It’s difficult to know whether Lainey Wilson would be as big a star as she’s recently become in the field of country music without the visibility boost she’s received from “Yellowstone.” The series began featuring her songs in season 2, a few years before Lainey was cast for a recurring role as a musician in season 5. The most likely answer: She’d probably be almost as big, even without the Taylor Sheridan factor. After all, it’s not a TV show that came up with the combination of country-rock singing chops, irresistible Louisiana accent and gosh-dang gung-ho that have captivated listeners to the point that, in short succession, she’s racked up four No. 1 Mediabase radio singles and been one of the leading winners at the CMA and ACM awards shows.
But said TV show didn’t hurt in providing turbo microboosts, first with the needle drops, then dropping a stylus on her wholly unexpected acting career.
“When Taylor told me ‘I want to create a character specifically for you — I want you to wear your bell bottoms, sing your own songs, and pretty much be yourself,’ I knew that he was wanting to kind of help me over that wall… to put a face to a name for people,” Wilson says. She has enjoyed her induction into acting. “I had never really done anything like that. Of course, I impersonated Hannah Montana through middle school and high school, but I never was saying lines. I had to step out right outside of my comfort zone, especially with those onscreen kisses. But everybody on the set welcomed me with open arms. I didn’t know what to expect,” she says, allowing that if the roles were reversed and “an actor just decided, ‘All right, I’m just gonna start singing country music now,’ I’d be like, “Well, you better get in line behind the rest of us.’”
In season 5 the show used some songs from her second full-length album, “Bell Bottom Country,” incuding the currently rising “Watermelon Moonshine.” But the “Yellowstone” song currently submitted for Emmy consideration, “Smell Like Smoke,” was penned for the series.
“The few times where I’ve sat down with my co-writers to write specifically for ‘Yellowstone,’ I’ve tried to make sure it’s not so much on the nose, because I feel like the songs that they usually choose for the show are nothing real specific (to the plot). But I wanted it to be tough, because when I think of ‘Yellowstone,’ I think of heartache, cowboys, I faith and self-assurance, but also about embracing the tough times. I feel like I accidentally do that with my music anyway, with songs like ‘Heart Like a Truck.’ But I kept thinking about characters like Beth and Monica — not necessarily that this was their specific story, but just that rough, ragged, ‘I know who I am, and I’m not scared to say that I’ve been through some shit’ thing. So we were writing for the show, but it still felt like me.”
As of sitting down with Variety for this interview, Wilson wasn’t sure whether her storyline had wrapped up at the midseason break or she might be asked back (with work on the back half of season 5 looking to be delayed, due to a combination of the writers’ strike and Kevin Costner’s apparent exit).
“I’ve realized that the dang TV business is even crazier than the music business. At least with music, you can schedule your shows out a year in advance, and be ready to rock ‘n’ roll. So, if Taylor calls me and says, ‘You gotta be here,’ I gotta figure it out” — in a year that already has her opening on Luke Combs’ wildly successful stadium tour. “They kind of did set up the end [of the first half of season 5] to where I could come back or I didn’t have to come back — one of those open-ended things. But I’m like, “Put me in, coach! Let’s do it. Let me share some more music.’”
Is more dramaturgy in her future beyond the franchise?
“Songwriting’s gonna be my number one, because that’s what’s given me the other opportunities. But when I think about Dolly Parton (with whom she duets on an upcoming Judds tribute album) and Reba, those are the kind of careers that I want to have. I want to shine light and love and show all those little girls and little boys that there is nothing you can’t do.” Except maybe strip the Lousiana out of her voice. “If they need me to have a different accent,” she admits, “I’m gonna need some help with that.”
Maybe that drastic a transformation for future acting roles won’t be necessary: On screen or, especially, on the radio, Lainey Wilson plays herself is a concept that’s clearly working for America.
Wilson’s ascension to the upper ranks of country music in a few short years (or not so short, if you include the decade and a half she spent unable to catch a break in Nashville) is a success story being celebrated by nearly everyone in proximity to the country music biz, especially given the extra hurdles that have stood in the way of new female artists making it to that level.
