How Lainey Wilson Is Making Country Cool Again

When Lainey Wilson played ­Australia for the first time in March, she made sure to meet the country’s animal ambassadors: She held a koala; she pet a kangaroo. But it wasn’t all furry fun.

“I got crapped on by a bird twice,” Wilson says in her thick Louisiana drawl, shaking her head in bemused disbelief. “In the exact same spot. I heard it was good fortune, so I was like, ‘Go ahead. Do what you got to do, bird.’ ”


But if there’s anyone who doesn’t need luck, it’s Wilson. With a perseverance and grit that’s reflected in her music, the ascendant 31-year-old country star has made her own. After she moved to Nashville in 2011, Wilson endured a decade of disheartening struggles — including seven American Idol rejections. But over the past two-and-a-half years, she has broken records and reached new milestones at a staggering pace — all without compromising her traditional country sound.

When “Save Me,” her urgent duet with Jelly Roll, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in December, only six weeks had passed since her solo hit, the coming-of-age tale “Watermelon Moonshine,” had summited the list — the shortest stint between No. 1s for a female artist in the chart’s 34-year history. “Watermelon Moonshine” appeared on Wilson’s most recent album, 2022’s Bell Bottom Country (Broken Bow Records/BMG), which took home both the Academy of Country Music (ACM) and Country Music Association Awards for album of the year, as well as the Grammy for best country album — only the ninth record ever to complete that trifecta. And at November’s CMA Awards, Wilson became the first woman to win entertainer of the year since Taylor Swift in 2011 and the first artist since Garth Brooks in 1991 to win best new artist one year and entertainer of the year the next.

At times, the rush has been overwhelming. “I do feel like the 10 years of nothing happening slightly prepared me, but I don’t think you can ever really fully prepare yourself for everything coming at once, and you’re just trying to hold on for dear life,” Wilson says.

“Sometimes when you’re moving that fast, maybe artistically you’re not ready. But she spent 10 years honing her craft,” says Jon Loba, BMG’s president of frontline recordings for North America, who signed Wilson in 2018. “The music was there, the personality was there, the performance was there. So in a sense, that happened overnight, but it has been a long build. It’s just the awards and the recognition have all come in an accelerated fashion.”

Lainey Wilson photographed on March 26, 2024 at Paradise Pasadena in Pasadena, Calif.
Georges Chakra suit, House of Emmanuele earrings.

One line in particular from Wilson’s acceptance speech for female artist of the year at the ACM Awards last May encapsulates her personal credo: “If you’re going to be a dreamer, you better be a doer.” And Wilson is nothing if not a doer. On this late-March morning, she has flown 14 hours on a commercial flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, landing at LAX at 7:30 a.m. and coming straight to Pasadena for this interview and its associated all-day photo shoot, even showering on location instead of first stopping at her hotel.

Getting a caffeine jolt from an iced brown sugar oatmeal shaken espresso from Starbucks, she sits on a bench in the lush backyard as birds chirp. Clad in a cozy, loose-fitting sweatsuit, Wilson pulls her knees up against her chest to shield against the slight morning chill. She’s not wearing any makeup, her long blonde hair sticking out from under a ball cap, her bare feet still sunburned from sitting in a Sydney park.

Wilson’s relaxed vibe contrasts markedly with the electric buzz she says she’s still feeling from the reception she received in Australia. “All I could think about was little 9-year-old Lainey just wanting to write music about my life and how in the world could somebody on the other end of the world relate to it,” she reflects. “It just goes to show you that we’re all a lot more alike than you think.”

Growing up in tiny Baskin, La. (population 200), 9 was a big age for Wilson. It was when she wrote her first song, “Lucky Me,” while at a sleepover with a friend; when she got her first horse; when she went to the Grand Ole Opry for the first time, where she saw Bill Anderson, Crystal Gayle, Phil Vassar and Little Jimmy Dickens. “My daddy actually still has the ticket stub,” she says. “He put it in the lockbox.” And it was when she first knew that one day she would perform on that stage. “My sister was asleep on the church pew like she could care less,” she says. “I remember eating popcorn and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this.’ ”

She worked her way through high school as a Hannah Montana impersonator, learning how to entertain audiences at places like St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis and realizing she was “born” to perform in the process. Wilson, who calls herself a “fifth-generation’s farmer’s daughter,” combined that desire with the whatever-it-takes work ethic she inherited from her father. “It definitely has to do with coming from a farming community, getting up and planting those seeds and watching them grow,” she says of the diligence she applies to her career. “I really do view it as ‘I’m a song farmer.’ I just try to take care of what I have, and I take a lot of pride in what we’ve grown.”

