No one will be catching the bell-bottom blues after getting a strong dose of freshly minted country star Lainey Wilson, whose second album, “Bell Bottom Country,” is one of the more irresistible collections to come out of the genre in some time. Everything about her is a breath of fresh air — her brash but respectful personality, her strong Louisiana accent in and out of song, a writerly approach that allows for small-town details and arena-ready rocking out… And also, there is, as she would put it, her trademark “britches,” which help lend the new record its title.
The latter part of 2022 was a year to die for, for Wilson, between coming off a pair of No. 1 country singles (still a rarity for a woman in the format) and spinning that into two CMA Awards (out of a field-leading six nominations) … then having that triumph followed by her acting debut in the third season of “Yellowstone.” But her year was a deeply sobering one, too, as she spent months dealing with the sobering possibility that a strange and debilitating illness would take her father’s life. Wilson spoke with Variety about all these developments and more as she prepared to start her first headlining tour, which began this week.
How long did it take to shoot “Yellowstone,” and did you have to time what was going on with your music career around that?
We were doing it both, we were filming “Yellowstone” and touring all at the same time. I spent a good chunk of the summer filming… I didn’t know what to expect, because I mean, I’ve never done this and I didn’t know if when I showed up on the ranch, people were gonna be like, “Who in the world is this and why is she here thinking she can just (act)?” Because I know how it would feel if somebody all of a sudden decided they wanted to be a country singer. But they welcomed me with open arms.
How did you go from just having songs picked up for the show to being an actor on the series?
They had put three of my songs in the show, and it really introduced my music to a crowd of people who might not listen to radio or stream music. I met Taylor Sheridan after he put one of my songs in the second season and we pretty much just hit it off. I mean, he loves horses, and I was on a horse before I could walk. I was playing at a horse riding competition that he was doing, and there is where we just kind of talked about that. He told me, “Keep sending me music. I want to hear what you got.” And then he put a few more of my songs in the show. And then in February, he called me and said, “I want to create a character specifically for you. I want you to wear what you wear, sing your songs, and pretty much just be you.”
How did just being you work out?
I definitely had to step outside of my comfort zone, even though I felt like a lot of the lines I was saying were things that I would probably just say anyway. It’s different. But I guess I kind of do a form of acting myself (on stage). Even when there’s days I don’t feel good, I’ve still got to play a show. I’ve gotta get up there and act like I’m ready to drink a beer when I really want to go to bed, you know?
Besides “Yellowstone,” you have a lot going on, with a headline tour starting, and two hit songs, one that’s just you, “Heart Like a Truck,” and one where you’re a featured artist with Hardy, “Wait in the Truck.”
Right now we’ve got two trucks on the radio at the same time, and some people are like, “What in the world?” But I mean, at the end of the day, write what you know and sing about what you know.
I’m one of those people that was a little nervous when I saw the title of your song and thought, “Oh, she’s doing a truck song.” And then you hear it and it’s really not a truck song.
Thank you. I appreciate that. “Heart Like a Truck,” for me, even though it’s in the title of song, it’s really got nothing to do with a truck. It’s about triumph. It’s about finding freedom within strengths. It’s about not being ashamed of the scratches and the dents and the bumps along the way, but just embracing it. Because at the end of the day, that’s what makes you you, and that’s what gives you a story to tell. So be proud of it.
You’ve said you think your “Bell Bottom Country” album was a big leap forward. But having just listened to your debut again, too, “Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’,” that album is no slouch to come out of the gate with. And it was nominated for album of the year at the CMAs. So…
…so what is the growth? Probably more than anything, on the personal side, just things that I decided I wanna share with people, kind of letting those walls down. I think I did a little bit of that with “Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’” but I definitely feel like I kind of pulled back those layers on this one. Vocally too, I think I went for it a little more with this record. I think Jay has really figured out on his end what “Bell Bottom Country” means. And while he was doing that, I was figuring it out too — which in my opinion just means country with a flare. It’s about finding that thing, whatever makes you different and unique — it could be where you’re from, how you were raised, your story, your sound, the way you talk — and just embracing it. And I think I did a little bit of that in the first record, but I know dang sure I did it on the second one.
And “flare” is something you like because it has metaphorical and literal implications?
You see what I did there? I’m so glad you did. I remember my very first pair of bell bottoms. They were blue leopard print. My mama bought ’em. And it got to the point where I was wearing ’em so much, she was like, “You gotta take ’em off. We gotta put ’em in the washer.” But I just feel like things that are throwback come with a good story. So if you walk in my house, you’ll see like mama’s old china cabinet or my daddy’s old rodeo chaps. …. I was really trying to figure out what could I do to stand apart from the rest of the females in Nashville, because it’s very important to do that. And what is something that is really true to me? And for me it was whole bell bottom throwback look. And I’m glad we did. I mean, we’ve been doing it now for probably about six years solid. Probably 2016 is when I decided, all right, if I’m gonna do this, I need to wear bell bottoms and need to wear my vintage shirts and stuff like that, daily. It was about a year before I ended up getting a publishing deal and I just stuck with it.
