Authentic and on Message – Rolling Stone

Authentic and on Message – Rolling Stone

One morning in early September, Lainey Wilson awoke to the news that she’d received her first CMA Awards nomination. But not just one; she had six in total, including Female Vocalist of the Year. After she blinked the sleep out of her eyes and realized she wasn’t still dreaming, she called her parents at home in Louisiana.

“They believed in me before anybody did,” Wilson says. “It’s really surreal — it feels like the hard work is finally starting to pay off.” On our Zoom call, she’s wearing an orange-and-white tie-dyed t-shirt, a baseball cap from Dierks Bentley’s Seven Peaks Festival, and a couple of braided chains, including one with a dangling stone.

Wilson is taking this call from Charleston, South Carolina, where she’s opening for superstar Luke Combs. Once upon a time, long before either of them was famous, they’d get together and make music. “We’d write songs in my camper. I’m just glad that he’s remembering that he used my AC and he drank my cold drinks,” she says, grinning.

In the past two years, the 30-year-old native of tiny Baskin, Louisiana, has been seeing the returns on her more than 10 years of toil in Nashville. Her stately ballad “Things a Man Oughta Know” went Number One on country radio in September 2021 and she had another hit with Cole Swindell, “Never Say Never,” a few months later. Her major-label debut, Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, was a year-end 2021 favorite for many outlets (including Rolling Stone), thanks to it its engaging mix of personality, groove, and wit. Her music also showed up on Paramount’s popular drama Yellowstone, on which she’ll appear as a cast member in next season. And she secured high-profile tour spots with Jason Aldean and Morgan Wallen, managing to steer clear of the controversies that swirled around those artists.

While promoting Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, Wilson often used the term “bell bottom country” to describe her sound, a clever way of saying it was a stylish throwback that could stand out in the present. She carries the term forward as the title for her new album with Broken Bow. Out Friday, Bell Bottom Country plays up the things she was already doing well and adds a few new flavors into the mix. This time, “bell bottom country” is more than a sound; it’s a whole ethos.

“It’s about finding whatever it is that makes you you, and different and special,” she says. “It could be where you’re from, how you were raised, the way that you talk, the way that you dress, the way that you look, your story, whatever. And it’s about leaning into that as much as you possibly can.”

Bell Bottom Country does that with seemingly every facet of Wilson’s personality. She comes off tough and brash in “Hold My Halo,” restless in “Road Runner,” sweetly nostalgic in “Watermelon Moonshine,” and flush with desire in “Grease,” displaying considerable emotional range. She describes the album as “pulling back the layers a little deeper,” as in the ballad “Weak-End” and its clear-eyed look at the wreckage of heartbreak. “Wish that Friday wasn’t just another way to say lonely,” she sings.

“When I wrote these songs, I was going through a hard time,” Wilson says. “I was in a very dark place. But at the end of the day, time heals all wounds.”

Wilson’s speech patterns and thick Southern accent have a familiar, unvarnished quality that can obscure how skilled she is at staying on message without ever coming across as inauthentic. The way she presents herself publicly is not unlike the mix of homespun wit, musical talent, and business savvy of Dolly Parton, whom Wilson praised in her song “WWDD” (an acronym for “What would Dolly do?”).

Jay Joyce, who produced both Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ and Bell Bottom Country, saw something similar when he first met Wilson prior to working together. “It’s like the reason everybody likes Dolly Parton,” he says. “Even the indie-rock kids like Dolly because it’s real, it’s honest.”

Like Parton, and for that matter Loretta Lynn, Wilson’s biography is fodder for her songwriting. She paints herself as a glorious mess of extremes in “Hillbilly Hippie,” getting “all Willie’d up” — she makes a toking gesture during our video call — and embodying “all peace and love up until I ain’t.”

“People think I’m a nice person and I’m friendly, but when shit hits the fan and somebody needs a butt whoopin’, I’m in there too,” she says, putting her fists up to mimic a boxing stance. “I’m one extreme to the next. I really think that’s hereditary.”

Wilson’s family is important in her story. She recounts a memory from childhood about her father, a farmer by trade, in “Those Boots (Deddy’s Song)” — the spelling is how Wilson refers to him. The family lived together in a house with a prefab trailer grafted onto the side to make room for Wilson and her sister, and in the mornings she’d help her father get ready for work by pulling his jeans down over his boots. “When I think of mine and my deddy’s relationship, I think of that,” she says. “I think of him giving me a job and me feeling proud about it.”

