Throughout its history, the American country music tradition has been largely defined by a virtually unparalleled knack for storytelling.
Country star Lainey Wilson was surrounded by the sound from a young age. Growing up in Baskin, Louisiana (population 211), she was exposed to artists like Buck Owens by her father, a guitar player, developing an early appreciation of the art form’s narrative-driven songs.
In an era where fame can sometimes sneak up out of nowhere, thanks to reality shows or social media platforms like TikTok, Wilson took the time to grow and develop as a storyteller and musician.
Writing her first song at the age of 9, Wilson picked up guitar two years later. Moving to Nashville in 2011, she famously lived outside a recording studio in a camper trailer, signing with a major label in 2018 and ultimately breaking through to the mainstream upon the release of her third studio album Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ three years later.
The last year and a half has proved to be a whirlwind. Wilson appeared as Abby in season five of the Paramount drama Yellowstone last fall and her fourth album Bell Bottom Country cracked the top 10 of Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. The single “Watermelon Moonshine” became her third #1 single earlier this year, with Wilson garnering a whopping nine CMA nominations last month.
While fans gravitate to the authenticity Wilson brings to each project, song or character, it didn’t happen overnight.
“I’ll be honest with you. If I had just moved to Nashville, and this had just happened for me, I do not know if I would have been prepared for how fast things are moving right now. I think it was supposed to happen this way,” she the singer during a recent phone conversation. “I hope [people] know that this did not happen for me overnight,” said Wilson, who returns to the road October 19 in St. Augustine, Florida alongside Hardy for a run of dates wrapping up October 28 at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium. “Nothing happens overnight - at least not the good things,” she said. “I’m going to continue taking risks and taking chances and doing things that people tell me I can’t do.”
I spoke with Lainey Wilson about the importance of storytelling, learning from artists like Dolly Parton and working outside her comfort zone. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
Jim Ryan: It’s been a pretty wild year and a half or so for you. Have you had any time to stop and kind of process things?
Lainey Wilson: Actually, today has been one of those days. I’ve had the morning at my house doing laundry and getting to hang out with my dog in the yard. It’s had to be one of those things for me where I make sure that I take the time to sit down and really think about what’s happening.
Because the truth is, we’re so busy and we’re just trying to get to the next thing that there’s times where it’s just fleeing, you know? And then you’re onto the next thing. So, making time for that is really important.
Ryan: One of the things that’s really interesting to me about the country music tradition is the way it sort of winds up getting passed down by families through the generations. And I know you sort of had that - you were surrounded by it from a young age. How unique of an element is that to country music?
Wilson: Oh my goodness. For me, country music was a way of life. Where I grew up - in a town of 200 people - I did not even realize that country was a genre. These were the songs that we lived. It’s just what we were surrounded by. It was our life. So, I get to Nashville and I meet all of these people from other towns, different places and different parts of the world that can all relate to that: to the storytelling and to country music. It’s a really cool thing to be a part of and I’m really proud to be a part of it.
Country music has changed my life. And to think that I’m in a generation of country music, right now, where these songs are changing other people’s lives is something I don’t take lightly.
Ryan: What are some of your earliest memories of country music?
Wilson: So, my daddy plays guitar by ear. And, as a family, we would sit around the kitchen table. He’d pull out his guitar and me and my sister would make up dances to all of the songs that he was playing on his guitar. The truth is, my daddy is not much of a singer - but he could pick. And my momma loved to dance. So, it was this fun thing that we could do to just escape for a little while.
I remember him playing “Hound Dog.” I remember him playing Buck Owens. When he was a little boy, he actually used to roll a picnic table out to the side of the highway and stand on top of it with his guitar and pretend that he was Glen Campbell for the cars passing by.
So, I think, without even trying to, he kind of handed that dream to me. And I just got bit by the bug. I knew that I wanted to feel that way forever - and I knew that I wanted to make people feel the way that country music has made me feel.
Ryan: You mentioned storytelling. And whether it’s Yellowstone now or your music, it seems to be a big part of everything that you’re doing. Just how important is that idea of storytelling to you?
Wilson: That’s what it’s all about for me. Especially, like I said, being from a town of 200 people, there’s not a whole lot to do. So, you sit around the kitchen table and you tell the same old stories you’ve been hearing for years and you hear the same old stories you’ve been hearing for years - but there’s times when you hear it from a different angle or you hear something you didn’t hear the first time and it makes you laugh or it makes you cry.
The truth is, country music is there to make you feel something. It’s there to make you feel at home. And that’s what it is, it’s about telling that story and making people put themselves in the shoes of whatever it is that you’re writing a story about.
Ryan: Who are some favorite storytellers?