Some of us who are older threw out our bell bottoms, not realizing how covetable those would be to a thriftstore-shopping younger generation.
I don’t know why they ever went out of style. Actually, a lot of my older skinny jeans that I had, I sent ’em home to my grandma, my granny, and she sewed fabric into the sides of ‘em and made ’em into bell bottoms. I know when I first started wearing bell bottoms, there were a few people back at home who were like, “Why are you wearing those britches? Like, come on no,.” but I didn’t let it stop me. I said, “No, I’m gonna stand out, even if it makes me look a little goofy for a minute.”
You work with producer Jay Joyce, who’s made good records for Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert and Ashley McBryde… and some guys, too. He seems to be good at a mix of very commercial and very traditional styles, polished but immediate-feeling.
I agree with that. The way that he produces my stuff, I feel like I’ve been able to kind of straddle that line of mainstream, but also not. I think what he does is he makes it sound familiar but also fresh,which is hard to do. He still has those rough, rugged sounds in my opinion. If this makes any sense at all, it almost sounds like the instruments have dust on them. It just has character to it. I love the stuff that he does with Ashley and the record he did with Miranda, but tThe first time I ever heard about him was through Eric Church. And, I mean, he was my top pick. So when I signed my record deal in 2018, they had asked me, “Who do you want to produce your record?” I said, “Ideally I’d like Jay Joyce to do it,” but everybody was pretty much telling me, “Don’t get your hopes up.”
How did it go when you met him?
I ended up going over to the church — or the studio [Joyce records in a coverted sanctuary] — three or four times before I ever even played him any music. I mean, he really got to know me, my story, my personality. And finally, that third or fourth time that we got together, he threw me a guitar and he’s like, “Lemme hear what you got.” And I’m like, “Oh shit. Here goes nothing!” So I played him, I think, one and a half songs, and we pretty much started talking about something else. And then I left there, and it was kinda like a first date, where I texted him and said, “I don’t know what you had in mind, but I know what I did, and I’d love to work with you,” and he said, “Let’s do it.” So I got to call the label at that point and say, “Well, I’ve already talked to him, so y’all better figure out how to get it going.” [Laughs.]
He’s awesome. I remember sitting there playing my guitar, playing him “Working Overtime,” a song of mine on my self-titled EP. And I just remember him smoking that cigarette and almost just like blowing the smoke in my face right there in the middle of that sanctuary. And I’m like, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” But I felt right at home.
Joyce has some adventurous touches — there are isolated moments in your record that almost sound a little Beatles-y.
Yep. to me, he does a good mixture of that. He’s a dang mad scientist. Even in like the little breakdown of “Heart Like a Truck,” it definitely kind of has that Beatles vibe too with even the string sounds, which kind of take it somewhere else. At the end of the day, the way that I talk is the way that I sing, and I could sing over any kind of music, and it’s still gonna sound country. And I love that Jay helps me step outside of that. It’d be real easy for me to have the production match exactly the way that I sing, but I think at that point it could be a little too on-the-nose, you know?
You’d been in Nashville for a few years before things took off. Your career seems like a no-brainer now. But you had a publishing deal before you signed a record deal, like a lot of people — but it’s hard to look at your whole package and think, “This woman should just be a songwriter.” Do you have any sense of why didn’t people see this right away — like, this is gonna be big?
It’s strange to me too. At the end of the day, it must just all be about timing. And I think for me, it was not supposed to happen for a long time, just so I could get a little more life. That way I could have stories that I could share with people that they were gonna be able to connect to and relate to and latch onto. And I don’t know if at 19 years old I had lived enough life. I mean, that’s when I moved to Nashville — I’ve been there now for 11 and a half years. The weird thing is, though of course my songwriting has gotten better and I’m sure my singing has gotten a little better, for the most part, I’ve been doing the same thing the entire time. I don’t know if that means I’m an acquired taste. But I do think that me paying my dues and time is supposed to be a part of my story. I mean, it took me seven years to even get a publishing deal.
What was the worst advice you ever got along the way, that you probably didn’t take? Did you ever have people try to talk you into things that weren’t you?
I have had some bad advice. It kind of even ties into the whole how long I’ve been in town thing. It was probably last year that somebody within the industry was like, “You don’t need to talk about how long you’ve been in Nashville. You don’t need to say that you’ve been there for 10 years [at the time], because that dates you as a woman. And also it makes people think, Well, why didn’t it work sooner for her?” I told him to kiss my butt, because at the end of the day, I’m proud that I have been there as long as I have. I don’t want people to think that I just woke up one day and it worked. I want to inspire people to work for something, to roll up their sleeves. When I was 19 and I moved to Nashville in my camper, oh, I was sure I was ready. I was ready! Looking back on it now, I don’t even know if I was ready a year ago. And I don’t know if you’re ever completely ready, but I do think that being in this business for over a decade now, I feel like I know what to do and not do in certain situations and I’ve learned how to carry myself. I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan, and whatever meant longevity, I wanted to do that.
