John Grady

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For 30-year music business veteran John Grady, the Sony Nashville President who signed Gretchen Wilson on the strength of an audition in his office when he was on the job less than two days, her multiplatinum, Grammy-winning success can be attributed to one simple word-trust.

"My theory is to believe in the artist," he says. "If you like 'em, sign 'em and follow their lead."

As senior VP-sales, marketing and promotion for Mercury Nashville/Lost Highway, he oversaw the crossover success of Shania Twain and breakthrough of the Grammy-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" the sound track to the Coen brothers movie that launched a best-selling album and tour.

Ms. Wilson, who literally grew up in a trailer park in the tiny town of Pocahontas, Ill., had knocked around the Nashville scene for a number of years as part of a loose confederation of outsiders known as the Muzik Mafia, which included soon-to-be fellow superstars Big & Rich.

"All she ever wanted was to be a country singer," says Mr. Grady, 49.

"Redneck Woman" became an instant country radio smash, and its video, featuring Ms. Wilson riding a four-wheeler and carrying on with her friends, was a hit on Country Music Television. Her debut album, "Here for the Party," released in May 2004, bowed at No. 2 on Nielsen SoundScan charts, behind Usher, with more than 200,000 in first-week unit sales. The album has since gone on to sell 4.5 million units worldwide.

"If there was anything avant-garde we did to set it up, it was not asking radio for permission," says Mr. Grady. "There wasn't anything remotely like it on country radio or had been in quite a while. Anybody who heard the song became an instant fan. We embraced redneck America and they embraced her.

"We didn't try to shape or aim it. Gretchen Wilson's image is exactly who she is. She doesn't have the ability to make anything up."

Along with manager Marc Oswald, Mr. Grady boosted Ms. Wilson's exposure by enlisting Chevrolet for the "Chevy Presents Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson: The American Revolution Tour" last fall.

"Everybody took a chance and it worked," Mr. Grady says, adding that the marketing world could learn a lesson from the breakout of Ms. Wilson, who is about to complete a deal to endorse several products for national campaigns, including one for a wireless provider and an automaker.

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