By People Staff
November 08, 2006 12:00 PM


On her multiplatinum CDs Here for the Party and All Jacked Up, Gretchen Wilson flaunts her hardscrabble roots with saucy songs about chewing tobacco, drinking shots and drag racing on country roads. But in her soon-to-be-published memoir Redneck Woman: Stories from My Life (Nov. 1, Warner Books), the tough-talking Grammy winner offers a rare glimpse of her tender side. “I am so much of a girl, really, I just don’t let it show on the outside much,” says Wilson, 33. Here, in an exclusive excerpt, she recalls the defining moment in her rags-to-riches rise: becoming a mother.

I guess you’d have to say that the period where I had my daughter, Grace, was the highest and the lowest point of my life. Personally, it was one of the happiest times, before or after. I loved the whole experience of having a child growing inside me and then being with that child day and night for the first six months.

Grace was conceived on the very night that my grandma passed away, in fact, within an hour of her death, as I later reconstructed. I took that as an important omen. A couple of weeks after her passing, I started feeling really sick, put two and two together, and decided to get a pregnancy test at a walk-in clinic. I’ll never forget the old man who walked into the room and said, “Picked out any names yet?” I about passed out.

I wasn’t planning to have a baby and, frankly, I was a little scared. It was something that I had wanted for a long time but it never quite worked out. It was like the John Lennon quote: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”

I had gotten a divorce from Larry [Rolens, a musician] only a few months before and was now seeing Mike Penner, Grace’s father, who was then one of the owners of the Bourbon Street bar in Nashville. We didn’t know each other well at the time and neither of us were ready to contemplate raising a child together. Mike worked until four every morning at the bar and I was stuck in the in-between place in my career where I had to keep working like a dog if I was ever going to make it to the next level.

Initially, I felt downright miserable. I saw myself as fat and ugly and pregnant. At the same time, I started feeling that my dream that led me to Nashville was slowly slipping away. I thought, I hadn’t really gotten that far in the four years I had been in town, and here I was, pregnant!

I felt like I was falling into a whole new life that I really hadn’t chosen. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t ready to have a child but didn’t want to give her up. Nor did I want to give up on a career.

I remember one extremely important conversation I had with John Rich [of Big & Rich] about all this. We were sitting in his Dodge pickup truck after a showcase one night. I hadn’t been pregnant very long and no one really knew. “I’m pregnant,” I said to John, “and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I feel awful about this. You and the others have worked so hard for me. You’ve set me up on showcases, you’ve gone into the studio with me to cut demos, you’ve talked me up all over town, and now, here I am pregnant. I don’t want to let you guys down, but I don’t know how I can keep on. I think this is going to be the end of it. I’m done.”

John is the son of a preacher and it felt, sitting in that truck, like John kind of turned into his father. He had a very definite idea of the right way for me to proceed. First of all, he said, I was ignorant if I was to even consider the thought of an abortion. I had, of course, but only for a split second. He told me that with all the things I had lived through, I was certainly tough enough to handle being a mother and having a career at the same time. If anyone could, he said, I could. If anyone should, he said, I was the one who should. He was absolutely right. He convinced me that night that the right course was the hardest course—do both things at once. And that I could pull it off. That conversation was a turning point in my life.

The first thing, of course, was to have a healthy, happy baby and give her all the love and attention I could muster. Mike and I made the decision that he would keep working to provide an income and I would quit my bartending job and focus on my pregnancy. It was a wonderful thing for him to do, and the right thing, too. Hanging out in a smoke-filled bar is hardly the healthiest way to go through a pregnancy. I went home and tried, without much success, to keep up singing and song- writing during those nine months.

It was a hell of a delivery. Baby Grace weighed in at 8 lbs., 6 oz., and she had a 14½-in. head. I was in labor for 16 hours and when it was over, my doctor told me right out, “You’re not made for having babies.”

For the first six months of her life, I stayed home with her. I didn’t want it any other way. I was with her every day, every night, every meal, every burp, every diaper, every everything. It would have been devastating to me if I had had to go back to work right away like millions of mothers have to.

Mike and I never married, but we were together as long as I had been with anyone in my life. [The two split in 2005.] He supported me both before and after the birth of Grace. Then, as she grew, we made a conscious decision to switch roles.

Going back to work was a really hard thing to do, as every new mother knows. To leave my child for my own career ambitions felt self-indulgent. In those first couple of years, it was physically painful to be separated from Grace for any length of time. I tried to figure out every way in the world that I could keep her with me, wherever I was. It is terribly painful to this day to have to tell Grace that Mommy has to go away for days or weeks and do her work, leaving the one she loves most at home. It’s not pleasant to get a phone call saying, “So, where are you tonight, Mommy? When will you be home? Will you be home soon? I got a lot of stuff to show you …”

Grace has changed me in so many ways. Although I had drinking problems in the past, I don’t think I’ll have another one as long as she is in my life. Since she arrived, I realized that it was not all about me anymore. This is a very good thing to remember when you get caught up in a star-making business where the person on the pedestal is often led into thinking that she is the center of the universe. Grace walks into the room and that kind of egomania goes right out the window.

The bottom line is, Grace is my life and music is my talent and passion. Music can be a wonderful, healing thing. And it is a wonderful thing to be able to stand on stage and do what I do for a living. But the ultimate reality in my life is my daughter. I’m a mom first, a singer second.