By 2011, Wilson had moved to Nashville, where her career as a singer-songwriter started germinating. But with a traditional sound out of step with the pop-dominated country in vogue, she had to survive years of setbacks before reaping her first rewards. She hit a low point in 2014: On her third year living in a camper trailer, career stagnant, the man she was dating impregnated another woman, and Wilson’s producer, who was letting her live in his studio parking lot, died. “It was a lot of dark moments in my life,” she recalls, “and I just felt not worthy.”

(Years later, she would draw on that challenging time when she collaborated with Jelly Roll on “Save Me” and its desperate yearning-for-salvation theme. “I love Lainey’s ability to be vulnerable, and I wondered if that would translate on the song,” Jelly Roll says. “Lainey has such an authentic voice [that] I felt if she could connect with the song, then she could share these lyrics from a woman’s point of view.”)

Still, even amid those struggles, there were bright spots, like when her pal Luke Combs cut a song they co-wrote for an EP he released before he got signed. (Wilson, who considers herself first and foremost a songwriter, has also co-written songs cut by Chrissy Metz, Flatland Cavalry and Thompson Square, among others.) While working on her songwriting, she also started developing a signature country-hippie look, with bell bottoms and a wide-brimmed hat, and her sound, which combined traditional country with a slight rock edge. Around 2017 — the year she inked her Sony Music Publishing deal and a year before she signed with Broken Bow — she began tagging her social media content with #bellbottomcountry. “I just felt like during that time people were having a hard time getting it — everything from the way that I dress to the way that I sound,” Wilson says. So she came up with her own clear explanation: “country with a flare.”

Half-jokingly, Wilson says she succeeded by outlasting the gatekeepers. “I think we just kind of shoved it down their throat enough to where they’re like, ‘All right, she ain’t going away,’ ” she says.

In an era when women still struggle to get airplay on terrestrial country radio, that has been no small feat. As her popularity has grown, Wilson has flexed different facets of her artistry — and scored radio hits — by both releasing solo songs and featuring on duets with male artists. After “Things a Man Oughta Know” became her first Country Airplay No. 1 in September 2021, she featured on Cole Swindell’s “Never Say Never,” which reached No. 1 in April 2022. The following April, her “Heart Like a Truck” peaked at No. 2, as did “wait in the truck,” her collaboration with HARDY the same month. She then returned to the top spot with “Watermelon Moonshine” and “Save Me” in October and December, respectively.

“Honestly, there was not a grand strategy of alternating singles with collabs,” Loba says. “Quite simply, it has been those acts reaching out to Lainey with great songs she connected with, and the timing has fortunately worked out well.”

As Wilson’s career gained momentum, Loba says that — in addition to making sure her music was where it needed to be — her team focused on stressing Wilson’s authenticity, which was on ample display in her charming, gracious Grammy acceptance speech earlier this year. “She’s not copying anyone else,” Loba says. “At the end of the day, everyone can see her heart and is cheering for her.”

Lainey Wilson photographed on March 26, 2024 at Paradise Pasadena in Pasadena, Calif.
Lainey Wilson photographed on March 26, 2024 at Paradise Pasadena in Pasadena, Calif. Kelsey Randall shirt and pants, Double D Ranch boots, Brit West necklace and cuff, Minnie Lane earrings and Tenee Estelle Trading Co & Modern Myth Jewelry rings.

Long-awaited success hasn’t diminished Wilson’s ambition — when asked if she wants to headline stadiums in five years, she answers three — but she is temporarily pulling back on the throttle just a little.

After spending only 15 nights in her own bed in 2022 and then playing 180 shows in 2023, she has trimmed her itinerary to a more manageable 80 concerts in 2024; following brief Australian and European runs earlier this year, she’ll mostly play North American festivals and headlining shows (other than opening for The Rolling Stones in Chicago on June 30) for the remainder of the year. “I feel like you can see the light at the end of the tunnel when you hear, ‘100 less,’ ” she says. But with new opportunities come fresh obligations.

“As this career grows, I feel like there’s a lot of other jobs that come along with it,” Wilson says. Her expanding list of brand partnerships includes Wrangler, American Greetings, Stanley, Tractor Supply and Coors — and she even appeared on the fifth and most recent season of Yellowstone in late 2022. (Wilson doesn’t know what her future on the show holds, but she would like to return if her schedule allows.) This summer, Wilson will open a three-story bar, Bell Bottoms Up, in Nashville’s entertainment district in partnership with TC Restaurant Group.