Do you remember a moment at which it sort of clicked over in your mind that you’d made it or that you at least were on a path where you didn’t have to be so anxious anymore?
The cool part about this is we’re just getting started. I feel like I’ve been preparing for the race, I finally entered it and just now I’m about to run it, you know? But I will say one of the moments for me that I felt like, “All right, for sure this thing is really starting to move,” was when I found out about the six CMA nominations and being the most nominated. I used to stand outside of the Bridgestone Arena and wait in line for hours just to get a wristband, just to get down in the pit and pretend I was invited. And to be invited is huge in itself, and to be even recognized once is hard for me to wrap my mind around. But to be the most nominated and have six nominations, I don’t take it lightly. And I don’t know if every artist gets to feel this way, but when I tell you I feel genuine support from everybody, it’s weird.
I just remember my manager called me at 7 the morning of the nominations and I was halfway awake, and when they were like, “You got nominated for a CMA,” I about fell out the bed, even before they were like, “And you were the most nominated with six.” I could not call home quick enough, because before anybody believed in me, my mama and daddy did. They were the ones who took me to Country Colgate Showdowns and honky-tonk talent searches and would listen to all the songs I was writing at 9 years old. They thought I could do it, maybe before I even thought I could do it.
My daddy’s been sick this past summer, and he finally turned the corner. HIm walking the CMA carpet with me was a big deal because we thought we were gonna lose him this year. He spent two months in a hospital in ICU and then three weeks in a rehab facility, and he’s home now. It was a fungal infection that pretty much wiped out the left side of his face. They had to remove his left eye, remove certain bones in his face, and then he had a stroke on top of that. So he had nine surgeries in a month and a half.
What was it like dealing with something so shattering while you have dreams coming true?
It was really weird when I was feeling like I was having the best months of my life so far professionally, but personally it was the hardest time of my life. And it’s really strange that my song that people are learning right now is “Heart Like a Truck.” That song has completely changed meanings. I mean, I did write it for anybody and everybody who’s been through things. But I was having to get up on stage every single night when they were telling me that my daddy was probably not gonna make it. And I was having to get up there and share a big piece of my heart with people. I just had to pull myself up by the bootstraps and get on with it.
When exactly was this happening?
The end of July is when he got sick, so it was pretty much August and September of him being in the hospital. And then [in October] he actually got to come home. So I’m having to tell him to pull his bootstraps up now. It’s crazy how life works. You know, all the things that he taught me growing up, I’m having to tough-love him now, and I’m like, “Nope. Get up, get moving.”
You have that great song on the album about him, “Those Boots (Daddy’s Song).” We can imagine how impossible that song would be to sing if things weren’t going well for him.
I thought about that. It’s weird how we recorded the song at the top of the year before all this stuff took place. I was thinking, if he does pass away, I don’t know how in the world I will ever be able to sing this song. So I’m glad he’s here, and at the end of the day, life can be short, but we have so much to celebrate and be happy about. And I wanted him to be around to see everything that’s happening. Because I mean, I’ve been doing this for myself, but also a part of me’s been doing it for them, for my family. This actually used to be my daddy’s dream. He used to roll a picnic table out to the side of the highway and pretend he was Glen Campbell for the cars passing by, and playing his guitar, so yep. Now he’s walking the carpet at the CMAs.
How far back does music go in the family?
Daddy plays guitar by ear, and a little bit of piano by ear. We’ve got people who can play musical instruments on both sides of the family, my mama’s side and my daddy’s side. But nobody really sings. My grandma on my mama’s side was taking me to her house one weekend, and she said I was in the back of the car singing “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” And she came back to the house and told my mama, “I think Lainey can sing.” And my mama was like, “Ain’t nobody in this family can carry a tune in a bucket.” But she realized I did. Then the first time I sang out in public was my kindergarten graduation, and then I wrote my first song at 9 years old, and daddy showed me a few chords on a guitar once my hands got big enough. That was it.
Some country stars sing about coming from small towns and they you find out they mean a suburb of 30,000 people. But your hometown, Baskin, Louisiana — 300 people definitely counts.
I think at this point it might just be 200 and some change. Some folks are kind of moving out. But mostly all of them are my family. If they’re not blood-related, they feel like family. … Tim McGraw grew up right down the road from me, and my step-grandmother actually used to babysit him. So I always viewed him and his career as, oh my gosh, a small-town boy from around my neck of the woods — maybe I can do it.