The song took on extra poignancy when Wilson’s father had to be hospitalized for a serious illness in August. He’s on the mend now, but it was a scary, uncertain time for her family. “[‘Those Boots’] has a more powerful meaning to me now,” Wilson says. “Sometimes you forget how much you love somebody until you think you’re going to lose them.”

For an album released in mainstream country music, where vocals and run-time are valued most, Bell Bottom Country has its share of instrumental exploration. Abetting the deep groove of “Grease,” there’s a funky guitar solo that sounds like something from a lost Prince album. In “Hold My Halo,” there’s a moment where the instruments drop out, leaving Wilson to sing to a rubbery bass lick.

“If you listen to older Jerry Reed, cool-ass country, there were lots of musical, interesting things,” Joyce explains. “I don’t mean 10-minute solos or anything, but there’s plenty of room to develop a musical hook. If the players are having fun, you’re on the right track.”

That approach gives Bell Bottom Country the feel of a band performing together, not just a functional backdrop to showcase a singer. Even so, Wilson does reveal new sides of her voice. Her deep twang curls its way around lyrics in a conversational manner, but she growls with ferocity on a rollicking cover of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.” (“I look up to Linda Perry. I think she’s just a badass,” Wilson says.)

Then there’s the extended high note at the end of her single “Heart Like a Truck,” an impressive display of power and range that conveys the kind of resilience she describes in the song. Joyce calls it an “accident,” while Wilson admits she may have shot herself in the foot with the performance.

“I don’t know why I did that to myself, ‘cause now I gotta do it every single night,” she says. “I could run to the bathroom and back — it’s so long.”

Wilson’s distinctive voice was exactly what Cole Swindell had in mind when he brought her in as his partner on the brooding 2021 duet “Never Say Never.” “There’s nobody else in the world I could’ve heard sing that first line — ‘I told my momma’ — other than her. She truly made this song everything I dreamed it could be,” Swindell says. It ended up being her second Number One and landed two of her recent CMA nominations.

Likewise, Hardy, the country-rock firebrand, sought out the sense of realness that Wilson projects for “Wait in the Truck,” a song that deals with domestic violence in gritty fashion. Wilson believably portrays the abused, conflicted woman in the narrative, spared from her troubles by another act of violence. “She’s unapologetically herself. She’s very authentic,” Hardy says. “I care so much about that song and I wanted the fans to believe every word of what the woman in the song had to say, and she has the most believable voice.”

Wilson’s ability to inhabit these characters — watch her convincing performance in the video for “Wait in the Truck” — is one of the reasons she’s been cast in the fifth season of Yellowstone. She’d become friends with the show’s creator Taylor Sheridan over the last couple of years and he wrote a part with her in mind: Wilson’s character is a musician.

“I pretty much get to be myself on the show,” Wilson says. “I get to sing my songs, wear my crazy clothes, pretty much be me…with a little extra.” The aspect of series-TV performance made sense to her as well. “[It’s the] same thing with getting on stage and doing a performance — the pressure’s on, you better get it right.”

Wilson doesn’t need any help in that department, but her rising fame over the last year has presented her with a lot of new opinions, some of them unkind, from the outside. She listens to what she calls “frequency music,” an assortment of buzzy sounds, to relax and meditates with a grounding mat. Her new friend Miranda Lambert, against whom she’ll compete for Female Vocalist of the Year at Nov. 9’s CMA Awards, gave her advice on tuning out the noise.

“She’s like, ‘You need to worry about what ya mama and ya daddy think aboutcha, and your best friends, and if you lay down at night knowing you’re with that, then you good,’” she says. “You better keep your blinders on and not worry about what everybody else is thinking. They don’t know the real you. They don’t know your heart. I’m sharing a huge part of me, which is my music and songwriting, but they don’t know me when I’m sitting on my couch at home.”

Somewhere in there lies a quiet acknowledgement of Wilson’s two sides: the public, switched-on Lainey and a private one. They’re nearly identical, except one has retained parts of her life for safekeeping. Right now, Wilson is in command of that story and knows how to present the most interesting bits as compelling art. As long as she can hold on to that precious sense of self, she can keep at it.

“If I’m not living a slightly normal life over here, I don’t feel like I’m going to be able to write things that are relatable,” Wilson says. “I’m not posting on Instagram every single time I’m meditating in my closet or I’m talking to the Lord or I’m doing things that help me stay grounded and stay centered. But it’s absolutely important. Because life is crazy.”

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