business, for some very popular stars to cross over and go into pop?Wilson: I will never. I will never go pop. It’s like the only music that I don’t listen to. I think a lot of record executives figure they can make more money if they cross over—and that’s true. But that’s not what it’s been about for me. It’s been about the music.

But Gretchen’s music— with lyrics about such things as drinking, chewing tobacco and partying, may raise a few eyebrows...

Lauer: You’ve got a lot of young girls out there who love country music and love Gretchen Wilson. Is it important for you to send them a proper message?Wilson: You know from the beginning of time country music has been full of lyrics about alcohol and whiskey and chewing tobacco and cigarette smoking. I don’t think anybody has ever sat done and wrote song to try and promote anything. It’s just a song about real life. I’m a mom. I would never push anything like tobacco or alcohol at a child. I’m singing about who I am and I’m of age.

She may be of age, but that didn’t stop Tennessee’s attorney general from writing Gretchen asking her to stop showing a can of chewing tobacco in concerts, while singing the song, “Skoal Ring.”

Lauer: For people who don’t know what a Skoal ring is, it’s that little jeans mark on the back pocket of your jeans from a guy or woman who walks around with Skoal there.Wilson: I wasn’t ever trying to promote anything. I was just promoting my lyric.Lauer: But the idea of wanting a guy with a Skoal ring means what to you?Wilson: “That’s a good ole' boy.” I apologize if I offended anybody or if I gave the wrong idea. But it’s just a simple country song about a guy. That’s all it is.

As for guys in her life, these days Gretchen is a solo act.

Lauer: Now that you’re famous, do more guys hit on you then when you weren’t famous?Wilson: No. I guess I’m a little intimidating or something, I don’t know. Most guys don’t hit on me. I always make the first move. Guess that’s my personality or something.Lauer: So that’s part of being a red neck woman— you make the first move?Wilson: Yeah.

Gretchen says she’s fine being alone. She also insists she’d be fine no matter what— even if all the things she’s attained in the past few years disappeared.

Lauer: Gretchen, if it were to somehow go south tomorrow, career-wise, and you had to put the house on the 70 acres up for sale, could you go back?Wilson: Could I downsize?Lauer: Yeah? Wilson: Could I move back into a trailer park? Absolutely. You know, life is what you make of it, it’s not what you have. That’s one thing I’ve learned for sure: Life is what you make of it.