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One thing Gretchen never had to fight for, though, was her voice. From impromptu performances in the aisles of Kmart as a small girl to her teenage years as a bar singer, Gretchen belted out the tunes whenever opportunity arose, and never pretended not to know she had pipes. In her early twenties, those pipes carried her to Nashville, where she joined the throng of dreamers looking to hit the big time in Music City. There she continued singing in bars, where she was discovered by a group of talented misfits who called themselves the MuzikMafia.
Finding friends was just the first step on a rocky path to superstardom. Gretchen continued to work on her craft and pursue her dream until one day, to no one's surprise more than her own, she found herself shaking hands on a record deal with the president of Sony Music Nashville. Now, two smash hit albums and multiple awards later, Gretchen tells her tale in a no-nonsense style that shows the world what a redneck woman really is.
I'm the biggest thing that ever came from my hometown And I'll be damned if I'm gonna let 'em down If it's the last thing I do before they lay me in the ground You know I'm gonna make Pocahontas proud. "Pocahontas Proud"
I grew up in the southern part of Illinois, a kind of no-man's-land between St. Louis on the west and the Indiana border on the east. The land is flat, as flat as Iowa or western Kansas. The horizon is broken by an occasional silo or water tower but otherwise is endless. There are plenty of cornfields and dairy farms, interrupted by small town after small town with names like Pierron, Dudleyville, Greenville, Edwardsville, Millersburg, and Pocahontas. Some of these towns are so small that their inhabitants just say they're from a particular county, like Bond County or Madison County. Pocahontas doesn't even have a grocery store. Pierron doesn't have a gas station or stoplight. I guess the four hundred people or so who live there don't need to stop that much.
Travelers whiz by on Interstate 70 from St. Louis to Indianapolis and rarely stop and investigate the places or the people who live within a stone's throw of that highway. A common saying is, no one comes to Pocahontas who doesn't already live there. It's part of a rural society that looks inward to the lives of itsneighbors and not outward to the life of the world.
Although Illinois fought for the North in the Civil War, the area of Illinois that I'm from feels a lot more like the South. The region is very close in distance to Southern strongholds like Kentucky and Tennessee, much closer than it is to Chicago and the upper Midwest. The speech is Southern-people say "carn" for corn, "fark" for fork, and "arwl" for oil. The name of the Interstate is Highway "Farty," not Forty. More importantly, the outlook is more Southern than Northern. The people there feel a part of the great traditional Southern culture that has now made huge inroads into every part of America-country music, stock car racing, pickup trucks, and Jack Daniel's whiskey. If you think about it, the South really did rise again, and is still rising, in ways no one could have predicted.
My mom, Christine, gave birth to her only daughter, Gretchen Frances Wilson, when she was sixteen. My father, who I didn't really meet until I was twelve years old, was a local boy she had married at fifteen. Her main reason for marriage, she says, was to get out of her childhood household and escape from a tyrannical father. She dropped out of school in the beginning of the tenth grade and now claims she didn't have much time for school even when she went because of the demands her father put on her-everything from babysitting her younger brother, Vern, to moving rock piles for one of her dad's many landscaping projects. She soon tired of her new husband (my father) because, even as a teenager, she was forced to work two jobs-waitressing and housecleaning- while he was struggling to find one.
She left my biological father after two years and soon met up with her second husband, my stepfather, who to this day she rightly refers to as "the dark one." At the time of their marriage, my mom was eighteen and he was twenty-eight. He was a smooth operator, the kind of charmer who could talk anyone into anything. He talked my beautiful, blond, adventurous teenage mom into marriage and made her life-and much of my life-a living hell for the next sixteen years.
My mom married my stepfather for stability and he was anything but stable. He made his living as an itinerant, self-employed contractor and builder-anything from bricklaying to deck-building-and he knew a hundred ways to often talk people out of their money. He would bid a job, for instance, take half the money up front for materials, buy half the materials, do half the work, and then just take off with the rest of the money. And he'd often do this to people who didn't have the wherewithal to find him. There were always a lot of angry people looking for him.
In my mom's words, he was a master at "playing the role." One way or another, he was always making money but he could waste it on pursuing the next job as fast as he made it. At the end of the day, he never had anything to show for it.
Soon after her second marriage, my mom had another child, my stepbrother, half-brother, Josh, who I now just call my brother since we've been so close for so long. Because of my stepfather's methods of doing business, we were always moving. My stepfather would be ready to walk away from a job half-done or maybe the rent became due on the trailer or apartment we were living in at the moment, and it would be pack-up-and-get-out time. My mom would pack Josh and me, along with the dog and cat and a few meager belongings, into her beat-up Ford Escort and away we would go. Sometimes we'd only go ten miles, from one little town to another, rent another trailer with nothing more than my stepfather's solemn promise to pay the rent after he got his first paycheck from a job he only claimed to have.