“I feel like we’re gonna run outta blessings at some point in time, and it just seems like they just keep coming and coming and coming,” she marvels. “Even hearing about being considered for an Emmy nomination, it’s like never in a million years did I think that that would even be a part of my story.” Rather than embraces these things as a plateau, though, Wilson says she is “dreaming bigger, stepping outside of that comfort zone. And I know I’ve like told you this before, but I feel like it always kind of starts with people seeing something in me before I see it in myself. Even Taylor Sheridan with ‘Yellowstone,’ you know?”
Wilson recounts the story of how she came to be in — and then on — the series that was and is one of the great TV phenomena of the 2020s.
“It was season 2 when they first put a song with mine in the show. It’s called ‘Working Overtime.’ This is before I even had a record deal. And Andrea Van Foerster, the music supervisor of the show, and Taylor had heard it through WME, and Mandelyn (Monchick), my manager, had pitched it over to WME. They chose it and they put it in one of my favorite scenes of the entire show so far: It’s when the bull is running into the bar and bucking and stuff. It was just a badass scene.
“Taylor Sheridan ended up inviting me out to Vegas to play a horse reining competition out there, and that’s where we got to shake hands and meet. And we bonded over horses. I grew up on the back of a horse. I say I feel more comfortable on stage and I feel more comfortable on the back of a horse than I do just walking around in daily life. So we had a lot in common… At that point, I was like, ‘I’ve had a song in my favorite show that’s out right now — that’s pretty dang cool.’”
As the songs of her racked up on the series from season 2 forward, she admits that “the songs that they chose of mine that I didn’t write specifically for the show kind of shocked me. Because I do have other songs like ‘Rolling Stone’ and ‘Dream Catcher’ and ones that have more of that like Western feel. But it’s always perfect when they choose the song and they put it over whatever scene it is, it’s like, wow, this makes a whole lot of sense.” Beyond “Smell Like Smoke,” her recent “Yellowstone” original (co-penned with Monty Criswell, Derrick George and Lynn Hutton), “the other ones that were on season 5, like ‘Watermelon Moonshine’ [her currently rising hit] and ‘Hold My Halo,’ weren’t specifically written for ‘Yellowstone,’ but they just kind of fit, and it’s wild.”
As far as her dive into acting, “I had never really done anything like that. Of course, I impersonated Hannah Montana through middle school and high school. But I never was saying lines. I mean, I was learning Hannah Montana songs and singing ’em and putting on a show. So, I had a lot of fun. I had to step out right outside of my comfort zone, especially with those onscreen kisses, considering I had never even done anything like this, and then just diving in head first like that, it was, woo. But such a cool experience. Everybody on the set, cast and crew encouraged me, lifted me up. I mean, my first scene was with Beth, Kelly Riley, and she told me, ‘If you had not told me that this is your first time, then I would’ve never thought it was.’ Just little things like that made me feel like, OK, I can do this. … Truly I feel like my music and my songwriting has opened other doors, and I don’t think they judged me for that.”
When she recently had two songs, “Heart Like a Truck” and “Get in the Truck” (the latter with Hardy) reach No. 1 on the Mediabase country airplay chart within weeks of each other, it assuaged what had been very reasonable fears that the two songs would cannibalize each other.
“They raced each other to the finish line. It was cool to watch. With ‘Heart Like a Truck,’ we knew immediately after the song with Cole Swindell [the joint No. 1 hit “Never Say Never”] that that’s what we were going lead off with [as the first single from her “Bell Bottom Country” album]. And then Hardy sent me another truck song and I’m like, ‘Truck, truck, truck — here we are!’ But they say, write about what you know,” she quips (even though neither track is really much about trucks).
The song with Hardy deals with domestic abuse, in a dramatic fashion reminiscent of Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls.” Although she doesn’t have personal experience with the subject, “I do know that a lot of people go through that and experience it, and it happens behind closed doors a lot more than we want to talk about,” she says. “So I felt a calling to be a part of that song, and I’m glad I did. I saw that it was the first time in 40 years that a female had had back-to-back within three weeks of each other; it was Crystal Gayle who did it last. So we’re over here breaking records, and I’m fine with it. Let’s break some more!”
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