Not since the emergence of Miranda Lambert have we seen a woman surface in mainstream country music with such promise and passion that carries a wide appeal through an infectious personality, and at an advantageous time when everything is aligning to allow her to be utterly successful, if not dominant for years to come. Lainey Wilson is going to be big, and it’s going to be big for country music, because unlike so many of her mainstream contemporaries, Lainey Wilson is actually country.
Her latest album Bell Bottom Country is an overt and unapologetic establishment of the Louisiana native’s sound and influences. What is Bell Bottom Country? It includes a little bit of classic rock, just a dash of pop sensibility, and a whole lot of unrepentant country. No, this is not like the critically-acclaimed songwriter-based work of Carly Pearce’s 29: Written in Stone, or Ashley McBryde’s Lindeville. But it’s also a lot more fun and animating. Bell Bottom Country is frisky and cool, while still remaining honest to Lainey Wilson.
You cue up the opening song “Hillbilly Hippie” with its “Mama Tried”-style guitar riff, and it immediately sucks you right in. “Watermelon Moonshine” may borrow a little bit from Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” but it’s hard to argue with the results, which is a meaningful and memory-stirring country music anthem worthy of placing right beside a classic like “Strawberry Wine.”
Some may point to the infectious and funky “Grease” as the moment Lainey flunks the country music test, but I respectfully disagree. It’s one of the record’s funnest moments, and isn’t too far off from what someone like Tyler Childers is doing with his sweaty live covers of “Trudy” and “Tulsa Turnaround.” It’s something that would get Jerry Reed to cackle. You can’t expect a straight traditional country effort from Lainey, or even a harder honky tonk record like Jon Pardi’s Mr. Saturday Night. That’s not her. She’s a bit more of a free spirit. But the balance is most certainly country.
More concerning is a track like “Me, You, and Jesus” with its cheesy contemporary Christian production, especially since it could have made for such a cool little country song. Same goes for “Hold My Halo” and “This One’s Gonna Cost Me,” which both came out much rock than country. But what else can you expect from producer Jay Joyce? This is his modus operandi—turning country songs into rock—while steel guitar isn’t allowed anywhere near his sessions.
But these songs are the exceptions, not the rule. Even “Heart Like a Truck,” which at first listen felt a little patronizing as a radio single since it leans so heavily on the “truck” trope, turns out to say a little something more. Like so many of the songs of Bell Bottom Country, Lainey Wilson and her co-writers find the happy medium between meaningful and entertaining. And even if Jay Joyce is all for dialing down the twang, you can’t fully erase it from Lainey’s authentic Louisiana accent.
What makes these songs so resonant is Lainey’s expressiveness, and the folksy nature of her approach. When she sings “Those Boots (Deddy’s Song),” you believe and feel every single word. It puts you right there in her boots, and speaks both eloquently and simply about the Southern family dynamic. This is followed by “Live Off,” where Lainey doubles down on her commitment to remain who she really is, now and forevermore. So often with artists in the mainstream, they use country music as a stepping stone. With Wilson, you get the keen sense that she’s in it for the long run. You trust that your country fandom won’t end in regret like it unfortunately does too often.
“Wildflowers and Wild Horses” feels like the precursor to Lainey’s upcoming appearances on the TV show Yellowstone, where she will be a part of the full-time cast. Along with the strength of Bell Bottom Country and her industry-leading six nominations at the CMA Awards on November 9th, Lainey Wilson is looking to pole vault into one of the very top positions in mainstream country in the next month, if she isn’t already there.
We can rave all we want about independent artists disrupting the mainstream’s iron grip on awards and radio and such. But if the effort to save country music is going to find any real traction, it needs to transition from disruption of the mainstream, to representation in the mainstream, and ultimately, dominance. Lainey Wilson is not the second coming of Loretta Lynn, but she is a giant leap forward for popular country music, and most importantly, one who is finding wide appeal among popular country music fans, and opportunities to go even further.
1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)
– – – – – – – – – – –
Purchase Bell Bottom Country