So we were always moving on, always running from debt, never having enough money to stop, plant roots, and live a normal life. I spent a large part of my childhood on the move, never really sure which unfurnished rental unit to call home. Moving was our principal family activity. We moved an average of every three or four months from the time my mom met the dark one until the time I took off on my own at age fifteen. I'm from Pocahontas, but I have lived in some form of temporary residence in Collinsville, Edwardsville, Belleville, Troy, St. Jacob, Greenville, Millersburg, Pierron, and Glen Carbon, all towns in the same general area. Consequently I kept switching school districts every time we moved. Even within one school year, I might find myself as the new kid in class in three or four different elementary or junior high schools. I probably attended twenty different schools from the time I began kindergarten until I finally quit in the beginning of the ninth grade. For both Josh and me, it was an endlessly crazy existence.
Life in rural Illinois is tough even if you're not moving every five minutes and running scams to stay alive. Everybody there struggles. Outside of farming, which is one of the hardest lives imaginable, there isn't much around there that could pass for a local economy. The best you can hope for, if you don't feel tied to the place and the people, is to latch on to some kind of skill or career that can take you out of there.
If you stay, your options are damn few. You're going to be a pig farmer or a corn farmer, or you're down at a diner or truck stop flipping eggs, or you're an auto mechanic working in a small shop in your backyard, or a hod-carrier, or you're pouring drinks down at Hoosier Daddy's. At least while I was growing up, everyone was pretty much in the same boat-barely making it and trying to deal with all the side effects of barely making it, like alcohol, divorce, and despair.
Like in most people's lives, there were good times and there were bad times. During the good times, when work was plentiful and the cash was flowing, we might move into a nice-sized house and feel almost like the people we'd see in the TV commercials serving Pillsbury biscuits in the kitchen or washing the new car in the driveway. During the bad times, I felt more like the homeless people you see on the six o'clock news. I remember, between houses or trailers, sleeping in the back of a pickup truck, more than once. The truck would have a camper shell on the back and we'd crawl into sleeping bags and call it a night. During those hard times, though, I never felt like a victim. I felt like a survivor. I knew things would change-they always did-and I was just anxious to keep moving and maybe find a place, for whatever length of time, where I could take a deep breath and try to enjoy where I was.
One day when I was about six, my mother's husband decided that he wanted to move to Miami, Florida. He had an uncle down there who could line him up with some prospects and, according to my mom, he saw it as a way to get away from all our in-laws in Southern Illinois so my mother wouldn't have anyone to run to when things got rough. In Miami, we were completely surrounded by strangers, often strangers who couldn't speak English, and completely dependent on my stepfather for guidance and protection. Which is exactly how he liked it.
Even in southern Florida, we never sat still for long. In the five or six times we relocated there, we lived in South Miami, North Miami, and Coral Gables, among other scenic stops. Not only did we impulsively move from Greenville, Illinois, to Dade County, Florida, when things got tough, we'd often live in three different places in Florida in a six-or seven-month period. It was a way of life.
I could see why my mother wanted to live in Miami- she was still very young and wanted the wild Miami lifestyle of the 1980s. To Josh and me, it was pure culture shock. We didn't move to postcard Miami; we moved to trailer-park Miami, a far different world than the one of the South Beach partygoers celebrated on Entertainment Tonight. We often lived down there among the lowest-income Cuban refugees you could find. At one point, our next-door neighbor was an old Cuban gentleman named Flaco. Flaco and his wife were in their seventies and kind of took Josh and me under their wing, for a little while anyway. They had a pet parrot that spoke Spanish. They were kind of a substitute for the grandparents we had left behind in Illinois.
The trailer park where we and Flaco lived was a big one-maybe four-hundred trailers in one enclosed area. It was way, way out of Miami, almost in the Everglades. It's where civilization ended. Our rent-a-trailer was small-twelve by sixty-and housed four of us. It had a screened-off porch where Josh and I played Nintendo by the hour and even played pool on a pint-sized pool table. The pool cue would always be hitting a wall, making it impossible to really shoot, but we did it anyway.
Flaco made his living by selling roses on the street. His trailer was only a bush line away from a big intersection, so he would simply hop over his fence every day, grab a bucket of roses from his wife, and peddle them to the cars stopped at the red light. Even at his age, he stood out there in that traffic for hours on end. Again, this wasn't fun-loving Miami. Flaco rarely hung out at the beach and neither did I. In the on-and-off four or five years we lived in South Florida, I bet I can count on one hand the number of times I went to the beach.