“She won’t say no, so we have to for her,” Loba says. “Since we signed her, she has not left a moment unscheduled. Every time I see her, the only question I [usually] have is ‘How are you?’ We both come from farm families. We’re not taught how to rest in farm families. From management to agency to label to publicist, I think we’re getting better at creating that space for her.”

“Last year was a hard year,” Wilson says. “It was the best year, and I don’t know if we’ll ever have a year like that again. But everybody was tired by the end of it — not just me, but my whole crew. Everything we’ve said we would do, we did it. And then bigger opportunities would come, and you can’t pass them up either.”

Lainey Wilson photographed on March 26, 2024 at Paradise Pasadena in Pasadena, Calif.
Roberto Cavalli shirt, pants and shoes, Charlie 1 Horse hat, Double D Ranch necklace.

And at a time when she could understandably be focused on her own material, she wants to leave space to work with other artists. With her appearance on “Wilted Rose” off The Black Crowes’ new Happiness Bastards, she became the first act to ever feature with the storied blues-rockers. The group’s Rich Robinson tells Billboard he and brother Chris reached out to Wilson because “her voice is so powerful. You can tell that she really feels what she is singing.”

Wilson says she would “love to collaborate with Victoria Monét,” especially after seeing her perform at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party in February. “She just turned it on,” Wilson continues. “At the Grammys, her [victory] speeches were from the heart. I was like, ‘I want to be her friend.’ ” And she hopes to work with new pal Lana Del Rey, though she hasn’t written for Del Rey’s country album that’s due later this year.

As the demands on her time increase, Wilson is leaning into time-honored practices to help her cope. In Australia, she started waking up an hour early to pray, journal and meditate. “I do sound a little hippie-dippy, but it works for me,” she says. “Just kind of starting my day with an attitude of gratitude.”

She vows to do the same when her WME-booked Country’s Cool Again tour starts May 31 in Nashville. “I have no choice because it has made me feel so good and grounded,” she says. When following that routine, “the shows have gone better. I feel more levelheaded. I got to treat myself like an athlete.”

Over the last two years, one word seems to keep coming up around Wilson.

“Whether I’m running into somebody and they’re saying, ‘Man, your life has been a whirlwind,’ or whether the word’s coming out of my mouth, or I open a book and see the word ‘whirlwind,’ it just seems to be surrounding me,” she says. “Whirlwinds cause turbulence that cause chaos. But at the end of the day, you figure out how to come back to the center.” Which is why it’s also the title of her third full-length Broken Bow album, out Aug. 23.

She describes Whirlwind as “the Western sister of Bell Bottom Country,” and lyrically more “introspective” than previous efforts: “I feel like it’s got a little bit more character [and] cinematic storytelling.” Wilson teamed again with producer Jay Joyce (who produced Bell Bottom Country and its predecessor, 2021’s Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’), but in a sign of her increasing clout, her road band plays on Whirlwind instead of the cast of studio musicians who typically appear on country albums. “We’ve played close to 400 shows in the past two-and-a-half years. I knew they could do it,” Wilson explains. “I felt like that’s where the magic was going to come from this time.”

Lainey Wilson photographed on March 26, 2024 at Paradise Pasadena in Pasadena, Calif.
Dolce & Gabbana top, Norma Kamali pants, Charlie 1 Horse hat, Modern Myth hat band, Double D Ranch boots, Alexis Bittar bracelets, We Dream in Colour earrings, Minnie Lane, Modern Myth Jewelry, Boochier Jewelry and Established Jewlery rings.

Wilson co-wrote all the songs on the album. While her sound still leans traditional and her voice has an old-fashioned twang, her lyrics usually avoid country’s common nostalgic bent and have separated her music from some of her contemporaries’. Longing for the imaginary good old days — whether in life or her music — isn’t her focus.

“It’s important for me to be proud of where I come from and the way that I was raised, but not dwell on it too much — because who really cares? Let’s take that and move forward with it,” she says. “That’s just how I like to view life. You just got to keep trucking along.”

While she has nothing against a light-­hearted ditty — and has written a few herself, including “Hold My Halo” and “Straight Up Sideways”— as a songwriter, Wilson prioritizes depth. “I think about the songs that made me fall in love with country music and made a difference in my life,” she says, citing Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls,” Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing at All,” Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” and Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’ “Whiskey Lullaby.” “I just think, ‘I’ve got to do that.’ Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a beer-drinking song, but even with that, I think you can dive a little deeper and get people to think a little bit.”

