Lainey Wilson showcases evolved country-rock flair at Nashville's Ascend Amphitheater

The reins of country music's mainstream industry have been placed in Lainey Wilson's hands. Friday night's Ascend Amphitheater kickoff to two nights at the venue proved that if she's willing to take them, an entire genre and culture is willing to be led to unprecedented commercial growth.

In 2023, the small-town Northern Louisiana native proved that her heart running "on dreams and gasoline" could make her a Grammy-winning, Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year. In 2024, being a wildflower rocking and rolling astride country music — a metaphorical wild, unbroken horse of an industry — is the most crucial story worth watching.

Lainey Wilson performs during her “Country Cool Again Tour” at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn.
Lainey Wilson performs during her “Country Cool Again Tour” at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn.

For Wilson, taking greater control of these reins will involve the help of, at the core, women. That's not unprecedented. But given that four out of five times in recent years, men have topped country's radio charts, it's a marked redevelopment.

Five decades of country's female icons show up for Wilson

Country Music Hall of Famer Wynonna Judd and Grand Ole Opry member Terri Clark showed up in the flesh to open the most critical 10-day run ever of her 13 years based in Music City.

In the next 10 days, she'll open her Lower Broadway bar Bell Bottoms Up, play another night at Ascend Amphitheater, be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry cast and appear onstage at Nissan Stadium during the third evening of CMA Fest 2024.

In the past five years, both Clark and Judd have grown from posters on Wilson's wall to now being friends cutting cover records with her. Judd joined for an incendiary take on Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker's "Refugee" from a forthcoming compilation, "Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration Of Tom Petty." Clark appeared to duet on her 1996 classic "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" from the Western Canada native's career retrospective duets album.

Before departing the stage, Judd addressed about the power of the moment:

"Get used to it, Nashville. Lainey, I'll open for you anytime."

However, country's iconic women showed up in other noteworthy ways throughout the two-hour set.

Lainey Wilson performs during her “Country Cool Again Tour” at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn.
Lainey Wilson performs during her “Country Cool Again Tour” at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn.

An orange pickup truck is the central onstage character in Wilson's 2024 live performances. It is set before a green screen reflecting stereotypical 1970s-era Western imagery. Thus, when the "Country's Cool Again" performer emerges to open the show by singing her latest single, "Hang Tight Honey," after the strains of Barbara Mandrell's "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool" are played, it feels like the opening scene of a loose and free, outlaw, teenage road dramedy from 50 years ago.

Moreover, Wilson's "Good Horses" was written by Luke Dick and Miranda Lambert. Note that later in the show, alongside playing snippets of songs by Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire, she also sang Lambert's "Kerosene."

Couple that with the stellar performance of Sav Madigan — her latest band member, a Nashville-based female multi-instrumentalist and multiple-time award-winning singer-songwriter and recording studio owner. Madigan serves in the same role for Wilson that Sydni Perry currently serves for Carrie Underwood.

In all aspects and facets of where Wilson has arrived in her career, it will be with the championing of five decades of iconic women, in varying levels of direct and indirect influence, that she sustains and evolves her success.

The growing power of her catalog of songs

A growing rumble says that Wilson must jump to scale the death-defying heights at which the country music industry has placed her work.

She's taking the leap.

Roughly 18 months ago, Wilson opened for Jon Pardi at Ascend Amphitheater. She had only one No. 1 single and her sound was still driven by not wholly owning her Cajun-meets-Western Credence Clearwater Revival-style swamp-rock sound.

Lainey Wilson performs during her “Country Cool Again Tour” at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn.
Lainey Wilson performs during her “Country Cool Again Tour” at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn.

The crowd realized she was important, but not quite yet a star.

Eighteen months later, she's won seemingly every country music award available, opened a Lower Broadway honky-tonk, appeared in multiple documentaries and potentially on national broadcast television in front of every American citizen at least once in 2024 by the end of February.

From silently mouthing the words to album cuts like "Smells Like Smoke" to belting the soaring bars of the final chorus of "Heart Like A Truck," country music's fans, old and new, are slowly growing in affinity for Wilson's body of work. Note how dialed in the band already sounds on the material for her forthcoming "Whirlwind" album, be it the recently-released rocker "Hang Tight Honey" or love ballad "4 x 4 x You."

The 18-month jump from one hit to potentially eight hits fills half a 90-minute live concert set with original music. Couple that with the recent hits reflecting much more of who Wilson, the countrified rocker, is as a human being-as-well-branded sound and style.

She's scratching the surface and tattooing a flesh wound on her future potential.

Self-affirmed girl power

More important than any other note from Wilson's concert is that legions of children and teenage girls nationwide will attend these concerts and note one self-evident truth.

Women can be superstars, proudly supported by strong, traditional country music-embodying men.

Ian Munsick performs at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn. Munsick opened for Lainey Wilson’s “Country Cool Again Tour.”
Ian Munsick performs at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn. Munsick opened for Lainey Wilson’s “Country Cool Again Tour.”

Wilson's openers Ian Munsick (of "Long Live Cowgirls" and "White Buffalo" fame) and Zach Top are unabashedly embodying and evolving the legacies of '80s and '90s country favorites Garth Brooks and Chris LeDoux, plus Alan Jackson and Keith Whitley, respectively.

And they're opening for Lainey Wilson and singing her praises.

Before offering that "country music fans respect their neighbors and land more than what they have in their pocket," Munsick offered that Wilson had become more "humble and talented" than she was eight years ago when Wyoming native Munsick met the Baskin, Louisiana-born star.

Wilson is still amazed by the thousands of young women in the crowd who appreciate her work.

Step back from that and note the lessons her songs teach them at such a young age.

Tough empathy underpins her duet on Jelly Roll's "Save Me" and her pairing with HARDY for "Wait in the Truck."

Lainey Wilson performs during her “Country Cool Again Tour” at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn.
Lainey Wilson performs during her “Country Cool Again Tour” at the Ascend Amphitheater Friday, May 31, 2024 in Nashville, Tenn.

She performed both as solo acoustic songs while sitting in the sunflower-adorned cargo bed of her onstage pickup truck.

Having a safe yet spectacular time while kicking back a few adult beverages underpins her reciting a long-winded, ribald toast before having the crowd engage in a "holler and a swaller" and singing songs like 2021's "Straight Up Sideways" or her new bar's ode, "Bell Bottoms Up."

But more than any song she sang during the evening, an affirmation she's been saying to herself for the past year, which she shares with the crowd, resonates loudest.

In the context of an evolved stage show at the height of her impact and influence over country music and popular culture, it creates an intangible soul connection that steadies her on the shoulders of giants as she scales the heights her career is reaching.

"Get up every single day with the sun, look at yourself in the mirror and say I am beautiful, I am smart, I am talented, I am godly, I am fearless and I can do anything I can set my mind to."

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Lainey Wilson showcases evolved country-rock flair at Nashville's Ascend Amphitheater

Advertisement