If you take music awards at face value, then Kanye West had every right to throw a tantrum when country pinup Gretchen Wilson beat the hip-hop star for the Best New Artist trophy at the American Music Awards earlier this year. Where West oversees the writing and production of all his raps, Wilson's career has been guided by male masterminds like the tongue-in-cheek duo Big & Rich. And where West's distinctive style has made a real impact on hip-hop's sound and shaken up its bad-boy strictures, Wilson offers country-rock formulas that haven't changed much since George Jones first tasted white lightning, and she acts out a persona that hasn't changed at all since Tanya Tucker wagged her jail-bait tail across country stages 30 years ago.
But who takes music awards at face value, anyway? Maybe the committee knew that country music needs a good bad girl these days even more than hip-hop needs a great iconoclast. And it's not just Wilson's explicit working-class sass ("Some people look down on me but I don't give a rip/I'll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip") that makes this one of the most promising country shows of the year. It's her voice, which is as pleasingly taut and ample as any of her other natural assets.