Lainey Wilson is currently the highest-ranked female artist at country radio. She’s the reigning Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year (in addition to other notable awards), added two new tracks to her highly-anticipated sophomore album after making her acting debut on Yellowstone, and recently kicked off her first-ever headlining tour, just to name a few of the recent highlights in her career.
Still, Wilson doesn’t feel like she’s “made it.”
And she hopes she never does.
Wilson, 30, reflected on her life and her career during the 2023 iHeartRadio SeeHer Hear Her special, celebrating female artists who influence change and make unforgettable strides in their respective industries. iHeartRadio’s third-annual special with SeeHer — the global giant seeking to quash gender bias in marketing, advertising, media and entertainment — made its debut on International Women’s Day on Wednesday (March 8).
“I feel like we are truly just beginning, but I’m not done yet,” Wilson said, reflecting on her upbringing in Baskin, Louisiana, a small town of about 200 people. The award-winning country star remembered that “we didn’t even realize that country music was a genre growing up. We lived out those songs. It was truly the soundtrack of our lives.”
'If I had known how hard it was gonna be, I don’t know if I would’ve ever done it'
Wilson was always drawn to the genre’s storytelling. It’s what inspired her to write her first song at 9 years old. By age 11, she was writing music “about tequila and cigarettes,” she said, “so, I was writing about things that I didn’t know anything about.” When she visited Nashville with her parents, she visited the legendary Grand Ole Opry, where she saw Bill Anderson, Crystal Gayle, Little Jimmy Dickens and Phil Vassar. Even then, Wilson knew, “I’m gonna be up there [on the Grand Ole Opry stage] one day. …I didn’t know how in the world I was gonna get there, but it was just one of those feelings that never wore off.”
Wilson went from performing as a Hannah Montana impersonator (a nod to Miley Cyrus’ famous Disney Channel character she played as she launched her career) in high school, to moving to Nashville, Tennessee. The then-19-year-old lived in a camper trailer for a few years, sleeping in layered coats and socks to endure cold weather when the heater wasn’t enough for the winter weather. Still, it never crossed Wilson’s mind to head back to her Louisiana hometown.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything. But I will say, if I had known how hard it was gonna be, I don’t know if I would’ve ever done it,” Wilson said of the challenges she faced while building her career as a country music powerhouse. She reflected on a life lesson she once learned from her father: “When my daddy brought my first horse home… I remember the horse was bucking and it was acting crazy. And I was crying, ‘let me down, let me down, I wanna get down, I’m scared,’ and I remember like it was yesterday. He told me, ‘you better hold on.’ Those words have stuck with me forever. Because any time I feel like I’m about to lose control or I’m about to fall and hit the ground, it just makes me dig in a little deeper, and it makes me just hold on.”
How Lainey Wilson built her career — brick by brick — in 12 years
Wilson adamantly holds on to telling her authentic story. She reflected on a moment that someone suggested she stop talking about the years she spent working to build her career — she’s currently in her 12th year in Nashville — because she wouldn’t sound “fresh” and new to her fans.
She refused to take the advice.
“It was interesting watching a lot of new artists move to town,” Wilson remembered. “I didn’t even get a publishing deal until year seven, and a record deal until year eight. And here we are, I’m working on year 12. We’re here now, but I’d see people pass me up and signing deals left and right, but I knew my time was coming. I did. I didn’t wanna be a flash in the pan. I’ve always tried to view it as, like, ‘brick by brick.’ And if that meant it was gonna take me a long time to build that dang house, then that’s what I was gonna do.
“…I’m proud of how long I’ve been working at this,” she added later. “Here I am 12 years later, and I’ve only gotten to this point. I want people to know that I didn’t just move to Nashville and it all of a sudden just happened. I want people to know that I have busted my tail and I deserve to be here. And if I get up there and say, ‘I’ve been in Nashville for 20 years,’ that should make people feel like, ‘wow, this woman actually has something to say. She’s lived life.’ And I’m proud of that. So, I dare somebody to try to tell me that again. You’re living way behind times, brother. You better get with it.”
Wilson spoke about her empowerment as a woman in country music, often noted for its predominantly male voices. The Bell Bottom Country star has always related to both male and female artists she heard on the radio growing up, she said, and even when she realized “some double standards” later, she opted to avoid getting bogged down by it.
“I do feel an extra pressure that I don’t know if dudes feel. That makes me work harder,” she said. “I think sometimes women are expected to bring a little extra to the table . But we got a lot to say, and sometimes women can say things in a way that a man can’t. I’m excited to see where country music is going right now, because I feel like they truly are letting us tell our side of the story.”
How women are shifting country music: 'whoopin’ butt… in the mix with the dudes'
Wilson sees a shift going on in country music right now, as “a lot of my female friends (are) whoopin’ butt… in the mix with the dudes.” She credits female heavyweights like Miranda Lambert and Ashley McBryde with taking her “under their wing” and offering unconditional support: “I think us women coming together is gonna make the biggest difference. I think we oughta be able to hold hands and run to the finish line together.” Now, she’s taking that same motivation to support others while spearheading a new artists program, serving as a mentor to help springboard others’ careers.
“I feel like I am flipping the status quo just by being myself. …Be nothing but myself,” Wilson said. “Some people like it and some people don’t, and that’s alright. I can’t be anything other than this. This is it.
“We need to speak light and love over each other,” Wilson said later. “I feel like we are steadily lifting each other up. We are steadily high-fiving each other. And the ones that don’t lift me up are the ones that aren’t high-fiving me on the way out. See ya. That’s it. We’re gonna save a lot of people’s time, energy and effort.”