With a hotly anticipated album out on Friday and six CMA nominations — the most of any artist this year — waiting in the wings, you could say that Lainey Wilson is having her big moment now. Except she’s been having a lot of big moments lately.
Two ACM awards, an upcoming recurring role on one of TV’s biggest hits, Billboard’s top new country artist, a coveted spot on Luke Combs’ tour bill, CMT breakout artist of the year, and her own headlining tour. Who can keep track of it all? Maybe not even Wilson.
“You know, I figured plenty of opportunities were gonna come my way just throughout my career,” she tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t know that once I really got my feet up off the ground, that it was gonna be this many opportunities and look like this.”
After knocking around Nashville for the better part of a decade, the 30-year-old Louisiana native is now learning to adjust to being country’s newest sensation, and she’s doing so with the delicious satisfaction of knowing she’s making her splash entirely on her own terms.
What you see — and what you hear — is what you get: the psychedelic attire featuring her trademark bell bottoms, that half-cane syrup/half-cayenne Looz-iana drawl, and the self-penned music that bountifully flows from both her own rural roots and country’s wellspring sources.
“The best part of all this is that I feel like I have been able to stay true to who I am — and stay true to what made me and my raisin’,” says Wilson (who probably has never been fully acquainted with the “g” at the end of “ing”). “I would truly hate to wake up 20 years down the road and be like, dang, I did all this stuff, but I was not me while I was doing it.”
Her determination is sewn into every track of her new album, Bell Bottom Country, a collection of stage-ready music that’s a thrilling successor to her acclaimed 2021 debut album, Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, now nominated for a CMA award. The 13 new songs that Wilson has co-written brim with her spirit, an irresistible combination of moxie and sass, vulnerability and resilience. Almost half are straight-up “identity” songs with lyrics that introduce a woman who lives off “them letters written in crimson red” but also has that “neon side … sitting like a devil on my shoulder.”
It’s obvious that Wilson wants listeners to know exactly who she is.
“I think it comes from, for the longest time, people not taking me serious,” she reflects. “I truly do. I think it was those seven years of being in Nashville and I mean, I even had a song that Luke Combs cut that we wrote together. It didn’t matter. I still could not get a publishing deal to save my damn life. I had a lot of folks thinking that the way that I talk is not really the way that I talk. And I’m like, well, you oughta talk to my momma and my daddy and my sister and my granny.”
Wilson quickly adds that the “who I am” songs aren’t born out of any need to defend or justify herself.
“I’m proud of the way that I talk,” she says. “I’m proud of my story. I’m proud of where I come from. I’m proud of how my momma and daddy raised me. I’m proud of the hardships, and yeah, I want people to know that you just take it on the nose, and you be you, unapologetically. That’s what this whole record is about. It’s about leaning into whatever it is that makes you you.”
Of course, her current chart-climber, “Heart Like a Truck,” offers a brilliant metaphor for all those long, bumpy miles Wilson has put on her life so far, beginning with growing up in a farm family in tiny Baskin, Louisiana (pop. 212).
Country was the soundtrack of her household, and her grandmother identified Wilson’s vocal gifts before the little girl had even started school. “I remember hearing her tell my momma, ‘I think Lainey can sing,'” Wilson recalls. “And my momma’s like, ‘What in the world? We are not a family of singers.’ But she said, ‘Start paying attention. I really do think she can carry a tune.'”
Wilson’s first taste of the stage arrived at her kindergarten graduation, and by age 9, she’d begun trying her hand at writing country songs. Fatefully, that same year, she received her first pair of bell bottoms (“a blue leopard-print pair that I did not want to take off”). She also talked her parents into a detour to Nashville on their way home from a Dollywood vacation in east Tennessee.
“Even at 9 years old,” she says, recalling the moment she saw the Music City skyline, “I knew that I was gonna be here. I think little kids know a lot more than what people give ‘em credit for.”
In high school, Wilson took a lengthy turn as a Hannah Montana impersonator, building a nest egg by performing at children’s parties and other events. No doubt the experience left her with a deep understanding that being someone besides herself was no way to sustain a career; she also absorbed other important lessons.
“One day I would be playing a 3-year-old’s birthday party and later that day, I would be playing a nursing home, so I really had to figure out how to adjust to my crowd,” she says. “There’s times now where I feel like that really comes in handy.”
She also learned that the career she aspired to “was not gonna be easy. I was doing three or four parties a weekend and fairs and festivals. All my friends in high school were going to the LSU football games and living it up. I never even thought twice about it. I never felt like I was missing out. I felt like I was putting some notches on my belt.”
At age 19, after enduring three semesters at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, Wilson purchased a bumper-pull camper-trailer and set off to live out her Nashville dream. (She grit her teeth and eventually earned a college degree, in general studies, long distance.) A family friend who owned a small Nashville studio allowed Wilson to set up her portable home in his parking lot, where she lived for almost three years.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was scared,” she says, recalling her first days in Nashville. “I felt like I was a long ways away from home, and I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.”
Little by little, she started making connections with the city’s music community, earning a living by regularly heading back to Louisiana to entertain at a Monroe restaurant-bar. “I could go play there two or three times a month and be fine for a month,” she explains. “That way I could really focus on the big-picture stuff.”
Phone calls back to her folks, she admits, were sometimes hard. “Oh my gosh, I felt like I needed to tell ‘em any little tiny good thing that happened,” she recalls. “That way they weren’t like, ‘When are you gonna bring your ass home?’ But they never did. Whether it was big things or little things, I tried to let ‘em know where I was headed because I didn’t want ‘em thinking that I was just twiddling my thumbs and not going anywhere. They knew that I was working hard.”
