"He was the only thing I had ever known," she tells PEOPLE. "But I knew I would have to leave something behind, so I could try to do the damn thing in Nashville"

By Tricia Despres
Updated February 19, 2021 09:20 PM
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Lainey Wilson
| Credit: Alex Berger

Lainey Wilson knew damn well it wouldn't work. Despite a seven-year relationship in which her childhood crush turned into her best friend turned into her high school sweetheart, the hard-headed girl from Louisiana had to make a decision between the love of her life and her love of music. And while music ultimately won, she's been writing about that heartbreak ever since.

Because it still hurts.

"He was the only thing I had ever known," Wilson, 28, says in a revealing interview with PEOPLE. "We grew up together. He was my best friend. We saw each other through a lot of different phases in our life. But I knew I would have to leave something behind, so I could try to do the damn thing in Nashville."

Lainey Wilson
| Credit: Alex Berger

And now, after years of playing long hours in little clubs, Wilson is finally "doing the damn thing" in Nashville via the release of her Jay Joyce-produced album Sayin' What I'm Thinkin', a collection of songs that serves as a worthy reflection of the woman she has turned out to be.

"I am just completely humbled and excited and proud, because girl, we have worked on this thing for years," explains the singer/songwriter, who made her Grand Ole Opry debut just last year. "This album is certainly setting the foundation of who I am and what I stand for and what I want to say and how I want to say it."

If you can't tell already, there is a certain amount of sweetness and sass in every word that comes from Wilson's mouth. Raised on a farm in Louisiana on which her dad worked "every damn day from sunup to sundown," Wilson could always be found outside, learning first-hand about what a hard day's work truly felt like.

"I learned so much by growing up that way," she remembers of her younger days, often spent listening to the music of Glen Campbell, Hank Williams, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Buck Owens. "I knew from a very young age that nothing comes easy."

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Around the age of 9 years old, Wilson began to show signs that a country music career just might be in her future.

"I started writing songs about cigarettes and tequila, and let me tell you, we didn't have alcohol in the house and my parents didn't smoke," Wilson says with a hearty laugh. "But it was those kinds of things I kept hearing in country songs, so I just assumed that's what you were supposed to talk about."

Flash forward 19 or so years, and the only thing Wilson is singing about these days are the subjects and situations that are truly authentic to her. And for Sayin' What I'm Thinkin,' there was much to pick from.

"Every single song is truly saying what I am thinking," she says. "To be honest, once we decided to make that the title of the album and we had that umbrella to it all, it got a little easier to pick what went on. We had hundreds of songs that we fiddled it down to 200 and then down to 50 and then narrowed it down to twelve happy songs and heartbreak songs and kiss my butt songs that would explain who I am and how I was raised."

Wilson's current single, "Things a Man Oughta Know," touches on some of that precious raising, lyrically listing off those things from the practical to the valuable that she's going to forever search for when it comes to love.

"The older I get, the more I find out about who I am deep down," she says. "I find out a little more every single day about myself. And when it comes to my songwriting, I feel like it's easier for me to just lay it all out there and let the walls down completely. I mean, it can be extremely scary to be so vulnerable and real, but that's just me. I always just tell it like it is."

Towards the conclusion of the album, she does just that in one of the most haunting of ballads called "Rolling Stone," a song Wilson finished writing in 2018 alongside fellow songwriters Tammi Kidd and Brent Anderson that ultimately pulled from the heartbreak she admits to still be working her way through.

"I am a firm believer that people come into your life for seasons and for reasons," Wilson says quietly. "They are put there so you can grow and learn from them. And when someone is in your life for so long, you learn a whole heck of a lot."

She pauses, then adds, "I just have this overwhelming sense of peace that I am right where I belong."