Lauren Alaina’s 2011 debut album was titled Wildflower, but you could argue that her sophomore project is when she really blossomed.
The Road Less Traveled, out now via Interscope/Mercury Nashville, is a revealing, 12-song collection that has Alaina exploring body-image issues, a broken family life, co-dependency and the emotional rigors of a road job that separates her from her loved ones.
Twenty-nine months removed from vocal surgery, she delivers the material with a force and conviction that’s arguably advanced for her age.
“I was 16 [when Wildflower was released], and now I’m 22, and I’ve spent the last six years figuring out who I am and what I want to say to people,” she reflects. “I feel like this album is so much more a representation of who I am, and I think it’s important to be honest. It’s been a long time. If people haven’t kept up with me, they haven’t seen me since I was 16, and I wanted them to know exactly who I am and where I’ve been. If they don’t know, now they will.”
Alaina, of course, was introduced nationally during the 2011 season of Fox’s American Idol, where she finished as runner-up to Scotty McCreery. The first album was rush-released to ride the momentum of her TV exposure, but she co-wrote only one of the songs, and none of them emerged as a bona fide hit.
As she started working on the second album, pieces of her world began to crumble in 2013. Her parents divorced, her father entered alcohol rehab, and Alaina came to grips with her own eating disorder. The 2014 vocal surgery was something of a wake-up call — she could no longer take her powerful gift for granted.
Her father’s willingness to battle his own demons helped her confront her own. “When my dad first went into rehab, that was the first time I even acknowledged the fact that he had an alcohol problem because he kept the issue a secret,” she says. “When he made that step, it was so brave of him, and it changed my life forever because it made me want to be brave and accept who I am and where I come from.”
Enter songwriter/producer busbee (Keith Urban, Maren Morris). They met for the first time at a songwriting appointment, just as she was beginning to open up. She shared all her fears and issues, and waited for the blowback.
“He pretty much took me under his arm, gave me a big hug and said, ‘We’re going to write about it,’ ” she recalls. “I cried the whole writing session.”
“Doin’ Fine,” the song they crafted, details some of her family’s issues and puts them in an optimistic framework. It’s the opening track on The Road Less Traveled, setting a tone for the rest of album, all of which she co-wrote.
“I like soulful music, and I like great singers,” says busbee. “That’s part of what was really amazing about working with Lauren, is that she’s both of those things and a very, very talented singer and artist.”
While Morris’ album made it to the marketplace first, Alaina’s was the first full country album that busbee produced.
“Now that he’s worked with all these other people, their albums sound nothing like mine, which is so important,” she says. “It means he really did understand what I wanted to do.”
Much of the process occurred even as the much-maligned bro-country era was in full swing, limiting the radio opportunities for female artists. Alaina soldiered on with her project, enlisting at least one woman to co-write all but one of the album’s tracks.
“That really happened by accident,” she says. “The songs that seemed most authentic were with other women, and I have a lot of women that I tend to write with over and over again that really understand me. And I think it’s super important — a woman’s perspective is needed in everyone’s life, whether you’re a woman or a man.”
The title track from The Road Less Traveled was shipped to radio on June 27, and it has changed the world’s perspective of her a bit. Currently at No. 17 on Country Airplay, it marks her first single to reach the top 20. Alaina is suddenly looking like a hit artist. Her own perspective, meanwhile, is one of gratitude.
“This is my sixth single, and most people don’t get six singles if the first five don’t work,” she acknowledges. “So I’m freaking out. Everything happens when it’s supposed to.”
Plenty is happening in 2017. Alaina is in the final stages of work on a movie, also titled The Road Less Traveled. The cast includes Charlene Tilton (Dallas) and Donny Boaz (the Dallas remake), while the soundtrack features five songs from Alaina’s new album. Eric Gunderson of Love & Theft is scoring the picture, though no release date has been set.
“I’ve never acted, but I’m an entertainer,” says Alaina. “So I kind of used what I know from being onstage. I’ve done a thousand and two interviews and I’ve been on camera a million times, so I’m not uncomfortable on camera, but it was interesting for me to be someone else. I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to worry about me for a couple of weeks? I get to be someone else? Perfect.’ ”
Also in the cards is a slot on Martina McBride’s upcoming tour dates in February and March in association with CMT’s Next Women of Country. It’s an appropriate pairing — Alaina covered McBride’s “Anyway” during her run on American Idol, and now that she has found her own voice, Alaina is tackling meaty, difficult subject matter. Those kinds of songs helped define McBride, whom Alaina views as a role model.
“Shania Twain and Martina McBride and all these wonderful women were saying that it’s awesome to be a woman, and it’s awesome to be a confident woman,” reflects Alaina. “Obviously, I could never compare myself to them, and I want to be my own thing, but I think that message is what I want to say as an artist. I tried to make an album full of that.”
Consider it done. The Road Less Traveled seems to be an important step on a journey Alaina is beginning to understand, and is better equipped to control.