Is there anything about being from Louisiana that you know makes you really distinct from country artists who come from other states around you?
Just the culture in general. I’m not specifically Cajun myself; I’m just redneck. But I do have a lot of Cajun family members. I’m northeast Louisiana. When you get to about Baton Rouge on down, even the dialect changes. I feel like North Louisiana people sound a little bit more like me. But the people like to have a good time and they don’t take themselves too serious. They cut up. I’m sure you can find folks like that all over the country. But when you talk about Louisiana folks, especially South Louisiana folks, everybody is like, “Oh my lord. I went down to South Louisiana one time and I came back a changed person,” you know?
You have a line on the album that mentions five generations, which seems to refer to farming.
Yep. I come from a long line of farmers, and actually five generations is all we know about at this point; it could go back even further than that. But yeah, my daddy farms corn, wheat, soybeans, oats. And even though I’m not driving a tractor and I’m not bailing hay and all that kind of stuff, I will say what I do is pretty dang similar to farming. You get up every day, you bust your tail. You have good years, you have bad years. A tornado could roll through and wipe it all away. But if it’s what you love and in your heart and really the only thing you know and want to do, then you just get up and do it.
You mentioned that you sing like you talk. That’s not true for everybody. Even in country music, there are some people with strong accents who kind of lose it when they sing, whether they mean to or not. But there’s something so enjoyable about hearing your accent make the songs more specific in place somehow.
Thank you. And I’m glad you said that, because oh my gosh. The worst thing that people can say to me, when I start like looking at comments online… They can tell me I’m ugly, they can tell me I can’t sing. But when they start talking about my accent being fake, it makes me so mad, because at that point I feel like you’re talking about my family. It’s really funny to me that some folks think that I’d be trying to keep this up. Like, that would be too much of a job! Let’s be honest.
What’s weird is, I’m probably one of the most Southern (-sounding) folks in Nashville at this point. And I think it’s because I talk to my sister and my family so much back at home. I don’t think it’s ever gonna go anywhere, because you would think by now it would’ve kind of fizzled out a little. I think it’s here to stay. [Laughs.]
A lot of people in the country world have spent a lot of time thinking about what would work for a new female country star, especially in the world of radio, if sexism is not the sole problem. Sometimes radio people have said that women artists favor ballads and those are harder to make fit in among the men’s rowdy songs. You’ve got the sensitive ballads but you have some party-down songs, too. Whether that’s why it’s working is hard to say, but it can’t hurt that you’re able to come at things stylistically or even emotionally from both ends.
I think somebody like Miranda did a great job with that. I think she showed her vulnerable side, but also showed her badass side. And I think sometimes maybe folks just don’t give women enough of a chance for them to actually see that they’ve got a badass side. too. But I think there’s room for all of us. I mean, even if we are ballad-heavy, at the end of the day, we’ve got a side of the story too, and I think people need to hear it. And there’s so many female listeners who need to hear a woman’s point of view.
Even the song that I’m doing with Hardy right now, it’s a song called “Wait in the Truck,” and it’s about domestic abuse and shining a little bit of light on a dark subject. That song reminded me of why I fell in love with country music to begin with; it reminds me of songs like (Garth Brooks’) “Thunder Rolls” and (Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’) “Whisky Lullaby.”
But the amount of people who have reached out to me just saying, “Thank you so much for representing us women” — it’s time for the tides to change. I mean, who said it a few years ago, something about us being the tomatoes of the hamburger? [It was actually a radio consultant who opined that women should just constitute the tomatoes in the salad of the country format.]
I’ll say, I feel like I have been given the opportunity to write with such incredible songwriters in Nashville, and they’ve been able to kind of pull out both sides of me. They’ve been able to pull out that sensitive, vulnerable, ballad side of me, but also that rockin’ hillbilly stuff. Because I do have both of those sides. And sometimes it’s hard to show that you’ve got both of them. But I think Jay helped me do that, too.
Just about all of your singles have been ballads. And yet it seems like people at least know you’ve also got this rocking side, maybe some of those will be hits at some point too.
I’ve been an opening act for years at this point, and I know I’ve gaged what the crowds like, and so of course that influences what I put on my record, even though I might enjoy singing something like the laid-back ones a little more in the studio. But when I get up there on stage, there’s a part of me that just comes alive. I like playing my electric guitar. I like just feeling it. And when we cut this record, I definitely had the thought of, “OK, are these songs gonna be fun live?” Because I know that, yes, I’m about to start having some of my own headlining shows, but still I’m gonna be opening up for a lot of people. And my job is to get ’em rowdy and get ’em on their feet, and I’m gonna do my job.
It’s a pretty rocking record.
Yeah, I’d say so. It’s pretty rocking. I mean, I listen to it sometimes and forget it’s even me, I’m such a fan of it. I’m like, “This is some good shit!” [Laughs.]