Wilson: Of course, Dolly Parton. Loretta Lynn. I think those ladies right there, they have showed me that you can be who you are, you can be where you’re from, embrace that and tell your stories.
Those are the women that just kind of said whatever they wanted to say with a little bow wrapped on top. And somehow the world just loves them. It’s just really cool.
Ryan: We see today, in the social media era, in the TikTok era, these overnight success stories. But you didn’t have that at all. What did you learn struggling early on that’s continually applicable now even as you navigate the success end of things?
Wilson: Oh man. Well, I’ll be honest with you. If I had just moved to Nashville, and this had just happened for me, I do not know if I would have been prepared for how fast things are moving right now. I think it was supposed to happen this way.
August 1 of this year, I have been in Nashville for 12 years. It’s been one of those things for me where it’s been brick by brick. I laid that foundation. I wrote my first song at 9 years old. I started playing guitar at 11. I started impersonating Hannah Montana in middle school and high school. I played with a rock band back at home. I moved to Nashville in a camper trailer. It’s been one thing at a time for me. It’s been about switching gears and figuring out what that next step is. It’s been one team member at a time, one song at a time, one fan at a time.
It’s taken me a long time to get here. But I do think that those other years - those years of struggle, hardships and really wanting something that you couldn’t get? They’ve come in handy. Because I do feel like I am more prepared right now. I’m ready for it. I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
Ryan: Over time, you built all of this on your own terms. There seems to be a real authenticity to everything you approach. What’s the lesson there?
Wilson: Well, first of all, I hope that folks at home - and little boys and little girls watching my journey and seeing the success happening right now - I hope they know my story. I hope they know that this did not happen for me overnight.
And the truth is, as a fan of country music and just as a fan of music in general, I feel like I believe it more from people who I know had to put in the years and the blood, sweat and tears to be where they are. It’s kind of like, I respect them a little bit more to know that they did the dang thing.
I want these kids to know that nothing happens overnight - at least not the good things. I want them to know that if you want something, you put in that time and energy and effort. And when somebody tells you no, you somehow turn it into a yes.
And there’s going to be times when people think you are crazy and off of your rocker - and maybe you are a little bit. But, if a dream was planted on your heart, and you were given a gift, I think you are supposed to use it. That’s what I hope they see.
They can also see that I have remained myself this entire time. The way that I talk is the way that I talk. My story is my story. And you don’t have to be anything other than yourself to get to where you want to go.
Ryan: This year you performed at music festivals like Lollapalooza. I know when you embraced the idea of television, you didn’t have a lot of experience there. How important is it to continually find ways like that to push yourself outside your comfort zone a bit?
Wilson: I feel like if you’re not kind of pushing the limits and stepping outside of your comfort zone, you’re not growing. I truly just want to grow as a person, as a singer, as a songwriter. Whatever it is that I’m doing, I want to give it my best shot and put my best foot forward. I’m going to continue taking risks and taking chances and doing things that people tell me I can’t do.
Ryan: You mentioned Dolly Parton earlier. And I know that you recorded with Dolly for a Judds tribute. Were you in the studio together?
Wilson: Because me and her are probably two of the most busy women in country music, we had to go in there at two different times to record our vocals.
But, I will say, at the ACMs this year, when she presented me with Female Vocalist of the Year, it was so crazy. That was the first time I actually got to meet her. And our song was actually already done. But, as we were walking off the stage after she presented with me the award, she said, “I love our song that we got to do together!”
It was just crazy to think that I’m getting to hear a song and put out a song where my voice is right next to hers - the voice that has inspired me and influenced me more than anybody has.
Ryan: I know Dolly has sort of acted as a bit of a north star for you over the years. But, in actually getting to meet her and work with her a bit, what are you able to take from those experiences?
Wilson: Well, first of all, she is a light. If I could be half the amount of light that she is, then I’m really doing something. Because that woman has changed people’s lives. She changed mine before I ever even met the woman. She taught me so many things before I met her. It’s crazy that somebody can have that much of an influence in your life.
It’s the way that she carries herself. The way that she treats people. That right there? It goes to show me that how you treat people and how you carry yourself is very, very important. I’m going to try - try - to go down that avenue the best way I possibly can.
Nobody can do it like Dolly can. But I wanna be just like her.
Ryan: I’ve read that you’ve begun the process of working on new music. How’s that shaping up so far?
Wilson: It’s great. Before the last record, Bell Bottom Country, even came out, I was working on new music. Because I was a songwriter before I was an artist. And that storytelling, that songwriting, has saved my life a lot of times. It is so therapeutic for me. It’s a part of me. So, no matter what, I just have to do it. So, I’m always working on new music.
I’m ready to get back into the studio here real soon and start cranking them out. Because, if it was up to me, we’d be putting out music every day.