“You know, country music is just…” Lainey Wilson takes a moment while she tries to find the right words. “Country music. It’s just who I am”. It’s a rare pause for the singer-songwriter, who’s been making waves in country music ever since she moved to Nashville in a bumper-pull camper trailer 10 years ago. It doesn’t seem like Wilson is often stuck for words - she speaks like she sings, with a fast-talking, straight-from-the-shoulder forthrightness; a frankness that stems from believing in what you’re thinking and saying it how it is.
Born and raised in the small town of Baskin, Louisiana, she was brought up on a home cooked country diet of Glen Campbell, Hank Williams, Garth Brooks, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Buck Owens and Dolly Parton, tagging along with her grandfather to bluegrass festivals. All of these influences - mixed up with Wilson’s joyously empowering lyrics, delivered in her unapologetically biting twang - are brought together on her triumphant sophomore album, Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, released this month on Broken Bow Records.
Describing her sound as “Bell Bottom Country” - a blend of traditional country with enough contemporary flare to give it more than just a fighting chance in the country mainstream – Wilson has been steadily building up a devout following, performing for sold-out crowds throughout the US, UK, and Germany with Justin Moore, Tyler Farr, Ashley McBryde, Randy Houser and Josh Turner, among others. With a heady blend of fierce honesty and self-deprecating vulnerability, she’s all set to be one of this year’s most important breakout country artists.
You get the feeling life moves pretty fast for Lainey Wilson. Pack some snacks and strap in for the ride. She might not be stopping again for a while.
When did you start writing songs?
You know what, I wrote my first song when I was nine years old. It was like a Britney Spears kind of song. It’s honestly been one of those things that from nine years old, I knew I was going to do. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew it was going to be a journey. Then at 11 years old, I started playing guitar and that brought me into the whole songwriting world. It's just been one of those things that is a part of me in that no matter what, even if I was doing something completely different, I would still be writing music.
When did you make the move into country music?
For me and my family, country music has really been more than just a genre. It truly is just what we were surrounded by. I'm from a town of 300 people, and we live out every single line of a country song. So most of my influences are definitely country. Of course, nine-year-old Lainey really loved some Britney Spears, but country music is what we live for. It’s what my daddy would listen to on the tractor and it's what my mom would dance to in the kitchen.
Do you remember when you first dreamt of moving to Nashville?
So there was this guy called Jerry Cupit from my town, and back in the late 70s he wanted to move to Nashville and be a producer and songwriter, and my grandad ended up giving him $300 to make the move and get started. So I knew about Nashville from a very young age. I knew that my dad’s friend Jerry Cupit was doing things in Nashville, and I knew that one day I wanted to be up there.
When I was nine, my family took me on a family vacation to Gatlinburg, right after I’d written my first song, and on the way home to Louisiana I begged my daddy to just drive through Nashville. He’d never been there either, so we literally drove through Nashville. I remember exactly where I was in the backseat on the interstate, staring up at the Batman building, when I said, “this is home”. My mama, she turned around, and she's like, “Lainey, don't say that, you're a baby!”. But in a weird kind of way, I've always just had a sense of peace about knowing that this is where I'm supposed to be. I didn't know how in the world I was going to get here, but ten years after that, at 19 years old, I bought a Flagstaff bumper pull camper trailer, hauled it up here and lived in it for the first three years that I was here, and I haven’t left.
There’s a song on Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ called ‘LA’ where you say that “LA” will always mean Louisiana to you. How much of you is Louisiana and how much of you is Nashville?
Louisiana will always be home. It's the place that really shaped who I am. Louisiana raised me and taught me a bunch of lessons in life, but Nashville has done that too. I'll have been here in Nashville for 10 years this August, so I've done a whole lot of growing in both places. No matter what though, my family's back home in Louisiana, so that will always be home. It’s crazy, but when people ask me where I’m from I still say Louisiana, even though I've been living in Nashville for 10 years. I think it really truly did shape me and I'll always be proud of Louisiana being my home.
You’ve been out on the road and toured so much over the last two years. How hard has it been being off the road?
It’s been strange. I feel like I make most of my fans and friendships through just shaking hands and hugging necks, really developing that foundation. Normally, I feed off of people, so when it comes to writing music and stuff, I really do lean on human interaction. So this past year it's been difficult, but I truly have leaned into a deeper part of my heart. I'm just grateful for social media so I can stay connected and engaged with everyone, because we're in this together. We’ll get back to it, but in the meantime, it’s been important for me to stay tuned.
The album was produced by Jay Joyce, and it feels like whoever he works with, the end result is always so unique to the artist. What was it like working with him?
The cool thing about Jay is before we got in the studio, he really got to know me and my personality. He got to know a little bit about my family even, and he spent time just figuring out who I was as a person. We really bonded and just developed that friendship. Then when we got into making the music, he somehow incorporated all the things that he knew about me into my music, which is the craziest thing ever. Only he can do that. Jay took the songs that I was already proud of – songs that I had already poured my heart and soul into - and just made them that much more special. It’s been such a blessing for me because I feel like he has truly helped me find my artistry and boosted the self-confidence that I needed to take that next step.
Why did you choose Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ for the album title?
I’ve been pretty much saying what I’m thinking my whole life, so I figured why not just go on and call it that. It ended up being one of those common denominator songs where I figured it could be the foundation for every single song on the record. So whether it was ‘Things A Man Oughta Know’, ‘Dirty Looks’, ‘Neon Diamonds’ or ‘WWDD’, we’d ask ourselves the question, “is this song saying what I'm thinking?” And if it wasn’t saying what I was thinking then it didn't make a list.
How hard is it to say what you think in country music?
The cool thing about it so far, is I really have been able to be unapologetically myself. I definitely don't say things that could hurt people or hurt people's feelings. I'm not about that. I’m about being kind, and I'm a firm believer in thinking before you speak. So I definitely try to do that, but you know, country music does like to play by the rules. The coolest thing about it for me so far is that I'm just continuing to be myself, and that's the thing that’s making people interested in what I have to say.
Now that the album is finally out in the world, what have you got planned for the rest of the year?
I'm just gonna keep my head down. I'm gonna keep writing. I've got enough material now for the next few records at least, and I'm excited to get back into the studio and do it all over again. I'm all about stepping stones and just moving forward. Hopefully we’ll be getting back to some kind of shows. I think people need music, especially now, so whatever that means. It’s so healing, and it truly is amazing the power of music and what it can do.
Sayin' What I'm Thinkin' is out now via Broken Bow Records
Photography by Alex Berger