Miami and Southern Illinois were two completely different worlds, like living on Earth one day and Mars the next. And making the transition back and forth was always weird. I'd go from hanging out with a bunch of Spanish-speaking motorcycle friends at Lowman's Plaza in Miami at twelve or thirteen to sitting under the bleachers at a high school football game in Illinois with some fresh-faced country boy trying to get to first base. The boy in the bleachers had never been anywhere as far as one county over and had a curfew. The guys in Miami were adept at surviving in all kinds of worlds, Cuban and American, and didn't know what a curfew was-they couldn't even pronounce the word. In fact, they couldn't even say my name. They called me "G."
I had no choice but try to fit in as best I could in both worlds. I learned enough Spanish so that I could understand my math teacher; her English was so bad that teaching in Spanish made more sense. Even today, I know enough Spanish that if I'm in a restaurant and some guys are talking trash in the next booth in Spanish, I can understand them and lip off to them in their own language. They always freak out.
Shifting back and forth between these places was always disorienting and often painful. It was very hard trying to grow up and come into your adolescence not knowing where the hell you were, let alone who the hell you were. Looking back, I can now see that the experience of living in Florida may have opened me up in ways that a more grounded existence in rural Illinois wouldn't have. It gave me both a familiarity and a curiosity about the rest of the world, maybe even a taste for the new and exotic.
Many people growing up in small-town Midwestern America have no real sense of the world beyond their immediate surroundings. They are often fearful of the larger world and figure that if they ventured out, they'd be like the proverbial rube in the big city-scared, gullible, and an easy mark. At the very least, they think, they'll get robbed and beaten for just walking down the wrong street. The city, any city, is foreign territory.
I learned early in life that the big city was often strange and different, but no more intimidating than downtown Pocahontas on a Saturday night. Both Josh and I often had to fend for ourselves in the urban environment of Miami while our parents were having a good time or plotting the next move. And as with all the other obstacles that were thrown in our path as kids, we survived just fine.
No matter where we were-Illinois or Florida-our family life was a constant merry-go-round of feast and famine. In Florida, for instance, with my mom working full-time at Tony Roma's and her husband hitting a good streak in the deck- or dock-building business, we'd have a little spending cash. In a gesture of living large and probably stroking his own ego, my stepfather would go out and buy my mom a brand-new used car for her birthday. Two weeks later he'd have to sell the same car to pay the rent or to underwrite our next move out of the area. Perhaps that car would finance our way back to Illinois and another town, another trailer, and another short-term job to keep food on the table.
People often think kids don't see the stress and anxiety in their parents' lives or even if they do see it, can just roll with it and not be affected. In my experience, that is nonsense. Josh and I picked up on everything. We were smart enough to see that our school friends didn't live like this, assuming we made any school friends in the three or four months we spent at any one school. We knew that it was weird to suddenly move into an apartment or trailer on the first of the month and be out of there before the next rent check was due. We knew that when my mom announced that we were off to Miami again and followed it with "we're going to stay in one place and your dad's got a great new job and this time it's going to be different"-we knew it wasn't going to be a bit different. After a while, of course, we'd pack up and leave with my mom making no such promises of a new life right around the next corner. She realized we weren't buying that line of BS after hearing it a dozen times. We all knew the truth: that life was a damn mess all the time.
And most of all, we could see and feel the abuse. My stepfather was never a big drinker, a drug user, or even a cigarette smoker, but he was often violent and abusive, especially toward my mother. My mom lived in fear from the moment she married the man. The verbal abuse never stopped and the physical abuse was always one sassy comeback away. As she sees it now, my mom describes her whole existence as like being in an embryo position-curled up and cowering. For most of those sixteen years she saw herself as weak and powerless. He had her in a psychological prison.
Mom, only in her early twenties when the abuse became constant, didn't know what to do. As she's said many times, she was too scared to get out of this awful situation. Especially after moving to Miami, she was completely alone in fending off his attacks as well as trying to shield her two children from his wrath. She did call the police a few times when she felt her life was in jeopardy, but then was too scared to press charges or use the incident to get as far away from him as possible. The police themselves would bring him up on assault-and-battery and he would do time in the county jail, but the sentences never lasted that long and when he got out, my mom would be there to take him back in.
This kind of relationship is an ugly, unbroken cycle of intimidation and compromise and only the people who have lived through it can understand it. And of course, ours wasn't the only household in America where this cycle is a simple fact of daily life. All you have to do is tune into Oprah or Dr. Phil to know the widespread reach of domestic abuse in America.
My mom did try to escape this torment five or six times in their long marriage. On occasion, she would put Josh and me in the car in Miami and head back home for the love and support of her family. But he was always one step ahead of her. Before she got back to Pocahontas, he would have taken a flight from Miami and be there to greet her at the door. Then he would use his vast storehouse of charm and BS to lure her back, all the time telling her the same lie she was constantly telling us, i.e., "this time it'll be different."
Excerpted from Redneck Woman by Gretchen Wilson Allen Rucker Copyright © 2006 by Gretchen Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 18, 2013
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