When the younger sister of one of the biggest pop stars in music history makes a record in Nashville, she's bound to cause a lot of head scratching. But Jamie Lynn Spears explains it like this: When she puts her songwriting pen to paper, country comes out.
"I never woke up and was like, 'I’m going to do country music today!'" the actress-turned-singer tells Rolling Stone Country. "But when I started writing and really diving into this music, it was the best format for me to tell my story."
And to tell it in her own way, free of tabloids — yet decidedly candid and uncensored. Spears' foray into country music comes at the young age of 23 but after more than 13 years in the public eye — years that have given her more than enough inspiration for a musical diary. She got her start at just 10 years old, playing the younger version of big sister Britney's character in the 2002 film Crossroads. A gig on the children's sketch comedy show All That quickly followed, leading into what would become her pivotal acting role, the title character on Nickelodeon's Zoey 101. The young actress' award-winning, four-year run on the series gave her a gargantuan fanbase and another part she never expected to play: role model. So when she found herself pregnant at age 16, during the last season of Zoey, the tabloids went wild and Spears went off the Hollywood map. She welcomed a daughter, Maddie Briann, in 2008 and spent the next five years out of the spotlight, changing gears both personally and professionally.
"When I had my little girl, I really figured what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and what kind of legacy I want to leave behind," Spears remembers. "That’s when I started writing music, and I didn’t do anything for almost five years. I was just writing, figuring out who I was as an artist."
One of the first life stories she put to music was that of her headline-grabbing pregnancy. "Shotgun Wedding," from the singer's five-song EP, The Journey, tells the story of "two bored kids on a Friday night" who have sex in a parking lot, only to find out later via a pregnancy test "in the ladies room at the BP" that they were expecting.
"Chris Tompkins told me the line about BP," Spears recalls of writing the song with Tompkins and Tyler Hayes. "I said, 'Can I say that?' and he said, 'If that's what happened, you can say it!'
"The paparazzi... they never have the right stories," she continues. "This is my outlet to tell my story."
Given that "Shotgun Wedding" is a boisterous, uptempo track, Spears is afraid some listeners will accuse her of making light of a serious situation. But once she got the courage to write about her unplanned pregnancy, a bigger fear was "being melodramatic."
"At the end of the day, it's my story," she reasons. "I decided a better route to go was that kind of in-your-face, this is what happened…. But in the bridge I say, 'I ain't trying to say it's right/'Cause you can make a lot of plans, but you can't plan life.'"
Spears' life today is as a recording artist, mom to now six-year-old Maddie and newlywed. She tied the knot with businessman James Watson in March after three years of dating. The couple started their relationship just before the aspiring singer left Louisiana for Nashville. Though country music was her main pursuit, she couldn't get Watson out of her head, and so was born her debut single, "How Could I Want More."
"I was just focusing on being a mom and working," she says of her first days in Nashville. "I felt like, 'I really need to focus on [music] right now, I can't be the girl you want me to be.' But it was so hard for me because how could I want more? He’s such an amazing guy. And now I sing it from a different point of view because this man is now my husband. It's really crazy to think about how I felt in that moment writing it and what I am doing now with it." (Watch Spears perform the song below.)
Spears penned the single with seasoned songwriter Rivers Rutherford, one of many Nashville heavy hitters who've collaborated with the young artist for her EP and first full-length album, which is still forthcoming. Being a country newbie, she admits to initially not realizing the magnitude of influence Rutherford, Tompkins, Liz Rose and many of her other co-writers have on country music. But that ended up working to her favor.
"It was a blessing that I was young and naïve. You don't realize what a big deal it is that you're sitting here telling these stories," Spears says of some of her first writing sessions. "I just needed therapy, and these writers gave me the confidence and courage to tell my story."
Coming into country music as a household name of so many years has proven both a handicap and a springboard for Spears. She's had to not only introduce herself but also prove herself as a singer, as with any Tinsel Town to Music City transfer, there will be naysayers. Still, Spears expects (and respects) questions about her authenticity.
"In country music, they want to make sure this is something real before they let you in… because once you're in it, it is the best family ever," she relates. "It's been hard at times, but I cannot complain because I have a platform that's given me the opportunity to do this independently. I'm very blessed…. As long as I am doing something I'm proud of, that will just have to be what everyone sees."
With sincere storylines and a wide vocal range that can convey sass as easily as sentiment, Spears now has many of her initial cynics biting their tongues. And in addition to finally quenching the thirst of her Zoey 101 fanbase after such a long hiatus from the entertainment business, she's also making new fans from country radio and gigs at fairs and festivals, and even opening for country legend Alan Jackson. She beams with pride in telling stories of fans who see her as Jamie Lynn Spears the country singer, and not "Zoey," a teen mom or Britney's little sister.
"After hearing my songs, people are like, 'Wow, I had no idea that was you.' It's been one of the most amazing things having them just love my song for real, as an artist," she says. "Making new fans is so rewarding, because I’m doing something that I decided to do as an adult, that I worked on and put my heart into, and people are telling me they like it. It feels good to feel validated."
Though this country roll has just begun, Spears has moved from Nashville back to Louisiana, where she's a "room mom" at Maddie's school and prioritizes family over work. To her, that's living out country lyrics, just as she and Britney both did as young children. So maybe the real head-scratcher is why her big sis went pop.
"People forget that we both grew up in Louisiana," says Spears. "If you met my dad, you would get it completely! Country music was a big influence on me growing up but also it's just the way of life… I feel really connected to country music because it has so much southern charm. "