Lathan Warlick and RaeLynn open up to PEOPLE about their new collaboration, the state of country music and their hopes for the future

By Brianne Tracy
March 17, 2021 12:00 PM
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When RaeLynn first heard rising Christian rapper Lathan Warlick's collaboration with Matt Stell "Over Yonder," she was hooked.

"I was just instantly obsessed," the country singer tells PEOPLE. "I loved the swag, the down-home vibe. I was sold."

RaeLynn, 26, then reached out to Warlick on Instagram and said, "We've got to work together." He agreed, and they set a date for a writing session.

"It didn't take us long to figure out the subject of the song," RaeLynn says. "We wanted to write something that was for the women in this world that raised us, that taught us manners, taught us how to be strong, taught us how to stand up for something and taught us how to be proud of where we came from."

The result was "Roots," a collaboration off of Warlick's forthcoming new project.

"I'll never forget when we were in the studio, and we said, 'God bless them girls with some roots,'" RaeLynn says. "When that first line came out, we were like, 'I don't care what's after that.'"

Lathan Warlick/RaeLynn press image
Lathan Warlick and RaeLynn
| Credit: Colin Flora

As they recorded the song and its music video — which PEOPLE has an exclusive behind the scenes look at the making of — RaeLynn and Warlick continued to keep the special women in their lives in mind.

"I grew up with a single mom, and my aunt raised me," RaeLynn says. "I have a female manager, and my camp is mostly women. I've seen all of these different women in my life take pieces of where they came from and bring that into their work, into their family and they do it all while all being parents. Being a mom is already a full-time job, and I just think that women are superheroes."

Warlick says the superhero women in his own life are his mom, his grandma and his wife, whom he has been in a relationship with since the 11th grade.

"They really inspire me," he says. "They didn't let nothing stop them from getting to a goal or meeting some dreams in their lives. After writing the song, I went back to all the women in my family like, Y'all are amazing. I just want y'all to know that.'"

As a father, the Tennessee native says he "wouldn't be doing" music if not for his wife. Last December, she even encouraged him to leave his railroad job to pursue music full-time.

"She was showing me the way and really giving me the okay that we should go ahead and do this," he says. "She was making a lot of decisions, especially when it came to this music thing. Even with the first two labels that tried to sign me, she said no to both of them. Then when the third label came to me, it was like, 'Okay. Yeah. I think this is something good. Let's do this.' And now look, I just did a song with Rae."

Warlick's creative purpose was awakened in 2011, when he came face-to-face with a 45-caliber pistol outside of a nightclub.

"Before I was a rapper, I was actually a dancer," he says. "One day we won this talent show, and afterwards we were like, 'Man, let's go celebrate.' So what better place to celebrate than the club? We can dance there."

Lathan Warlick
Lathan Warlick
| Credit: Dustin Haney

While at the club, Warlick "noticed some guys looking" at him and his friends "kind of strange."

"These were some guys that one of my friends had got into with prior to this day," he says. "And I was like, 'Dude. I can already tell that something is going to go on.' One of the guys was leaving, and when he walked by my friend, he stepped on his foot. When he stepped on his foot, my friend automatically launched, and I grabbed him. I remember pushing my guy at the door like, 'No, bro. Come on, let me calm you down.'"

As he walked towards the door with his friend, Warlick took a moment to turn around. That's when he noticed the whole club fighting.

"It looked like an old Western movie," he says. "Dudes were getting hit with bottles, chairs were being thrown. So I get outside, and I get my guys outside, and I'm trying to gather everybody that I came with. I'm like, 'Man, let's get in the car. Let's go to another club. We don't have to be here.'"

"Then I noticed when I was putting them inside the car that two guys were walking up on me," he says. "When these two guys were walking up on me, I noticed people around them scattering. So I'm like, 'What's the deal?' I turned around to see where my friends were, and they were gone. So now I'm standing out there by myself, and these guys are walking up on me. I turned around, and I took off running."

Lathan Warlick
Lathan Warlick
| Credit: Dustin Haney

Warlick kept running until he hit a dead end in a dimly-lit alley behind a building.

"I ran right into this brick wall," he says. "Then I turned around and saw those two guys. Both of them were standing there looking at me like, 'What's up now?' This guy was telling his friend, 'Go ahead and do what you got to do.' So I was like, 'I've been jumped before. Let me take my shirt off.' I thought I'd just fight my way out of this situation."

"It changed my life when the dude pulled a gun out," he continues. "I'm standing there with my back against the wall, and I can remember my grandmama always saying if I was ever in a time of need to just call on God. That was the first time it clicked in my head. But at the moment, I still didn't."

One of the men pointed the gun at Warlick as the other urged him to shoot him.

"I knew this dude would pull the trigger because his hand was shaking, and he was sweating bullets," Warlick says. "I was like, 'Man, this dude really fixing to kill me right here.' That made me think about how I didn't want my mama or grandma to see me like this. I remember looking up at God, and I said, 'God, if you're real like everybody says you are, then just help me out of this situation.'"

Still, the man pulled the trigger.

"The gun had clicked," Warlick says. "After the gun clicked, the other guy that was standing beside him took the gun out of his hand and cocked it back. I saw the bullet come out of it."

