In her early days as a budding country artist, Lainey Wilson and her management visited the Country Music Television offices. As they admired the images of music stars on the wall, the executive who was showing them around commented, “You know, all the legends — you can recognize them by their silhouette.
“The comment resonated with Wilson as she recognized that to climb the country music ladder, particularly as a woman, she needed to stand out beyond powerful voice and witty songs. So she adopted a signature aesthetic of bell bottoms and wide-brimmed hats — an instantly recognizable silhouette that, as she puts it, evokes country music with a “flare.”
“In the beginning, I thought, ‘These people won’t remember my songs. They are not going to recall my singing style or songwriting. But they could remember how I made them feel,” Wilson explained in her dressing room in late October, before performing to a sold-out crowd at Nashville Municipal Auditorium as the opening act for her close friend Hardy. Fans now tell her that seeing her unique style inspires them to showcase their own: “I hear a lot of people say that they feel inspired to step outside the box, do things that are a little different, and express themselves in different ways.”
Lainey Wilson performs on stage in Baton Rouge, nearly three hours south of her hometown of Baskin, Louisiana.
Wilson, 31, has been regarded “a little different” from her fellow contemporary country singers since she went to Nashville over a decade ago, setting up shop in a camper trailer outside a recording studio owned by a family friend who owed her grandfather a favor. Wilson, who grew up on a farm and had a Louisiana accent from years of playing guitar and singing in venues around the South, was ready for country music — but country music was not ready for her.
Her recurring criticism is that she was “too country for country,” having debuted at a time when the format was dominated by trendy, pop-centric tunes about bros driving pickup trucks with ladies in cutoff jeans sitting shotgun. The genre’s censors were uninterested in a young woman’s viewpoint on small towns and heartbreak, or, as Wilson sang on an early indie record, “Life is tough, but this girl’s tougher.”
“I knew it was all about timing.” I did. I was like, ‘The truth is, what I do today is not cool,’” Wilson said. “But everything moves in style, comes out, goes back in, and comes out again. That’s simply how life works.”Wilson was surprised by how quickly the pieces came into place. She’s suddenly at the pinnacle of success, with five consecutive No. 1 hits on country radio, sold-out tour dates, hundreds of millions of streams, and a role on the hugely popular Western drama “Yellowstone.”
On Nov. 8, she’ll be nominated for Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards, the genre’s most prestigious award show. She is nominated alongside celebrities Morgan Wallen, Carrie Underwood, Chris Stapleton, and the category’s two-time reigning champion, Luke Combs, a longtime friend who offered her to open for him on his stadium tour this year.
Wilson watched the nomination announcement from her home in Nashville, where she spends very little time because she is constantly on the road, and she knew it would be a huge morning. She was the most nominated artist at the CMAs in 2022, her first year of eligibility. This year, she repeated the feat with nine nominations, including album of the year for her most recent album “Bell Bottom Country”; she appears twice in the song and single of the year categories for the yearning “Heart Like a Truck” and the murder ballad “Wait in the Truck,” a duet with Hardy.
The entertainer’s nod was unexpected — and, honestly, incredibly satisfying. Not only is it a formal endorsement from her business teachers and idols, but she has watched for years as her male peers — some of whom arrived in town after she did — land record deals and begin selling out tours. Now it is her turn.”I laugh and joke with all of my guy friends in the industry, I have for years: ‘I’m coming for you,'” Wilson said, beaming and dazzling in her gleaming gold bellbottoms. “And it sort of feels that way. I am like, ‘We’re here.'”
When you’ve been told “no” repeatedly, your first triumphs are unexpected. Songwriter Trannie Anderson, who has worked with Wilson for many years, recalls the excitement in the spring of 2022 when Wilson stunned the audience at the Academy of Country Music Awards, winning Song of the Year for her breakout single “Things a Man Oughta Know” and defeating megahits such as Wallen’s “7 Summers,” Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like,” and Jordan Davis and Luke Bryan’s “Buy Dirt.”
Wilson mounted the stage in disbelief, assuring the audience that “country music is my life.” This has been my life for as long as I can remember. The next day, she flew to Arizona for a week of co-writing songs for her upcoming album.”After appearing on national television in front of everyone and having the best night of her life, she refused to quit. “She wanted to write 10 songs on the first day,” Anderson explained. “I believe that most individuals should take a breather and take a week off. And she had already moved on to the next item. “She’s only a machine.”
Wilson said she was one of those kids who always knew exactly what she wanted to do, ever since a family trip to the Grand Ole Opry at age 9: “I felt at home even then.” She started writing songs and playing guitar in her tiny hometown of Baskin, La. and sharpened her singing skills with a job in high school as a Hannah Montana impersonator, where she traveled between preschool birthday parties and nursing homes, an unexpectedly useful lesson in adjusting your performance.
Lainey Wilson will perform at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado in September. (Cece Dawson)
Making the transition to Nashville in 2011 was difficult. She paid the bills by singing in bars in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, knowing she needed to meet other songwriters, get a publishing deal, then a record deal, release an album, and have a song on the radio. She just wasn’t sure how to make any of it happen.
“We didn’t have any strings to pull or insane connections when we were rising. It was like, you know, ‘Hey, I’m buddies with this person, and they’re this guy’s assistant. And they like you, so maybe they’ll brag about you to their boss,’” said Mandelyn Monchick, her manager. Monchick met Wilson in 2015 and was taken aback by how little care he received. She heard one of Wilson’s early songs, the sensitive “Dreamcatcher,” (“I’ll be your shelter in the rain, and a shooting star to take your pain, the common heat of a burning flame”) and thought her music was “next level.”
