Welcome to Emerging Country, a Billboard series where we highlight an up-and-coming act who is making a splash in the genre. This month’s pick is country singer-songwriter Lainey Wilson, who is introducing herself to the genre with the sultry debut single “Dirty Looks.”
From the moment Lainey Wilson stepped foot inside the Grand Ole Opry during a family vacation at the age of 9, she knew she’d be back and performing on the famed stage one day. What she didn’t imagine was that it would happen nearly 20 years later.
“My daddy took us on a family vacation to Gatlinburg when I was 9 years old and I begged him to drive to Nashville on our way home to Louisiana,” Wilson says with a distinct Southern drawl, settling into a chair inside the Glitz & Glamour Room an hour before her Opry debut on Feb. 14. “And he did. We actually came to the Grand Ole Opry. I remember exactly where I was sitting, and my sister — she was passed out on the pew, asleep — and we got to see Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Crystal Gayle, Phil Vassar. It’s crazy that I remember who was even playing at 9 years old, but I was just sitting there soaking it all in.”
The Louisiana native is all smiles backstage surrounded by friends, family and industry executives who are all there to see her dream realized. “I knew eventually I would have this opportunity; I just didn’t know when. This is the ultimate goal for anybody that does country music. When you play the Grand Ole Opry, you’re on the right track,” she says.
When she walked into the backstage artist entrance and signed in, Wilson ran into Anderson, who listened attentively when she explained seeing him perform during her first trip to Nashville, and that tonight, she’ll be making her debut.
After a few words and congratulations from Anderson, Wilson made her way to dressing room No. 4, which is reserved for those making their Opry debut. The walls are peppered with memorable quotes from artists recalling their debut — including Josh Turner, Darius Rucker and Taylor Swift — and her dressing room is filled with flowers from her label Broken Bow Records, publisher Sony/ATV, and tourmate Ashley McBryde, among others. As she FaceTime’s McBryde to thank her for the flowers, Wilson admits that standing in the iconic Opry circle during rehearsal had her nervous.
“I stepped in the circle a little bit ago and just about peed in the circle,” she says with a laugh before thanking McBryde and her band for the flowers. “They’re beautiful. I’ve never gotten this many flowers a day in my life. Feel like it’s my funeral! I love y’all.”
Earlier, during rehearsal on the Opry stage, Wilson was visibly emotional. As she strapped on her guitar and strummed the intro for her debut single “Dirty Looks,” she pointed out where her family sat all those years ago. “I’m about to cry already,” she says as she steps into the circle. “Better get this out early or I’ll cry later.”
Wilson’s two-song Opry debut was emotional, but she held it together while performing the autobiographical “LA” — about growing up in Louisiana, not Los Angeles — and her infectious single “Dirty Looks.”
“Thank you, Grand Ole Opry, for making me feel so special,” she said from the stage at the end of her performance. “They literally didn’t even have a clue who I was, but made me feel like family from the beginning, and that’s what makes this place so special. I can’t even believe I’m standing here in the circle … You know how most little girls dream about their wedding dresses and dream about walking down the aisle and being given away? This is a moment I’ve been dreaming about right here.
“Thank y’all so much … My name is Lainey Wilson, and this ain’t gonna be the last time I’m standing in this circle.”
While the Grand Ole Opry will see many more visits from Wilson in the coming years, below she speaks with Billboard, sharing her backstory as an artist and songwriter.
When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?
I had written my first song not long before we had made our trip to Nashville. I feel like music just grabbed a hold of me and it did not let go. At 11 years old, I started playing guitar. It was just one of those things that I had to do. It was not really a choice to make. There’s never been a plan B, and it’s the only thing I know how to do.
When was your first public appearance?
The first time I ever sang out in public was my kindergarten graduation. I sang “Butterfly Kisses.” I was dressed up like little butterfly. The first time that I ever actually made money playing a show, I was 9.
There was a guy from my hometown, Jerry Cupit. Back in the late ’70s, my grandfather had given him a few hundred dollars to help move him to Nashville and get started because he wanted to be in the music business. Later on in life he ended up creating a little convenience store in my town of 300 people and he was having the grand opening. He was my mentor growing up, [and] he asked me to come down and sing as many songs as I possibly could a cappella that I had written. He gave me $20 and I sang all 10 of my songs I had written at that point, and I actually still have the $20 bill.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
It was called “Lucky Me.” It sounded a little bit like a Britney Spears song. I don’t know where it came from. I was at my friend’s house and I just started writing a song, and I actually brought it home to my mama the next day and I was like, “Listen to the song I wrote,” and she was like, “All right, let me hear it. Dang, that’s kinda good.” And then she thought that’d be it and I wouldn’t write another song. The next week I’d written another one, and then it just snowballed after that. I just never quit.
Whose career do you admire most and would like to pattern yours after?
The two that I would love to have a similar career as would probably be Dolly [Parton] or Reba [McEntire]. I actually just announced that I have a show with [Reba]. I think both of those girls, they don’t sugarcoat anything. They’ve somehow stayed in the game for a very long time. Whether that means acting or putting out new music, whatever, they’re still relevant. I feel like until the day they die, they’re going to feel like they’re never actually finished. My goal is to just keep on going for as long as I can.
Who is your dream collaborator?
Miss Dolly Parton. She’s my hero. I haven’t met her yet.
What’s the story behind your single “Dirty Looks”?
When I think about how I was raised and my core values and things like that, the word that comes to my mind is “hard work.” My daddy’s a farmer. My mama’s a teacher. They bust their tail all year round not for themselves, but for future generations. They’ve instilled those values in me, and “Dirty Looks” tells a story about a hardworking man and a blue-collar couple who can’t keep their hands off of each other and don’t really care who’s watching them. I think there are a lot of people around America and all of the world that can relate to that story.
What’s the most autobiographical song on your EP Redneck Hollywood?
“LA” would probably be the most autobiographical song that I have on the record. I think it shows my personality; I’m a little bit crazy and it shows how redneck I am. I mean, I’m sure you can tell from the way that I speak, but it’s not just the way that I speak, it’s the way that I live, too.
The story behind that song is when I first moved to town with my camper trailer, everywhere I’d go I’d open my mouth to speak and I’d say, “Well, I’m from LA.” And they’re like, “There ain’t no way you’re from LA.” They thought Los Angeles, and I was just talking about home. That song tells my story and tells a little snippet about who I am.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about your career?
Be kind and work hard because those two things are truly the most important. If you’re nice to people, they will remember that, and nobody can stop you from working hard. That doesn’t mean that if you work hard and be kind that you’re going to be a superstar; it just means that you are going to find your place — you’re gonna find your place in the industry or wherever you’re supposed to be.