"He was like, 'You don't know what you're doing. Let me do it,'" he recalls. "As soon as he was drawing to shoot me, a car hit the corner. The lights from the car hit the corner. The guys took off running. That's when I started crying for no reason. That's when I first felt the power of the Holy Spirit."

About a year and a half later, Warlick ran into one of the men who had tried to shoot him at a store in his Jackson, Tennessee, hometown.

"As soon as he saw me, it was like he had seen a ghost," he says. "He was going to jet out the door, but I walked right over there to him and was like, 'Yo, what's good, dude?' I put my hand on his shoulder and said, 'Listen, bro. I'm a changed man, and I gave my life to God. I gave my life to Jesus. So whenever you see me, you don't ever have to feel no type of way. Because there ain't no animosity. I want to love on you, just like you are right now. I'll love you just like this.'"

"He just kind of dropped his head and walked out of the store so slow," he adds. "That was a turning point of my life too."

Though Warlick has long had a knack for dancing — his skills even caught the attention of Chris Brown — he decided to make music his focus after a chance encounter with a woman outside of a church in Missouri.

"At the church, I was supposed to dance," he says. "I would go around with these other artists to talk about Jesus and rap about God and do a dance skit. I remember sitting in this hallway because it was my turn to go on the stage — I was always last because I was the best. So I was sitting in this hallway, and I remember this woman rolling up in a wheelchair, and she had this bag of bracelets. The bracelets said 'WWJD,' what would Jesus do?"

Warlick recalls how the woman then asked him about if he knew "anything about prophets."

"I was like, 'I know what the Bible said about prophets, but not really,'" he says. "She was like, 'Well, I can tell you right now that you're not a dancer. You're not going to go far as a dancer. You're going to use your words. You're going to use your mouth.' I said thank you and took some of her bracelets for my friends."

"When I got on stage and was supposed to dance, it felt like my feet were stuck," he continues. "I asked my friend, 'Hey, can you bring me a microphone?' My guy brought me a microphone, and I told the people on the crowd, "Listen, I know y'all want me to do dancing. But I feel like the Lord is leading me to something else. You can take it with a grain of salt, but I got to obey that. I just want to give y'all this spoken word.'"

Just the day prior, Warlick had written a spoken word about how God saved him from being shot.

"I started saying this spoken word to the crowd, and they were like, 'Holy crap,'" he says. "They stood up and did a standing ovation. That right there is what confirmed this whole thing. I asked everybody around me after that, like, 'I want to go thank this lady for giving me this bracelet. Have y'all seen this lady in a wheelchair?' They were like, 'Bro what are you talking about? Ain't nobody here in a wheelchair.' That when I knew, 'Oh my God, this is getting crazy.'"

From then on, Warlick started recording music independently and would add his own rap verses to songs like "Holy" by Justin Bieber, "The Box" by Roddy Ricch, "Memories" by Maroon 5, "Hello" by Adele and "You Say" by Lauren Daigle and upload them on TikTok. Fans and the industry alike swiftly took notice and last August, he signed his first record deal with RECORDS Nashville/Columbia.

"I went from TikTok to creating real, crazy songs and signing with Columbia," he says. "They took it to a whole other level. I'm still excited about that."

Having never grown up listening to country music, Warlick says he never imagined being embraced by the Nashville community in the way that he has. In addition to his collaborations with Stell and RaeLynn, he also released "That's Why I Love Dirt Roads" with Granger Smith.

"All of these types of doors have been open," he says. "Even though I'm a hip-hop artist, why in the world wouldn't I walk through the door that God is opening? I don't care what it looks like to people because somebody out there is going to hate whatever you do anyway."

"I don't want to be put in a box," he adds. "I might turn around and do a hip-hop song tomorrow. I might turn around and do a song with a rock guy tomorrow. You never know where this thing's going to go."

ROOTS; Lathan Warlick/RaeLynn press image
Lathan Warlick and RaeLynn
| Credit: Colin Flora

RaeLynn agrees that once you start living by the rules, "that's when the creativity stops and you don't get excited anymore."

"I'm very much a country girl who grew up listening to all kinds of music, so it's been really cool to see Lathan bridge the gap between country music and rap in a really cool way," she says. "When we wrote 'Roots' I left feeling like I had written the best song ever. I still feel that way. I always want to try new things, try new opportunities."

"If you're in our generation, you're going to love a song like 'Roots,'" she adds. "You're going to love a song like 'Old Town Road' because it's all mixed together, and I think that's the coolest thing about where music is at in 2021. Honestly, I'm proud to be in country music now more than ever."

Not only did RaeLynn collaborate with Warlick on "Roots," but she also co-wrote his upcoming new duet with Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard titled "My Way" set to be released on Friday.

"It was a vibe to write," RaeLynn says. "I love the song because when you listen to it once, you want to keep listening to it. Lathan and Tyler just slayed it."

Adds Warlick: "This song is just an amazing spring/summer type vibe. It's about loving and living life."

lathan warlick/tyler hubbard cover art
Tyler Hubbard and Lathan Warlick
| Credit: Sweet Talk Publicity

This is all just the start of what's to come for Warlick and RaeLynn, who are both working on new projects.

"I'm currently working on finishing up my Baytown project, and I'm honestly super excited," RaeLynn says. "I have a few songs that I've been sitting on for a little bit, and the new ones that I've written I'm just so pumped about. I'm just super excited to just keep on putting more music out."