by Courtney Grimes

Country music powerhouse and Epiphone artist Gretchen Wilson does not keep it a secret that she's connected to the Mafia. The Musik Mafia, that is - Nashville's underground songwriter jam group that was her stepping stone to a record deal. The irreverent, independent attitude of her Nashville club performances carried through to her debut album Here for the Party and made her Nashville's newest superstar. "Redneck Woman," which tore up the country music charts, and her followup, "Pocahontas Proud," remind listeners that Gretchen is not a typical polished, manufactured, country-pop artist. Instead, she is a down-home girl who has experienced a hard life and actually lived her lyrics. Gretchen Wilson is not only here for the party, she's here to stay, and with no apologies.

EPI: When did you begin to sing and play and why did you want to start performing?

GRETCHEN: Well, I started singing about the same time I started walking and talking. I sang all around house and I was always listening to music with mom and grandmother and would sing in the car and everything. I sang live for the first time when I was 15, at taverns around the small town where I grew up, with the local bands. I actually joined my first band when I was 16 and played in several bands after that, and then worked my way up to Nashville in 1996. I guess I knew I could sing early on. Everybody told me I could, and they always had a good time listening, so I thought, 'Hey, you know, I could do this.' So it's been hard, I mean, it's chasing after a dream. But sometimes dreams come true.

Muzik Mafia - (back) Cory Gierman, Big Kenny, Jon Nicholson, James Otto
(front) Gretchen and John Rich

EPI: Tell me about Musik Mafia. How did you become involved?

GRETCHEN: Can't remember exactly what year it started, but four guys got together, and they were the original godfathers. They get together once a week and have fun creating music and playing for people. They were interested in getting away from the everyday grind on music row, just creating a getaway from the work part of all of it, and getting back to more of the fun part, which sometimes is forgotten about. They were just these weekly jam sessions. So then, the music industry started taking notice, and Musik Mafia was a stepping stone for up-and-coming artists like James Otto and me and Big & Rich and a lot of others.

EPI: On your album Here for the Party, which song is your favorite, or which song are you most proud of?

GRETCHEN: Definitely "When I Think About Cheatin." There are a lot of reasons why I love it. It reminds me of something that could have been recorded 30 years ago. Patsy Cline could have had a hit with this song. I love the chord progressions and the steel guitar. And I'm really proud of being a writer on it. Through the years, there have been so many songs written about cheating, but this song has a different twist. This is about what not to do when you're thinking about cheating. It's a cheating song with a happy ending.

EPI: Who is the craziest artist you've worked with so far?

GRETCHEN: Probably because I've spent so much more time with them, I'll have to say Big & Rich. But Eddie and Troy from Montgomery Gentry, too, they're pretty crazy. I'm getting ready tonight to do my first show with Brooks and Dunn, so maybe ask me this question again tomorrow! I'm really excited about the show tonight. We've had band meetings all day, and we've walked around the venue, and everybody involved is so awesome. This is like what you always expected it to be like, when you're a little girl and you dream about what it would be like, to be backstage with all the stars. It just feels like a really tight ship. There are a lot of people working, and they all know exactly what they're doing.

Gretchen's custom "Redneck" Masterbilt EF-500R.

EPI: Tell me about your Epiphone Masterbilt guitar.

GRETCHEN: My manager already had a great relationship with Epiphone. Since they have worked so well with everybody through the years, and the Epiphone guitars have always been amazing, it just seemed like a natural fit. I looked around at some Epiphones there in Nashville and immediately picked up on this one design. It was just a beautiful guitar, I loved it, it was real smooth and had a worn look but it was perfect. There was nothing scratchy or denty about it, but it just had a real homey, back porch look to it, and it just felt right in my hand. So I asked the Epiphone guys if it would be possible to put the word 'REDNECK' on the guitar. They said "Yeah, it's possible!" I ended up with a pretty amazing looking guitar and I get a lot of comments on it after every performance.

EPI: Do you have, or use, any other Gibsons?

GRETCHEN: Yeah, I just recently started playing electric guitar in my show. I play a Les Paul and I love it! When you're in a rock and roll band, everybody knows there's no sound like a Les Paul! This guitar is actually one I looked at that same day I picked out my Epiphone. Gibson came through with it, and it's amazing, although it's quite heavy. But that's fine because I use it to play heavy songs!

EPI: What was the insta-fame like for you, when your career suddenly skyrocketed?

GRETCHEN: It was crazy. I don't think anybody can really prepare you for what happens. I don't think anybody can really tell you about what is going to happen to you. I had already spent quite a few years in Nashville, learning the music business and how Music Row operates, and I had learned a lot about the industry. But nobody can educate you on the road, so you just get out there and do it. I'm still in the beginning stages. I think it's awesome when I get recognized and then the autographs and the meet-and-greets are just incredible. That's right behind performing. But yeah, it's a lot to handle in a short amount of time.

EPI: You just got back from overseas, right? How was the trip, where all did you go?

GRETCHEN:We went on a 10-11 day International Tour to Sydney, Berlin, Stockholm, through Norway, and London, England. They were all so beautiful! I spent three days in Sydney and that was probably my favorite, mostly because I was so overwhelmed by the city. And it was the middle of winter for them in July. The weather was unbelievable, it was maybe 58 degrees at night and 68 during the day and the sun was shining!

EPI: What has been your favorite part of your career so far?

GRETCHEN: We've done so much in the past four to five months. It's hard to pick a favorite. I got to play at The Grand Ole Opry, perform at the ACM Awards show, and I've done all kinds of cool things with my buddies.

I guess the most memorable thing so far, was about a month after my single was released, I took a surprise trip back home to a small bar where all this started for me. I tried to show up unannounced, but word got out, and there were a lot of people there. I played "Pocahontas Proud" for the first time in Pocahontas before the record even came out. The reaction of the crowd there was just….overwhelming. I mean it was just absolutely amazing. There was just thunderous applause, people were laughing, people were crying, some were screaming….it was just amazing.

EPI: You've just started your first tour, how is it going so far? Do you think you'll like life on the road?

GRETCHEN: It's a lot to get used to. The hardest part for me is the time I have to spend away from my daughter. But I got to the point where I now have two buses rollin' and every once in a while she comes with me, and she loves the bus. When Grace is on it, the bus is more like Disneyland on wheels. We've got cartoons and toys all over the place, and my road manager Lisa and I decided it would be more like home to have a pet. So we picked up a puppy in Samford, Florida, and that's her name - Samford. It's a cute little dog and she does real good on the bus and it's real good to have her around.

EPI: If you could give one piece of advice to somebody trying to make it in the music business, what would you say?

GRETCHEN: Be honest and just be proud of yourself. Always, always be true to yourself. It's a tough business and a lot of people have a lot of different ideas, and things they think an artist needs to be, in order to be successful. If you know you've got something, don't let the world tweak what you've got. Your fans know what's real.

Gretchen with Kid Rock and Hank Jr. at the "Redneck Woman" video shoot.

For more information about Gretchen Wilson visit