Considering that her output to this point has been characterized by both casual and active misogyny and her eagerness to embrace the ways of Nashville’s reigning boys’ club, that Gretchen Wilson titled her third album One Of The Boys is cause for significant pause. So it’s something of a surprise and perhaps even a small sign of growth for Wilson that, with a few exceptions, One Of The Boys doesn’t go out of its way to debase women or pander to the neo-con demo. Of course, this also means that, without the more problematic aspects of her act to address—even her never convincing, doth-protest-too-much insistence upon her own authenticity has been toned down here—there’s nothing much to get worked up about.
Instead of overt patriarchal garbage like “When I Think About Cheatin’” and “California Girls” or conservative persecution garbage like “Politically Uncorrect,” most of One Of The Boys finds Wilson in full-on confessional mode. Unfortunately, Wilson’s strength is her ability to sell a raucous anthem like her breakthrough hit, “Redneck Woman.” While there’s nothing here as stultifying as All Jacked Up‘s damn near unlistenable cover of “Good Morning Heartache,” tracks like “Come To Bed” (a duet with co-producer and still man-behind-the-curtain John Rich) and especially “Pain Killer” (on which she emphasizes syllables seemingly at random) only highlight what a frankly terrible ballad singer she is. The would-be prayer of “Heaven Help Me” fares even worse, with Wilson affecting a half-whisper delivery that comes off as childish, rather than child-like, if that was even the intent.
She’s butchered better country ballads than these before (Matraca Berg and Jim Collins rightfully scored a Grammy nomination for writing All Jacked Up‘s “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today”), but she also sounds oddly disconnected from most of the uptempo cuts. The one exception is “There’s A Place In The Whiskey” (perhaps tellingly, one of the two tracks on which she doesn’t share a co-writing credit) is a legitimate barn-burner complete with a ZZ Top-style guitar break before the bridge, and Wilson matches its energy, even allowing an effective throaty growl to fray the edges of her vocals. The album as a whole might merit more serious consideration if songs like the derivative “You Don’t Have To Go Home” or “If You Want A Mother” (which aims for clever and misses, badly) held up in its company. But One Of The Boys is, by and large, pedestrian in its songwriting, and, putting aside the lingering questions of how much of a co-writing credit she deserves alongside Rich, Rivers Rutherford, and Vicky McGehee, much of the blame for that falls on Wilson.
The release of One Of The Boys marks an interesting time for Wilson. Her debut, Here For The Party sold five million copies and won her widespread—if poorly founded—critical praise, but All Jacked Up moved just one-fifth as many units and scored just one Top 10 radio hit, and this album’s first single, “Come To Bed,” failed to crack the Top 30 at country radio. With the runaway success of Carrie Underwood putting pop-country back in vogue, and with Miranda Lambert being Miranda Lambert, there’s a definite sense that Wilson’s moment, as it were, has passed. But while One Of The Boys isn’t a good country album by any stretch, it also isn’t offensive or reductive in any of the ways that made her two prior albums such problems. In that way, One Of The Boys gives promise that, if she can find a way to play to her strengths without resorting to any of her worst habits, Wilson might yet record an album that makes good on her initial successes.