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COUNTRY STAR WILSON MAKES SMALL TOWN PROUD

If you sing it, they will come -- in search of a legend that's fresh in the telling about a hard-luck singer who's making it big from a little town with a lot of heart called Pocahontas.

They've been coming for months now to Illinois' Bond County -- country music fans, truckers and even some big-city TV news crews -- taking Exit 36 off Interstate 70 to get a look at the former hometown of that hard-rocking, no-excuses-making gal whose rowdy ballad "Redneck Woman" kicked a hole in the Nashville charts last May and just kept climbing.

Gretchen Wilson, 31, won the Country Music Association's Horizon Award for best new artist earlier this month, followed by a best new artist win at the American Music Awards.

"It's been pretty crazy," said Wilson. She said she was so focused on her performance at the CMA show that she hadn't thought about what she would say if she won.

"I just wanted to give a good performance in front of so many superstars," she said. "I probably cried four times that day. The whole day feels like a blur."

Although Wilson left Pocahontas in 1996 to seek her future in Nashville, she has managed to pull the town of 850 -- located about 45 miles east of St. Louis -- into the spotlight with her. She sings about the village in "Pocahontas Proud" a cut on her hit CD "Here for the Party," and wrote about it in the biography on her Web site, www.gretchenwilson.com.

As Wilson tells the story, she was raised in rural Pocahontas "where numerous trailer parks are clustered among cornfields and pig farms." Her mother was just 16 and single when Gretchen was born, and her father, a musician, left by the time she was 2. When her mother couldn't pay the rent -- which was every few months -- they packed up and moved to another trailer park down the road. By age 14 she had dropped out of school and was cooking and tending bar with her mom at Big O's, a roadhouse five miles outside of town. She got her first performing experience singing for tip money at Big O's. In Nashville, she again worked as a bartender before she was noticed by Big Kenny and John Rich of the duo Big & Rich, who enlisted her in the Muzik Mafia, a group of Nashville artists who jam weekly. She signed with the Sony label last year, and a redneck woman was born.

It's that dirt-to-platinum-record legend that draws her fans to Pocahontas, where they are welcomed by a sign with cheerful drawings of an Indian squaw and a chubby red heart. Tacked below it is a more recent boast: "Pocahontas Proud. Hometown of Gretchen Wilson. Country Music Star."

Tracy Funderburk, 34, who works at her family's restaurant and gas station across the road, remembers going to Big O's and hearing Wilson sing.

"She'd get up and belt out Patsy Cline songs. Back then I used to think, 'Wouldn't it be cool if she became a star and I would be able to say that I heard her sing.' And it's really happened."

Fans who ask for directions to where Wilson used to live don't get far because, as she says, her family moved around a lot and most of their addresses were outside the city limits. They won't find Big O's, either, because owner Mark Obermark sold the joint years ago, and it was actually in nearby Pierron anyway. And if they're hoping to buy Gretchen Wilson souvenirs, they're out of luck, because Village President David Clark said the town would need the singer's permission to do that, though they've talked about printing up some "Pocahontas Pride" T-shirts.

Truly dedicated Gretchen Wilson fans sometimes make their way into the countryside to find Obermark's second bar, where the singer also worked. The white-frame roadhouse on Illinois 127 near Carlyle, Ill., was called the Ozone back then, but it's now Hoosier Daddy's, and it's owned by a friend of Obermark's.

On a Thursday afternoon, Big O was sitting in his motorized wheelchair in front of the snazzy silver jukebox listening to Wilson sing a sad song called "Back Where You Belong" written by Bobby Rolens, the fiddler and guitar player from Maryville who's in Wilson's tour band. Rolens is the brother of Hoosier Daddy's owner, Jimmy Rolens.

"I like this song better than any song she's ever done," said Obermark, 44.

He lives behind the tavern in a trailer that is one of those many addresses that Wilson once called home.

Obermark's life took a hard turn on his birthday three years ago, when he was severely injured in an automobile accident and doctors had to remove his crushed right hip.

"I am broke," he said and then added, "but Gretchen never forgot me."

Big O has become so much a part of the Wilson legend that he's been interviewed by about a dozen newspapers.

"After she won the Horizon Award the other night, people were calling me and congratulating me like I was her dad," he said. "I couldn't be prouder."

When Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" shot an upcoming segment with Wilson at Hoosier Daddy's, only Obermark and her uncle were allowed to watch. He said it was rough to hear Bradley quizzing Wilson about her mother's troubles when Wilson was growing up.

"I was crying through it, but Gretchen handled it well," he said.

Wilson makes no bones about her dirt-poor upbringing and has said that she wishes she had completed high school. Still, Obermark said, that hasn't stopped some folks from criticizing Wilson because they don't like the lyrics to her songs or because she is herself a single mother of a 4-year-old daughter.

"There's people around here who are jealous," he said. "I hate people to talk bad about her when they don't even know her."

Obermark takes satisfaction in having helped the family out when they needed it. At one point when they couldn't pay their rent, he hauled their trailer onto the farm he owned outside Pocahontas. The fact that she tended bar as a minor is nothing new out in the country, he said.

He wants people to know how close Wilson's family was, even during the tough times.

"There was love in that family," he said. "I don't remember one of them ever leaving without telling the other, 'I love you.' "

For her part, Wilson said that notoriety and success won't change her.

"People keep asking me how I can continue to be the same person now," she said. "I want people to know that I was a really happy person before all this happened. You don't have to be on stage to be happy."

On the other hand, she said, having money has certainly made life easier.

"It's taken a lot of stress and worry out of my life," she said.

Wilson said that Pocahontas and the surrounding towns where she spent time growing up will always feel like home even though most of her family has now moved to Nashville.

"I wish I could go back to Pocahontas more often," she said. "But it's been like a crazy roller-coaster ride. Since 'Redneck Woman' was released, it's just been nonstop."

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