Years ago, before this gig started to make me think about it critically, I would write off modern country artists out-of-hand. They had strayed too far from the form’s roots in folk and blues, and thought making references to trucks and tall cold ones was the same thing as telling stories. They were doing to Johnny Cash what Whitesnake did to Led Zeppelin, and I wasn’t going to give them a second of my time.
It was easier to think that way. Now that I’ve been exposed to the likes of Paisley, Lambert and Keith, I know that underneath that Nashville sheen lays the kind of clever, conceptual songwriting you rarely get from rock ’n’ roll these days.
So when I heard the opening two songs of Gretchen Wilson’s set on Saturday night in the Events Center of Seneca Niagara Casino – a pair of glossy hard-rock party anthems that would fit snugly on any Poison album – I didn’t have the luxury of my former ignorance.
I’m not going to sit here and call her Bob Dylan or anything, but I’m happy I looked beyond those Aquanet guitars and gave Wilson’s actual songs a chance. The artist best known for her ubiquitous 2004 smash “Redneck Woman” isn’t immune to cliches – she “works hard but plays harder,” name drops Skynyrd and romanticizes booze – but her show was also sprinkled with some winning lines that elevated the songs around them. In the middle of the otherwise run-of-the-mill woman scorned cut “Homewrecker,” for instance, Wilson broke off this couplet: “Now honey, I’m a Christian, but if you keep it up/I’m gonna go to kickin’ your pretty little butt.” Something about that phrasing – the condescending “honey,” the idea that the narrator’s only been holding back for religious reasons – elicits the visual of a woman who can ruin your world while blowing on her nails.
One of several new songs, from a record set to come out on April 2, started off as a plucky little tune about a 92-year-old grandma. What Wilson did with it from that point on was charming, and bold, and irresistible, a story of a woman who was sick of saying no to life’s pleasures and tries a substance that would make Willie Nelson proud – “making the most of every breath” before she passes on.
This was the moment that showed Wilson is indeed part of the country tradition, the moment that balanced out the “Rock You Like A Hurricane” segue and the arena-rock song titled “I Got Your Country Right Here.” (Maybe this song is actually about the concept of a multiverse, arguing that an alternate dimension could exist in which “I Got Your Country Right Here” actually sounds like a country song. Or maybe I’m over-thinking that one.)
Toward the end of the 75-minute show, Wilson’s solid five-piece band was slaying all kinds of classic rock riffs, and she was nailing high notes with authority, her voice imbued with the kind of bluesy grit that makes you wish she’d aim more for Janis Joplin and less for Bret Michaels. By the time they reached the finale, a torrid take on Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” these musicians were giving us their loudest, most unfiltered, greatest performance of the night.
To which the crowd said, “Meh.” They’d just heard “Redneck Woman,” so they headed for the exits in droves. That’s Northern hospitality for you, I guess.