EW parties with country singer Gretchen Wilson - With her surprise smash anthem ''Redneck Woman,'' the hard-livin', tobacco-chewin' singer is fixing to dirty up Nashville. Hell, yeah!

By Chris Willman
Updated May 14, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Clean-living country is about to get a kick in the ass. Rowdy newcomer Gretchen Wilson’s ”Redneck Woman” is the fastest-rising debut single ever to hit trade mag R&R’s country chart, and it’s a trailer park anthem that folks everywhere except deepest Connecticut will be singing this summer: ”Some people look down on me, but I don’t give a rip/I’ll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip…/And I keep my Christmas lights on on my front porch all year long/And I know all the words to every Tanya Tucker song…”

You might wonder how true these lyrics are. ”All of ’em,” allows Wilson, 30. ”Well, this year I did take my Christmas lights down. But I’m sorry to say that the tree stayed on my front porch until I had somebody pick it up three weeks ago.” Okay — she ain’t fakin’.

Wilson describes her smash as ”a lifestyle song about how proud the women where I’m from are — that it doesn’t matter that Daddy didn’t give us money for college and that we had to bust our butts from early on.” The tunesmith who discovered her and cowrote six of the album’s tracks with her, including ”Redneck Woman” — John Rich, of the duo Big & Rich (see review, page 72) — sees plenty of rambunctious young women out there, and ”since the Dixie Chicks disappeared, nobody’s been talking to ’em,” he says. ”It’s great that it gets to be Gretchen. She told me, ‘I feel guilty the song’s moving so fast while friends of mine struggle with theirs.’ I said, ‘You had enough rough times between 15 and 30 to last a lifetime. It’s about time something was easy for you.’ Because she grew up hard, man.”

How hard? After her dad split when she was 2, Wilson was reared in trailer parks around Pocahontas, Ill., a town with no grocery stores but half a dozen roughneck taverns. She started tending bar in one at 14, dropping out of school to make ends meet. She eventually moved to Tennessee to make her mark in country, and along the way became a single mother. Wilson began showcasing in vain for every label — including Sony Nashville, which deemed her ”dated.” But last year, new president John Grady had her reaudition. When she spied him scribbling a note that read ”N-O,” she almost bolted — but then she figured out he’d been writing ”N-O-W.”

Her debut, Here for the Party (out May 11), serves up a star-makingly solid combo of Southern rock and honky-tonk. But can a genre whose stars are expected to grin and glad-hand deal with a gal whose ‘tude is rougher and more reticent? ”Her shyness and intensity combined make her come across as somebody that’d whip your ass, even though I doubt she really ever has,” says Rich. But then he laughs. ”When she walks in with a [tobacco] dip in her mouth, that [can] intimidate you a little.”

So how tough a chick is country’s new star? ”When you grow up the way I did, you run into tough people,” she says. ”Being here a few years and getting rejected everywhere you look makes you tougher too. Not mean — just able to handle a lot. I think people who come from nothing and finally get where they’re going are probably the happiest people, even if you might not be able to always look at their faces and see it. But,” Wilson adds, with just a half chuckle, ”yeah, ‘tough chick’ is probably right.” Faith and Shania: For your next cosmetics endorsement, consider neck blush.