#LetTheGirlsPlay: Lainey Wilson’s Perfectly Abnormal Journey to Nashville
Lainey Wilson has good stories. Spend a half hour with her and she'll back into stories about her no-stoplight hometown, bizarre high school job or the camper she lived in — and flooded! —when she first moved to Nashville.
May's #LetTheGirlsPlay artist of the month does nothing to hide her thick northern Louisiana drawl while gushing on her teeny, tiny where-I'm-from, or talking about the woman who turned one of her songs into a personal cancer anthem. Wilson never seems to be performing, but her performances are enthralling. Many artists "turn it on" in conversation but with her, there's no proud, "I know I'm charming" smile when she peppers conversations with statements like, "This is who I am, like it or lump it."
Call her a cautious optimist with just enough scars and pragmatism to write great, universal country songs. "Life is tough, but this girl's tougher," she declares with equal parts sweet and strong in "Tougher," the title-track of her 2016 studio album.
The farm girl with chestnut brown eyes is from Baskin, La., population 300 and "they're probably all my family," she says, laughing. Wilson's mother continued the family tradition of becoming a teacher while her dad farms soybeans, corn and wheat. Horses roam the acreage — it's the kind of place that's tough to leave but impossible to forget. You can tell a lot about a person by how they feel about where they grew up — this Song Suffragettes singer wouldn't trade it for a thousand hits.
At age nine she wrote her first lyric and learned guitar two years later. "Throughout high school I impersonated Hannah Montana, that was my high school job," Wilson says before recognizing others may think that's peculiar, or at the very least worthy of a follow-up question.
What started as a favor for a teacher blossomed into a quasi-touring schedule. She went through seven wigs on the road, toting a portable sound system and a 15-track mix of the television character's hits. Fairs and festivals paid well. Her final show was at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis.
"I would open for myself. Lainey Wilson would open for Hannah Montana," she says. "It taught me so much about stage performance and like getting out there and just doing the thing."
Not long after high school Wilson moved to Nashville, but figures her father must have wanted to see if she was serious because he set her up in a camper trailer outside of a recording studio in West Nashville, a bourgeois side of town near Vanderbilt University. It was ... cozy. When it rained it sounded like hail and a few times she says she was sure she'd be blown away in a storm. But the heat worked and she got free water and electricity from the studio owner, so she stuck it out even after flooding the floor with a foot of water.
Musically Wilson couldn't be further from Miley Cyrus or Hannah Montana. Her songs come with grit and this overwhelming freedom. She describes herself as a hippy Lee Ann Womack, and that fits when you hear songs like "Blue Jeans and Freedom," an urgent folk-rocker that's meant for an artist like Eric Church.
"Dream Catcher" is another signature song from a more upbeat, fun and free-spirited project she's working on. The seed of this song was planted years ago, she says, when she was just five or six and she noticed a friend had a dreamcatcher.
"Whether it be husband and wife, best friends, mother or daughter," she says. "When someone is going through things in life you just wish you could take all their hurt and pain away. I feel like that’s what a dreamcatcher does."
Another of her songs caught a woman's pain quite unintentionally. "Tougher" is about her experiences growing up. The loss of a friend and death of a grandfather are two she mentions in the ballad's lyrics. In Hattiesburg, Miss., she learned how the meaning of a song can be malleable.
"After the show this girl came up to my (merchandise) table and was like, 'I love this song,'" Wilson says. "A couple weeks later she messaged me on my fan page like, 'Hey, I met you at your merch table in Hattiesburg, Miss., and I just wanted to tell you I loved the song at that time but the song means something completely [different] to me now because last week I got diagnosed with breast cancer and this song is what I turn on every single morning.'"
"This is why I wanna do this."