It’s not every day you pick up the phone and hear Reba McEntire on the other end of the line. Late last month, that’s exactly what transpired for rising country star, Lauren Alaina, when McEntire called her to break some exciting news to her: The 23-year-old singer and songwriter had won ACM new female vocalist of the year.
“It was the craziest day ever!” beams Alaina, whose Southern drawl is equal parts peppy and warm. “I was actually in Kentucky on my bus. All of a sudden [my manager] Trisha McClanahan hands me the phone and said, ‘Someone needs to talk to you.’ I look down and it says, ‘No caller ID.’ And I hear this voice that sounds alarmingly like Reba’s… and then she told me I was ACM new female vocalist of the year and it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been speechless. I can always say something, I’m a big talker!”
Priceless reaction aside (watch above), it was a big moment for Alaina — and a long time coming for the small-town Georgia native who’s worked tirelessly on her music career since coming in as runner-up to Scotty McCreery on Season 10 of American Idol in 2011. “I’m just really proud,” she reflects on the win. “It’s been a really good year and that was kind of the bow on top of the present.”
Alaina also spent much of 2017 promoting her Road Less Traveled album, whose title track hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts. “I wrote the whole album about a very transitional, crazy growth period in my life.” Her current single, “Doin’ Fine,” is a “super personal song” about her parents’ divorce and her dad’s battle with alcoholism and recovery.
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“I wanted to tell the story because I think we all have crazy families and crazy drama and lots of things going on behind-the-scenes that we don’t necessarily tell people and share with people, but at the end of the day we’re all doing the best that we can. We all have to accept who we are and embrace where we come from, and ‘Doin’ Fine’ is that for me,” Alaina says.
In her whirlwind year, Alaina — who’s taking on the role of social media correspondent for Sunday’s ACM Awards, in addition to performing with “What Ifs” duet partner Kane Brown — also dipped her toes into acting for the first time.
“It was so much fun, I fell in love with it,” she says. “There’s a touch of acting in music videos and being on TV, but I’ve never really been someone else and decided how they were gonna act,” she says of her debut film, CMT’s Road Less Traveled (yes, like the album). “I got to decide who [my character] Charlotte was, and how she reacted to things, and make her a person. It was so exciting and I fell in love with it and I want to do it as much as I possibly can.”
In addition to growing personally and professionally from her movie and album, Alaina has absorbed many lessons from life on the road. This past weekend, she wrapped up touring with Cole Swindell on his Reason to Drink Tour, and she couldn’t be more grateful for it.
“The most valuable thing I’ve learned from him is how far kindness goes. He and his whole team are the kindest people ever, and they’ve been so accommodating and so loving and they made my whole team feel so welcome. Cole just transitioned from being an opener to a headliner so he knows what it’s like to be the first person on stage every night. He’s been so gracious and loving. We’re gonna miss that tour so much,” shares Alaina, who’s keeping her fingers crossed that one day she’ll step into Swindell’s shoes and mentor opening acts with the same generosity.
If there’s one word to describe Alaina, “grounded” emerges above all. Even seven years after her stint on American Idol, Alaina hasn’t lost sight of that 15-year-old girl auditioning with Faith Hill‘s “Like We Never Loved at All.”
“I didn’t pick the cutest outfit, and I’m not sure why I wore those flip flops but we all look back on our younger selves and laugh,” she tells PEOPLE. “But I love that girl — she got me here; the decisions she made is the reason I’m talking to you.”
The 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards will air live from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on April 15 at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.