Wilson was born on June 26, 1973, and raised in rural Pocahontas, Ill.,
36 miles due east of St. Louis, where numerous trailer parks are
clustered among cornfields and pig farms. Her mother was 16 years old
when she had Gretchen, and her father, unfortunately, had moved on with
his life by the time she was 2. Whenever they couldn't make rent, which
was every few months, they packed up what little belongings they owned
and moved down the road only to find yet another trailer.
With only an eighth-grade education, she was cooking and tending bar at
Big O's, a rough-and-tumble bar five miles outside of town, alongside
her mom at age 14. A year later and living on her own, she was managing
the roughneck joint with a loaded 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun stashed
behind the bar for protection.
The father she never really knew provided her with the musical talent to
sing. "My dad just picked around on the guitar and has a quiet voice,"
Gretchen says. She made it a point to meet him for the first time when
she was 12. "His family, I'm told, had a little traveling band. I think
it was a gospel band." In any case, from an early age she could sing.
Long before karaoke machines, she got up on stage every night at Big O's
with a microphone and sang along to various CDs for tips. She soon found
herself fronting a cover band and for the first time she felt like maybe
there was a life for her outside Bond County. She moved to Nashville in
became somewhat discouraged after a brief encounter with a local
musician, whom she happened to recognize at a Nashville music shop. She
asked for advice, and he said she needed to create a buzz. It would take
her four long years to figure out what he meant. In the meantime, she
got a job slinging drinks at a bar in Printers Alley.
A few years later, and now with a daughter, she still had no luck in
terms of getting a record deal. One Friday night, singer-songwriters Big
Kenny and John Rich (of Big & Rich) walked into the bar and heard her
sing with the house band. She remembers, "John followed me up to my
little cubby hole bar upstairs with his trench coat and cowboy hat and I
think his exact words were, 'Hey, how come you ain't got a record deal
yet?' I looked at him in disgust … threw him a business card and a
little homemade demo and said, 'I'm busy. I'm working right now.'"
For months he tried getting in touch with her, and for months she
ignored his calls until someone finally said, "Look, you should really
return his call. He might be able to help you out." He not only
introduced her to his circle of friends -- "they started to use me
singing on some demos" -- but he also taught her how the Nashville
songwriting community really works. She also became a member of the
Muzik Mafia, a loose-knit group of singers, songwriters and musicians
who get together to jam (and party) every Tuesday in a local Nashville
nightspot. It was in front of her peers -- very honest peers -- that she
honed her songwriting style. She later signed with Sony Music Nashville.