Seven years have passed since Lauren Alaina finished runner-up to Scotty McCreery on the tenth season of American Idol. Though the Georgia native began releasing music that spring (her debut single “Like My Mother Does” hit No. 36 on Hot Country Songs that year), it took six years for her music to be heard by the masses. In 2017, however, Alaina made up for lost time. She notched a Country Airplay No. 1 with “Road Less Traveled,” and topped Hot Country Songs alongside Kane Brown with “What Ifs” in October. She was also voted by radio programmers onto the prestigious New Faces Show, which closes out the Country Radio Seminar next Wednesday (Feb. 7) in Nashville.
“It’s been a crazy journey for sure, and it’s crazy that it took six years to catch on and to get some traction,” she tells Billboard of her path to stardom. “Last year was the craziest year of my life. It was insane, but I am so excited about it – and what the future holds,” she beams, admitting that the differences between her first two albums are many. “I worked very hard on the music, writing on the Road Less Traveled for about four years. I didn’t get to write the first album (2011’s Wildflower) at all that much – just one song. When you come off a show like American Idol, it’s so fast paced that they don’t give you much time at all in the creative process. But I got to take my time on the album, and got to write every song on it. They are my actual stories. I think that made a difference, and I think that made me believe in the music even more. All of the things I had been working for all of my life started to fall into place last year. That was the best feeling in the world.”
Alaina placed five singles on the charts, but climbed no higher than No. 28 (2011’s “Georgia Peaches”) until last year, and she’s grateful that her label (Interscope/Mercury/19) stood by her. She knows that is not always how a label plays ball. “To have the first five singles not work and do what we wanted them to do, and the sixth release to go number one is very unheard of. The label never dropped me from the roster – I was very fortunate. They believed in me, and we kept working hard. If you keep working at something for a long time, it turns into something. It did, and it changed my life completely.”
Not only did her song top the radio charts, but it also inspired a CMT movie of the same name, in which she co-starred with former Dallas star Charlene Tilton. Being in front of the camera was something she could see herself doing again. “That was a different experience. We shot that movie in three weeks. I was traveling on the weekends, so we really shot it in about fifteen days. It was awesome. It was really fast paced, and hard to soak it up as much as I would have really liked to. I fell in love with acting, and really hope to do even more.”
Alaina also got to be part of Brown’s initial trip to the chart’s summit. She said that getting to share the moment with her former classmate was special — and unlikely. “It was so amazing how that came together, he wrote that song with a couple of my friends, and he asked if I would be a part of the demo. It wasn’t even for his album yet. He was still in the writing process. I went over and just recorded it for their demo. Then when he was putting the album together, everyone loved it so much that they asked me if I would be on the album. I’ve known him since I was ten or eleven, and we went to middle school together. We were in chorus together, which is so funny, because we’ve definitely both gotten a lot better,” she says with a laugh. “What a great story – for us to have come from the same small town, been in music class together, and fast forward over ten years later, it’s really against the odds. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
As far as her performance at the New Faces Show next week goes, the “Doin’ Fine” singer takes pride that she’s not the only female vocalist on the bill. “I was so excited for Carly Pearce. I wanted to do a campaign for her so she could get a number one with ‘Every Little Thing.’ It was so well deserved. I’m so excited for her and love her so much. For us to both be on the New Faces Show is such an accomplishment,” she says. “I think that a female’s perspective is just as important as a male’s perspective. I think that women can say things that men can’t and vice versa. That’s why both voices should one hundred percent be heard on the radio. I’m just proud to be a part of that.”
Alaina — who will be on the road this year first with Cole Swindell and Chris Janson, then later with Jason Aldean and fellow New Faces performer Luke Combs – is thankful for the support that country radio has given her, and also the chance to see the United States up close and personal like never before. She says it’s influenced her writing. “I’ve got to meet a lot of interesting people in a lot of different cities and places that most people from my area would never get to see, so I guess the most rewarding thing is that I get to see the country. I’ve started writing for the next album – we’re not going to release it anytime soon, but you have to keep that up. I’ve been pulling stories from all these people that I’ve met. It’s so much fun.”