The hard work finally paid off almost seven years after her Nashville arrival, when Wilson signed a publishing deal in 2017. A year later, she landed her recording contract. But even then, she was still faced with the formidable challenge of every new artist: How do you chase prevailing trends while trying to break out of the pack? For Wilson, it was a catch-22. She realized she couldn’t do both.
“I was still one of the countriest people around,” Wilson says, “and not just the way that I talked, but the way that I sang and what I write about. I was a fish outta water for a while, and I think I just reached a point where I was truly comfortable in my own skin. My ‘give a damn’ just kind of busted.”
(Credit a 2005 Jo Dee Messina hit for that last turn of phrase. Of course, Wilson is fluent in country.)
Wilson’s decision to let go of her fears soon became apparent not only in the choices she was making in music but also in style. She’d long been wearing vintage clothes and bell-bottom blue jeans — attire, she says, “I really feel like myself in” — but she’s since super-charged the look with a bolero hat, vivid colors and eye-popping prints that evoke the free-spirited hippie culture.
“I love things that are a throwback,” she says. “I think things that are a throwback come with a good story, and I’m a sucker for a good story.”
Her 2021 debut No. 1, “Things a Man Oughta Know,” drew on that love of story — and it set off country fans’ growing love affair with her. Ever since, Wilson has forcefully put her hand on the latest pendulum swing toward traditional country, a perennial return that invariably comes with new sonic interpretations.
As the title of the new album suggests, Wilson lays claim to her own individual brand of it. She defines “bell bottom country” as country “with a flair.” She laughs and offers a playful wink to the word’s double meaning.
“It’s about finding whatever it is about you that makes you unique or stand out or different,” she says, explaining her self-coined terminology. “It could be where you’re from, how you were raised, the way that you talk, the way that you look, your story, whatever it is. It’s just about leaning into that as much as you possibly can. And I think that’s what we did with this record.”
In Wilson’s hands, though, “bell bottom country” also is country with a flare: So many of her songs explode off the new album, from the hard-charging beat of the first track, “Hillbilly Hippie,” to the exultant wail of final track, “What’s Up (What’s Going On),” an inspired reimagining of the 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 rock hit.
Among the wealth of music in between are two intimate story songs that instantly speak to Wilson’s awareness of the shoulders she’s standing on. She readily acknowledges that her “Watermelon Moonshine” was inspired by Deana Carter’s 1996 hit, “Strawberry Wine.” And she can draw a direct line between “Those Boots,” her poignant tribute to her father, and Holly Dunn’s 1986 classic, “Daddy’s Hands,” a song that Wilson, as a little girl, loved to sing to her grandmother.
Miranda Lambert, perhaps this era’s finest female torchbearer of traditional country, has taken notice of where Wilson is staking her claim, and the superstar has identified her as the next one to carry the torch. It’s just one of many accolades that have been coming Wilson’s way of late, and it’s among those that mean the most.
“I got some big boots to fill, but I’m honored,” says Wilson, who grew up less than 250 miles from Lambert’s east Texas hometown and is now delighted to call her a friend. “I kind of feel like we’re kindred spirits. Any advice that I need from her, she has been here every step of the way, and she’s just rooting me on.”
The morning after the awards show, “I sat in the bathtub and cried,” she told PEOPLE on the CMT awards red carpet back in April. “That was definitely the biggest moment of my career so far.”
So far. The way her career has since been going, she definitely needed that qualifier back then. On Sept. 7, Wilson learned she’d earned CMA nominations for female artist, new artist, song, album, musical event and music video of the year — six in all.
Reminded of that number, she shakes her head. “You just made me nervous all over again,” she says. “It really is insane.”
Amid the hoopla, though, what she’s looking forward to the most the night of the CMA awards, on Nov. 9, is walking the red carpet with her father, Brian Wilson (whom she studiously identifies as “not the Beach Boy” lest anyone think the more famous Brian Wilson has a secret hillbilly daughter).
This past summer, Wilson came close to losing her dad to a rare and deadly fungal infection, and the crisis, she says, became “a huge turning point in my life. At the end of the day, family is all you got, and my family means the world to me. They truly do. So this time has definitely brought us closer together when I didn’t even realize that we could. And it makes everything else feel real small when stuff like that is going on in your life.”
That perspective is allowing Wilson to keep a level head over the prospect of adding to her trophy collection.
“If we win ‘em all, of course I’m gonna be on top of the moon,” she says, “but even if we do, I’m still gonna be like, what’s next? It doesn’t mean that I’m not content or happy. But I’m just that type of person where I’m like, all right, let’s keep going.”
What’s next will be happening just four days later. On Nov. 13, she’s set to make her acting debut in the premiere of season 5 of the hit Paramount drama, Yellowstone. Wilson got acquainted with the show’s co-creator, Taylor Sheridan, after one of her songs was used in an episode, and last February, he contacted her with the idea of putting her on the show.
“He said, I want to create a character specifically for you,” she recalls. He said, ‘I want you to wear what you wear, sing what you’re singing and pretty much just be yourself. You’re gonna go by Abby. She’s a musician.’ And without even thinking, I just said, ‘Yes, count me in. Let’s do it.'”
Wilson says she immensely enjoyed the filming and would welcome even more acting opportunities. “I love creating things,” she says, “and I feel like that’s what acting is. It’s just being creative.”
Indeed, these days Wilson is enjoying every bit of the momentum she’s riding, excited about wherever it takes her.
“I love country music,” she says. “You know, I laugh and say, ‘This is the only thing I know how to do.’ The truth is, I’m sure I could go learn how to do some other stuff. But I just want this so bad. I’m not trying to prove all the folks wrong who didn’t believe in me. I’m at a point in my life where I want to prove people right. I’ve had a lot of people who’ve believed in me along the way, and I’m trying to be like, all right, we ain’t stopping now. Let’s go. Pedal to the metal!”