Wilson and Monchick organized a songwriter showcase, but no one showed up; they attempted to entice industry gatekeepers, but nothing worked. The “too country” complaint remained an obstacle; executives didn’t “get” her, and others questioned whether her Southern dialect was genuine. People in Baskin began asking Wilson when she planned to return home and become a teacher.
“Sometimes doors were slammed in my face and my feelings got hurt, but that didn’t mean I was hanging it up,” said Wilson. “I was going to keep on going.”Eventually, a bro-country reaction emerged, and audiences began to crave a more traditional country sound. Chris Stapleton swept the 2015 CMA Awards, indicating that the industry felt the same way. Wilson secured a publishing agreement in 2017 after independently distributing music, then a year later, he signed with Broken Bow Records. Influential executives began to promote her.
“It’s a very emotion-driven, opinion-driven business,” Monchick added. “You have to persuade the first individual to care. And there were a few critical folks who simply liked her. Taylor Sheridan, the creator of “Yellowstone” on Paramount Network, became a fan and began featuring some of her songs on the show in 2019 — finally offering her a tiny role in the fifth season.
Country radio programmers were suffering from “Zoom fatigue” during the pandemic, according to Monchick, and had little enthusiasm for new musicians, but Wilson’s “Yellowstone” link piqued their curiosity. (Wilson was unable to discuss the show owing to the SAG-AFTRA strike restrictions.)
Programmers began playing Wilson’s song “Things a Man Oughta Know,” which teaches men that she can repair her tires and catch her fish, so they should respect women. In August 2021, it became her first No. 1 hit, making her one of only two solo female country musicians to top the Billboard radio chart that year. Monchick believes Wilson’s well-known years of trying to break through are part of the reason so many people in the industry are invested in and excited about his accomplishment. They understand how hard she worked and how long it took, and they feel they contributed in some way.
“It was very grassroots,” Monchick explained. So suddenly everyone is pulling for her. Lainey Wilson on her route to country success: “Sometimes doors were slammed in my face and my feelings got hurt, but that didn’t mean I was hanging it up.”
Even if you’re not a fan of country music, you may have heard of Wilson through TikTok. Last December, a TikTok user shared a video of Wilson singing “Things a Man Oughta Know” at a concert in North Carolina, and her leopard-print bell bottoms showed off her backside in an appealing way for admirers.
The video went viral, briefly catapulting Wilson to new levels of internet celebrity. No, she doesn’t believe it either. But everything in her life was becoming unreal by this point, so she joined in on the TikTok jokes. This summer, she and Lauren Alaina teamed up for a song called “Thick as Thieves” that samples Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and serves as a sort of countrified version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” (“Oh my gosh, Lainey, look at your butt … how’d you get those bell-bottoms yanked up?” Alaina banters at the end.)
“I was kind of making fun of myself, you know? Why not?” Wilson said, shaking her head. “Everybody else made fun of it. “Laugh with them.”Fans of Wilson’s darker-themed songs were treated to a brighter side of her personality. Her duet with Hardy, “Wait in the Truck,” is sung from the perspective of a mistreated woman and a man who murders her abuser and goes to jail. Some in Wilson’s circle found the song upsetting, but she didn’t mind. She wants perpetrators to be “haunted” by the song and to assist victims of domestic violence, she claimed.
“I knew that even if radio never played it, that I had to be a part of it,” she was quoted as saying. It went to No. 1 and climbed the charts around the same time as her other “truck” song, the No. 1 solo smash “Heart Like a Truck.” Wilson wrote the track in 2020 with Anderson and Dallas Wilson (no relation); the trio calls themselves “The Heart Wranglers.” Dallas Wilson recalled that initially, they started writing a song that was “super up-tempo and fun,” but given the overall mood of the pandemic, they changed tactics.
Sharp. Witty. Thoughtful. Sign up for the Style Memo Newsletter.”Lainey was like, ‘I think we need to write a little more real with where we’re at right now.’ And I’m so glad she did,” Wilson added. Instead, the song became a metaphor for how, even when you feel like a battered old truck being dragged through the mud, you can endure. “As a songwriter, she just really knows who she is and what she wants to say.”
Wilson’s supporters attribute her popularity to the fact that she appears to be genuine. She tries to retain some seclusion (she didn’t publicly declare she was dating Devlin “Duck” Hodges, a former Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterback, until May, more than two years into their relationship), but she is also candid about her challenges.
“The truth is my life ain’t perfect, and I want to share that with people,” he remarked. “We all go through things, and some are harder than others. However, it is my responsibility to ensure that people do not feel alone. When Wilson opened for Hardy for three nights at Nashville Municipal Auditorium, she noticed girls dressed like her in bell-bottoms and wide-brimmed hats. Wilson encouraged fans to look in the mirror every morning and remind themselves, “I am beautiful, talented, smart, godly, and fearless,” before performing her song “Atta Girl.”
She welcomed fellow breakout talent Jelly Roll onstage to perform their duet “Save Me,” a story of addiction that has reached the top ten on country radio charts. She sang her recent three-week No. 1 single “Watermelon Moonshine,” a ballad reminiscent of Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” a ’90s country hit that influenced her love of the style.
While country music has recently made news for its political and social splits, which can be seen at award events, Wilson remains on everyone’s side. “I’m friends with people from all sides of everything, and everyone shows me nothing but love and support,” she said. “I do the same right back to them.” She hopes her music will bring people together. Fittingly, when Wilson begins producing new songs in the new year, she has already chosen the kickoff song and tour that will steer her next chapter: “Country’s Cool Again.”