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Interview: In the dressing room with Gretchen Wilson

Luis Gomez

About Last Night

12:19 PM CDT, July 26, 2009

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The romantic side of Gretchen Wilson comes out when talking about Billy Joel. The country singer raves about Joel’s song writing abilities and says one song in particular really connected with her.

“For a man to sit down and write ‘She’s Always a Woman’…that’s not supposed to come from a man,” says Wilson. “He’s not supposed to be that far inside of us.”

And then there’s Wilson's honest side.

“I’m not the only one who loves [Joel],” she says. “He’s had some good looking girls throughout the years, hasn’t he? I mean, for somebody like him -- he looks like he’s been beaten the hell out of.”

I get to know this honest side pretty well on Friday. Wilson sits directly across from me in her dressing room before her Toyota Park concert wearing an adidas t-shirt and jeans. The Pocahontas, Ill.-native doesn’t care that I’m seeing her without her makeup and isn’t hiding the fact that she’s chewing Skoal tobacco.

She says she has “nothing to be ashamed of” and tells me early on in the conversation that I can ask whatever I want. OK, how is it possible that we're from the same state?

“I don’t get it either,” says the “Redneck Woman” singer. “It feels like it’s two different states. In southern Illinois, it’s country and rock and roll. Pop is nowhere.

“Where I come from – I’m just going to say it – it’s redder than hell. So when I’m looking at the elections and I’m seeing the blue state, I just don’t get it.”

Wilson did her part for the Republican Party last fall when she campaigned with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. She performed at Palin’s rallys and sang Heart’s “Barracuda” when Palin would come out.

“I remember her speech writer frantically writing speeches in the seat in front of me,” Wilson says about traveling with Palin. “He would call someone and say ‘Can we say this?’ and then they’d go ‘She can’t say this because that could [anger] that person.’

“What killed me the most is that she couldn’t go up there and say what she wanted to say. We never really got to see her. Then I start thinking ‘Well [shoot], we’ve never seen none of them then.’ ”

Wilson knows a little about what it’s like when people try to make you something you’re not. She says early in her career tour mangers would put her on a pedestal and separate her from the rest of the band and crew.

She was uncomfortable with the fact that they didn’t want her getting off the tour bus without security and hit a breaking point when the lighting guys looked down one time when she walked by.

“I want them to call me by my first name and I want them to call me out if I’m doing something wrong,” says Wilson, whose debut album "Here for the Party," sold over five million copies. “There’s not a person who works for me who wouldn’t tell me if I was getting too big for the room.”

Also keeping her grounded is her eight-year-old daughter Grace, who now tours with Wilson. The 36-year-old Mom says touring without her in the past was depressing. Her tour schedule now revolves around Grace’s school schedule so that the two can be together at all times.

The conversation switches over to a topic that comes up often in Wilson’s interviews -- pop country. I tell her I like the genre. She tells me she hates it. Rather than turn it into “You say tomato…” I attempt to see where she’s coming from.

“It’s a manufactured performance,” says Wilson, who has lived in Nashville since 1996 and now has the accent to show for it. “Something with that much going on is not naturally done.

“If I could turn on the radio and hear a Taylor Swift song and right after that a Charlie Daniels song, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But you don’t hear Charlie Daniels on the radio anymore.”

As for Taylor Swift’s spoof rap video with T-Pain, Wilson said she didn’t enjoy it.

“I thought she looked like a goofball,” says Wilson. “What, anything for the camera?”

With show time nearing, Wilson goes off to get dressed. When I see her again in the dressing room, she is getting her makeup done and will have her hair done soon after. She’s also now wearing a rhinestone belt and high heels and her adidas t-shirt has been replaced by a black corset.

It’s a change, but not a transformation. She is still holding a “spit cup” for her chewing tobacco. After her makeup and hair are all set, she peeks out the window to look at the crowd.

“Now if I walk out there, they’re going to know who I am,” she jokes.

Wilson is at her funniest when she rags on herself (and Billy Joel). She admits she has forgotten the words to her songs during shows because she was reading the signs in the crowd. And when she sees how intoxicated some fans are hours before Friday’s show, Wilson says, “I’m going to sound great to them.”

Surprisingly, Wilson still gets nervous before shows even after all these years. She claims she paces back and forth and sometimes throws up.

“Do you know what they expect me to be when I go out there? I’m just this -- and they expect me to be that,” she says, nodding at the stage. “But then I walk out there. I own the place."

lgomez@tribune.com