When Lauren Alaina performed Dec. 18 at the Grand Ole Opry, she unexpectedly found herself kneeling on the stage’s vaunted circle at the feet of Trisha Yearwood, practically speechless at the invitation she was about to receive.
“I am 100% still trying to process it,” Alaina says with a laugh over a month later.
She hadn’t known that Yearwood was even attending, and Alaina likewise was unaware that her father was accompanying her mom to the performance. Yearwood pointed him out from the stage, in effect clueing Alaina into the significance of the moment: She was about to be invited to join the Opry.
“When I saw my dad, that’s when I knew,” says Alaina. “I knew of the Opry because of my dad, because he grew up playing banjo and always wanted to play there. And so I grew up with an appreciation of the Grand Ole Opry. It was like this magical place as a little kid. The Grand Ole Opry was Disney World to me, and maybe someday I’d get to go there. I knew that I would never be asked without both of my parents being there.”
Alaina’s addition to the Opry roster comes at a time when she is gaining momentum as a multifaceted artist. Her current duet with Jon Pardi, “Getting Over Him,” rests at No. 31 on the radio-focused Country Airplay chart dated Feb. 5. She has notched previous No. 1 singles on the list with her solo recording “Road Less Traveled,” the Kane Brown duet “What Ifs” and the HARDY/Devin Dawson collaboration “One Beer.” (She missed out on another No. 1 when conflicts with the Pardi release pushed her off Dustin Lynch’s “Thinking ’Bout You,” leading her to be replaced by MacKenzie Porter.)
But Alaina has amassed attention in other areas, too. She finished third in the 2019 season of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars; portrayed a returning veteran in a Hallmark movie, Roadhouse Romance, in September 2021; published an autobiography, Getting Good at Being You: Learning to Love Who God Made You to Be, in November; and became an ambassador in January for Maurices, a women’s casual-wear chain with 858 U.S. outlets, mostly in small towns.
Those career maneuvers are a direct result of her conscious effort to build her influence on a variety of platforms, reasoning that her introduction to a national audience via American Idol in 2011 provides her with innate TV savvy that translates to some of those other pursuits.
“I have very much intentionally, over the last three years or so, tried to think outside the box and find other ways to connect with people,” she says. “That’s really ultimately what I want to do. Music is my passion. It is at the center and the root of all of the other things that I can do.”
But that expansion into other entertainment arenas also demonstrates how Alaina is using the paths of some of the women who have preceded her as instructive templates.
“Reba [McEntire] and Dolly [Parton] are my two faves,” she says. “They’re legends and icons because of all the different avenues that they took, you know, the different ways they expanded their brand.”
Alaina is also solidifying her persona by further inserting her experiences, beliefs and personality into her creative efforts. She co-wrote all but one of the 15 tracks on her latest album — Sitting Pretty on Top of the World, issued Sept. 3, 2021 — and gave a revealing account of herself in Getting Good. Her willing vulnerability makes her particularly relatable to other young women, and she credits her advances as a writer to the pandemic, which put a halt to 10 years of regular touring and forced her into isolation for most of the last two years. It gave her a lot of free time, which she used for personal growth.
“It really made me look at myself in a way that I never had fully done before,” says Alaina. “I grew so much in those first few months, especially. And I also had a really hard time with it — like a really, really hard time with it — and I think sometimes when you’re the most uncomfortable, you grow the most because you don’t have a choice.”
One of the repeating references in Sitting Pretty is the rowdy significance of Saturday. She encapsulates honky-tonk hijinks in “Same Story, Different Saturday Night,” measures the meaning of a complex Saturday-night temptation in “I’m Not Sad Anymore” and issues a Saturday rejection of an unwanted ex in “When the Party’s Over.”
“The weekend’s when we’re all making the biggest decisions,” Alaina says, laughing again. “Typically, if something’s going to go down, it’s going to go down on the weekend, nine times out of ten. This is a theme in country music in general. I feel like we’re all talking about the weekend, but what’s so funny is, for the artist, that’s when we work.”
Alaina was 16 when she first came to prominence as a contestant on American Idol, and that pre-voting-age image was prominent enough that she finds some members of her audience have difficulty seeing her as an adult. The mature themes in Sitting Pretty make it a little easier to bring listeners up to date.
“That’s why this project was really important to me, because I am a grown woman,” says Alaina, who is now 27. “I’m knocking on the door of 30. I want people to remember that sweet girl from American Idol because she set me up for everything I have now, but I also want them to know me now.”
When Alaina is inducted into the Opry on Feb. 12, she’ll be returning to the historic wooden circle where she kneeled in December. And she’ll return again dozens, or even hundreds, of times in the future, sharing pieces of her own journey in the context of a show that will turn 100 in 2025.
“I have a job forever now,” she says. “I’ll never not have a job. I’ll always be able to play music at the Grand Ole Opry.”
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