She's one of the most successful and powerful women in Hollywood, so it's hard to imagine Rita Wilson getting starstruck — especially not in a strip mall in suburban Nashville. But inside the tiny, 90-seat Bluebird Café, the actress looks around a room of country music songwriters like she's a fan in the front row of the Oscars.
The Bluebird's bill on this spring evening reads "Rita Wilson and Friends," but the star of the show is quick to give her supporting cast the spotlight, gushing over decorated hitmakers Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall, along with fellow Bluebird virgin Annie Bosko, as the four sit in the famed songwriters' circle to perform tunes they've written and tell stories behind the lyrics. In the audience are Victoria Shaw, the Warren Brothers, Richard Marx, Stephanie Chapman, Jason Reeves and Danelle Leverett, all of whom have written with Wilson as she hones her newfound craft of songwriting.
"I feel like the Grandma Moses of music," laughs the actress and producer whose remarkable list of credits include Sleepless in Seattle, Runaway Bride and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, just to name a few. "But it's never too late, right?"
This later-in-life career move was a longtime dream of the Southern California native, who grew up admiring artists ranging from the Beatles and the Supremes to Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash. She explains that music was "always the goal," she just didn't realize she had the means of achieving it until, at age 50, she dove in head first, singing in front of a live audience six nights a week.
"That was my definitive moment," she tells Rolling Stone Country of playing Roxie Hart in the Broadway musical Chicago. "I always loved music and it was always something I wanted to do, but I didn't know how to do it. I didn't think I could write songs; I didn't play an instrument… I didn't know how to crack that code. But when I did Chicago, I realized how much joy music and performing live brought me. That was the moment I said to myself, 'Going forward, I am going to have music in my life in a profound way.'"
With that Great White Way confidence-boost, Wilson made her debut album, 2012's AM/FM. The collection is filled with cover songs from the Sixties and Seventies — songs she loved hearing on her radio dial back then.
"Listening to AM radio growing up, it was multi-genre. You could have anything from Bobbie Gentry to Jessi Colter to Kris Kristofferson to the Beach Boys on the same station," she recalls. "I didn't know there were 'genres,' I just knew there was good music. But if I was influenced by one thing the most, it was the storytelling."
But putting her own stories to music required a different sort of confidence boost, which came via good karma. Singer-songwriter Kara DioGuardi was taking Wilson's place in Chicago, and she called her predecessor for a little pep talk on playing Roxie Hart. The two struck up not just a friendship, but a mutual mentorship.
"Kara asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wish I could write like her. She's written some of the most amazing songs. And she said, 'You can write a song! I'll write with you.' So she, Jason [Reeves] and I wrote 'Grateful.'"
Wilson frequently locks eyes with husband of 26 years, Tom Hanks, while performing "Grateful" at the Bluebird. Sitting at one of the front tables inside the mother church of songwriting, the Oscar-winning movie icon seems just as in awe of his surroundings as his wife, listening with visible appreciation for his bride's new music and her performing buddies' big hits. When Alexander mentions in between songs that her new album is for sale, Hanks pops out of his chair, waves his wallet in the air and makes a beeline for the merch table, as the audience erupts in laughter.
Whether it's smiling at her husband or tearing up at one of her ballads, Wilson is taking notes on the evening's every emotion. Her first performance at the Bluebird is not only fulfilling a lifelong dream but also serving as a test drive for "Grateful" and other songs she's penned for her second album. The upcoming project will be a huge departure from her first, as this time around, the songs are all originals, with her name on every track's writing credits. But in narrowing down which songs will make the album, she's testing them out through small venue performances in Tennessee and California.
The Bluebird crowd is particularly moved by "Strong Tonight," the very first song Wilson ever penned in Nashville. Its lyrics are about trading strength for what she calls "the woe-is-me aspect of life," if only for one night. She wrote the emotional tune with Kelly Archer and Blair Daly on the same day she met them.
"It was really nerve-racking, because you go in, meet complete strangers and expose yourself. You leave there after you've had musical intercourse, and you're left with a beautiful song baby," she explains with a laugh. "You have to be open to everything and let it all hang out without any sort of protection. That's what I find so humbling is that people are willing to do that."
Wilson also met Alexander for the first time on the same day they wrote a tearjerker. "Still Gone" hits close to home for both, as it was inspired by Alexander's late mother, Wilson's late father and two of her girlfriends who have passed away.
"We sat at the kitchen counter, and I talked about my dad and how a friend of mine said, 'The conversation continues.' And then I was talking to him all the time. I wanted to put everybody in that song who you still think about or talk to constantly, even though they're not here anymore."
While "Still Gone" or "Strong Tonight" show Wilson's thoughtfulness, her personality is perhaps better reflected in the carefree "Along for the Ride." It's the sort of roll-your-windows-down, feel-good song that would fit right in on country radio, especially in the uptempo-heavy summertime. The singer was inspired by growing up in the "car culture" of Los Angeles. "Ever since I can remember, I associate good times and the party about to begin with getting in a car, blasting the radio and gunning to an adventure ahead of us," she explains.
It's hard to stray from the clichéd notion that life imitates art for the affable actress, who often plays the sympathetic friend or the doting mom in films. She does indeed find herself to be a sounding board for her co-writers — and vice versa. But as with adding songwriting to her musical repertoire, she's adding more spice to her acting career, as well.
"I told my agent I'm not playing any more supportive wives, mothers, daughters, best friends, aunts…" Wilson insists. "I was putting together a reel, and if I saw one more look of concern or pride… I'm done with that! So I said, 'No more! Find me a crazy ass person!'"
Her agent came through. The most recent gigs on Wilson's mile-long acting resume include playing a cutthroat lawyer on the CBS drama The Good Wife, and a free-spirited, cater waiter-chasing mother on HBO's Girls. The seasoned entertainer has never shied from taking risks, but conquering her musical fears has gone hand-in-hand with tackling grittier roles.
As Wilson further solidifies herself as a malleable actress and budding songwriter, she'll also reprise one of her greatest roles behind the camera, as a producer on the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The work-in-progress will again star Nia Vardalos (also its screenplay writer) and John Corbett, with Hanks and Gary Goetzman as Wilson's co-producers.
"I am so excited," she gushes. "Nia sent me a YouTube clip of some Greek guy saying, 'Mom, guess what? There's going to be a sequel to Greek Wedding.' And she puts her head back and goes, 'No! No!' But the whole time she's doing this, she's cooking and making her son food to go!"
When asked how she's juggling so many projects at once, Wilson's humbly simple explanation is, "I'm an empty-nester now!" Son Chet, 23, has graduated from college, while Truman, 18, has just finished high school. (She is also stepmom to actor Colin Hanks, 36, and writer Elizabeth Hanks, 32.)
"You'd think empty nesting means strolling down the shores of Hawaii or something," muses Wilson, "but it's actually become a time to work and pursue creative endeavors."
Besides, what do Hawaii's beaches have on Nashville's strip malls?