Listeners relate to the authenticity of Wilson’s writing, says her musical hero, Dolly Parton. “Even though Lainey is breathtakingly beautiful to look at, her true beauty comes from deep down where songs are born and written,” Parton tells Billboard. “People feel her heart and soul in what she writes because she knows what they know, feels what they feel and has the gift to present it in words. God bless her. He has and he will.”

The night after her Grammy win in February, Wilson was enjoying a celebratory dinner in Los Angeles with her manager, Red Light’s Mandelyn Monchick; Loba; and Broken Bow executive vp JoJamie Hahr when Loba mentioned his 6-year-old nephew was being picked on at school.

“Lainey goes, ‘I hate bullies. I’m going to go to his school and do show and tell and sing some songs and say what an amazing little guy he is… I can make a difference,’ ” Loba recalls. “She has just won [best country album], and the night after, she’s sitting there concerned about my nephew.”

Wilson is a people-pleaser by nature. Say something she agrees with and she looks straight at you, nods and says emphatically, “100%.” The effect is powerful — and that natural empathy has helped her connect with both fans and fellow artists. “Lainey is someone you can get in the foxhole with and get raw and real,” Jelly Roll says. “She is also a very grounded person, so if I’m ever overwhelmed, I know I can call her.”

Lainey Wilson photographed on March 26, 2024 at Paradise Pasadena in Pasadena, Calif.
Georges Chakra suit, Sam Edelman shoes, House of Emmanuele earrings, Minnie Lane rings.

Wilson attributes that down-to-earth sensibility to her upbringing, though she admits she has had to work to maintain it as her star has risen: “I have fought tooth and nail to make sure that I am doing the things that make me feel like me, [like] calling my family at home, checking to see how the farm’s going and see if Daddy has planted his crops, [checking in] on my nephews, hanging out with my boyfriend on the porch and those kinds of things.”

She went public with her relationship with former pro football player Devlin “Duck” Hodges at the 2023 ACM Awards, but otherwise vociferously protects the privacy of herself and those around her. In her personal life, too, Wilson has looked to Parton — who has spoken about the importance of keeping some things to yourself when you’re sharing so much else with the world — as a guide.

“I think that was probably [about] her husband,” Wilson says. “When it comes to mine and Duck’s relationship, there’s going to be some things that we can’t escape and people are going to say and do whatever, but me and him are on the same page about the less we put out there, the less that we’re going to have to deal with people making anything up and saying anything. We want to keep that as sacred as we possibly can between me and him, and so far, it has worked for us.”

Wilson, whose first Broken Bow album features a song called “WWDD” (short for “What Would Dolly Do”), got to spend some time with — and glean some useful advice from — her inspiration last year at Dollywood. “She dove right in,” Wilson says of Parton. “She was like, ‘You got a good manager?’ And I was like, ‘Yep.’ She said, ‘Well, is he an a–hole?’ ” Wilson pointed to Monchick and said, “ ‘She’s a big a–hole.’ And [Dolly] said, ‘That’s all I needed to hear. That’s what you need.’ ”

Lainey Wilson photographed on March 26, 2024 at Paradise Pasadena in Pasadena, Calif.
Kelsey Randall shirt and pants, Double D Ranch boots, Brit West necklace and cuff, Minnie Lane earrings and Tenee Estelle Trading Co & Modern Myth Jewelry rings.

Parton has faith in Wilson’s ability to navigate fame’s tricky waters. “In this business, as in any other, you have to sacrifice and compromise to get things done,” she says. “But I believe Lainey, like myself, will never sacrifice her principles and values for a dollar bill.”

Another icon, Brooks, has also encouraged Wilson. After winning CMA entertainer of the year, she anticipated naysayers who believed her ascent had happened too quickly and that even her own doubts would creep in, but Brooks helped silence that inner critic. “He said, ‘I feel like you’ve got the keys to country music and you’re going to be driving it for a while.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, Lord. I hope I don’t wreck this thing,’ ” she jokes. “But when somebody like him says that to you, it does make you feel like, ‘OK, yeah, that imposter syndrome can just go kick rocks.’ ”

With that mindset, it’s easy to believe Wilson can do anything — and to understand why, at the end of the day, she sees herself as a cowgirl: rough and ready, and hanging on to the rollicking ride she’s on. “Being a cowgirl is digging in. Getting up, dusting your jeans off and not being scared to get your hands dirty,” she says. “I’m from a long line of cowgirls.”

Lainey Wilson Billboard Cover Issue 7 May 11, 2024

This story will appear in the May 11, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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