In the rough-and-tumble roadhouse called Big O’s, a teenage Gretchen Wilson felt at home with a microphone in hand, belting out renditions of old-school Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn that sliced through the smoky haze.
The diminutive blonde dreamed of being a big star, and those who heard her believed she had the chops for it.
“She would just knock everybody out,” Leta Jones recalled of Wilson in the late 1980s. “She was this little girl with the big voice.”
That big voice has carried Wilson from dirt-poor beginnings to the big time of country music. And this sleepy, no-stoplight community that locals lovingly call “Pokey” is singing its connection to Wilson loud and proud.
The wooden sign near the Powhatan restaurant on the edge of this outpost east of St. Louis greets travelers, “Welcome to Pocahontas, a small town with a lot of heart,” noting that this is the “Hometown of Gretchen Wilson, country music star.”
A spray-painted sign tacked to a utility pole reads, “Pocahontas is proud of Gretchen Wilson,” and several hand-stenciled yard signs exhort similar messages of pride.
The Grammy-winning Wilson, 32, released her debut album “Here for the Party” in May 2004, and sold more than 4 million copies. She was born in Granite City but grew up in Pocahontas and knows the town is glad to call her one of its own.
In her song “Pocahontas Proud,” she sings: “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.”
Pride of PocahontasLast June she even got a key to the town when she helped dedicate a new pavilion she donated $15,000 to erect what is now “Gretchen Wilson Park,” a grassy stretch with a baseball diamond and lake.
Pocahontas — population “850 if you count the cats and dogs, about 800 otherwise,” one local submits — had nothing really to lay claim to until Wilson struck gold. And the attention toward the town is being stoked as Wilson promotes her new album, “All Jacked Up” — already a Billboard best-seller.
“We’re all happy for her,” Don Hawley said as he washed his 1994 Mercury Tracer outside his home. “You can’t listen to country music without hearing her music.”
To Hawley and others around here, the self-professed “Redneck Woman” — the title of her breakthrough, defiant, beer-swigging anthem that spent weeks atop the country charts — is bona fide.
“When she talks about small-town roots, she really has them. When she talks about singing in taverns, she really has,” Hawley said.
Village trustee Karen Heilig calls Wilson “the best darned thing to ever happen to this town,” home to a couple of antique shops and gas stations, a few single-level motels, a funeral home and plenty of pickup trucks and trailer homes.
When Wilson had a concert this year in St. Louis, Heilig said, “two-thirds of Pocahontas was there” to watch the woman who during the past year has enjoyed a meteoric rise. She’s been tapped the best new artist by the Country Music Association, the American Music Awards and the Academy of Country Music, which also named her the genre’s top female vocalist. In February, she took home a Grammy for “Redneck Woman.”
“Before Gretchen came along, when someone asked where we lived we said, ‘east of St. Louis.’ Now we say ‘Pocahontas,”’ Heilig, 58, said in a Village Hall office where six photos of Wilson — some autographed — adorn the walls.
Overcoming obstaclesWilson’s life is like a country song. The daughter of a teenage mother, she grew up in one trailer home after the next. By the time she was 14, she was a high school dropout tending bar with her mom at Big O’s, just outside Pocahontas. By 15, she was living on her own and managing Big O’s with a shotgun for protection.
“She had such a hard life. It’s just amazing what she’s done,” Jackie Haberer, 75, said as she did some pruning outside her home.
“She just has a lot of guts,” added Jennifer Weiss, a former Wilson schoolmate. The inn Weiss owns is just down the street from the tavern where Wilson sang. “She sang with heart, and that’s what people liked. She had potential, you could tell.”
Proof of Wilson’s ascension to local icon status came earlier this month, when about 3,500 people packed a Wal-Mart in nearby Highland in hopes of getting her autograph during a scheduled appearance. The line snaked through the store and outside.
Tourists stop by Weiss’ inn virtually every week, asking for directions to Wilson’s old haunts or have lunch in the restaurant with a jukebox that includes Wilson’s latest CD.
The mayor here for nearly 25 years, David Clark has seen tourists drop in to take a picture near the town’s welcome sign or ask where Wilson lived.
“There’s a lot of people who come by, and the recognition is fine,” said Clark. “Any time someone pulls off the interstate, they spend a dime. And that’s a dime we normally wouldn’t have.”