At the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's new American Currents exhibit, items from present day artists are juxtaposed alongside similar items from country legends, giving them some historical context. Singer RaeLynn, a beneficiary of The Voice coach Blake Shelton's tutelage in Season Two, saw one of her dresses on display next to clothes worn by Tammy Wynette, who was inducted into the Hall after her death in 1998. It was a strange bit of serendipity for RaeLynn, who discovered at the exhibit's opening that the first concert her mom ever attended was by Wynette, during a trip to Nashville with RaeLynn's grandparents and aunt.
"My memaw and my pawpaw brought them up here," says RaeLynn, relaxing on a sofa at her label headquarters. "Because they loved country music."
The similarities between RaeLynn (born Racheal Lynn Woodward) and Wynette don't end with their forward-thinking fashion. Like the "Stand by Your Man" singer, RaeLynn, who married financial advisor Joshua Davis last year, has a gift for the kind of relatable storytelling that makes riveting drama of the commonplace, as well as an instantly recognizable voice that slides smoothly into a song's emotional contours – traits she exploits to the fullest on her superb debut album, Wildhorse.
RaeLynn's first post-Voice releases came via Big Machine and cast her as a youthful and flirty ingénue – perhaps an easily palatable combination of attributes in someone looking to have radio success. "God Made Girls," while lighthearted and fun, struck some as anti-feminist (not unlike "Stand By Your Man" before it) for the way it defined women as a kind of ballast against male shortcomings and desires. The follow-up, "For a Boy," gave her a more active role in declaring her own terms, but ultimately wasn't sticky enough to last.
After moving to Warner Music Nashville, RaeLynn's output became considerably more personal and filled out the picture of a complex, multi-faceted human. Her single "Love Triangle" depicted divorce from the perspective of a child caught in the middle, a heart-rending performance and lyric that recalled RaeLynn's experiences growing up with parents who didn't remain together. These themes of growing up along with various shades of adult love and disappointment permeate Wildhorse – on "The Apple," burbling pop production meets with RaeLynn's portrayal of herself as a modern-day Eve seeing the mystery of love unfold, while on "Lonely Call" she rebuffs a would-be paramour for his sporadic, one-sided affection.
At the center of the 12 songs on Wildhorse – 11 of which she co-wrote – is RaeLynn, in command of her relaxed, lightly gritty voice and comfortable in her own skin as a performer. Rolling Stone Country spoke with her just before the release of Wildhorse and talked about the expectations of the Voice, owning her uniqueness and growing up in the spotlight.
It's been five years since you were introduced on The Voice, and you're finally getting to release your debut album. What's on your mind this week?
This record has been such a long time coming and my team has been so incredible sticking by me through this and letting me become the woman I want to become and become the artist that I want to become. It takes a lot to figure out what you want to say and what you want to be as an artist, and I'm just so thankful for Nashville because it took me a little bit.
Do you see yourself as being completely different now than when you were competing on the show?
Of course. I was 17 on that show. I hadn't really gone through a lot of life experience. Just moved from Texas. The girl you are at 18 and the girl you are at 22 are so different. You change so much in those years. I got to experience so many amazing things [on The Voice], but after that I was really trying to figure out – on the shows, you're just singing covers. But after the cover songs are done, who are you as an artist? What songs are gonna set you apart? Normally you figure out who you are and not be in the limelight, but me being from a show like The Voice I always had eyes on me and everybody kind of got to watch me go through my awkward stage of figuring out who I was becoming.
"As I got older I just sang. I didn't try to sing with an accent"
"Love Triangle" is a pretty sharp contrast from your more lighthearted releases "God Made Girls" and "For a Boy." Why was it important for you to show that side?
Because nobody ever got to see that side of me. I wanted to show that, yeah, I can be lighthearted and, yeah, that is a side of me, "God Made Girls" and "For a Boy." But I have been through a few things and I really wanted to show my songwriting and the reason that I am in country music is because I want to tell stories.
Do you feel like "God Made Girls" and "For a Boy" missed the mark in terms of how you wanted to present yourself as an artist?
I mean, I don't think so, because of course I wrote those songs. They were a part of my life. "God Made Girls" is forever one of my favorite songs. It sold nearly a million copies and has done so incredible. It definitely got my name out there. But it was a part of my life. It's definitely not where I am right now, if that makes sense. Or the way everything sounds, sonically, like the production. But if you listen to the demos of "God Made Girls" and "For a Boy," they would fit so well.
Your voice is such a distinctive calling card for you. How did you learn the best way to use it and when did you start embracing it?
When I first started singing I felt like I needed a lot of help, but as I got older –
What do you mean, "help"?
Well, I just would over-sing. I would over-twang. Because I thought that I needed to be different. I was like, "I gotta sing like this because I gotta be different." But as I got older I just sang. I didn't try to sing with an accent, I just sang. That's when I figured out that my voice really is different. But it takes hearing other people sing and hearing your song on the radio and hearing you sing live back. Growing up, I just heard my voice, so I was like, "Oh, I guess I just sound like everybody else," but when you hear it compared to other voices you realize that it's unique. When I was younger, I thought having a unique voice was weird. But now, being in this industry it's a great thing because it gives you an identity.
You wrote 11 of the 12 songs on Wildhorse. Do you feel like young country performers are less likely to get those kinds of opportunities on debut albums?
I think some of the best debut records are the records that take chances. Kelsea Ballerini's record [The First Time] was all new producers and new songwriters ... That can be a little nerve-wracking to do something totally different. But when you strike gold is when you take chances and you do something different than what everybody else is doing.
You touch on that in "Young" as well, with the idea of taking risks like you're invincible.
That's why I love that song so much. It's not about being young, but about being young at heart and living every day to your fullest and knowing that you have to take chances. And you're gonna fall and you're gonna go through things, but that's what being you and being in this life is about. Nobody who's ever tried to follow their dreams said that it was easy 24/7. There's always been a time where they've had a lull or they've had something happen that's made them stronger and made them the person or artist that they are. So that's definitely something that I've learned. It's funny, because some of these songs I'm really not in that place anymore, but there was a time where I was in that place.
It seems like there's a lot of autobiography on Wildhorse, with songs like "Your Heart," "Insecure" and "Lonely Call" giving close-up looks at relationships and the way you navigate them. How do you decide what's OK for you to share with fans?
I can't imagine any other way than being vulnerable when it comes to everything I do: on my socials, when I meet my fans. I always want my fans to know that I'm never at arm's length. I always want to be a hug away from my fans. I always say that, but it's true. I want someone to see themselves in this record and hear where my heart's at. I hope this record inspires other artists to be vulnerable that are first moving to Nashville and figuring out what they want to say. You've got to say what's on your heart and you've always got to be yourself because you never want to look back and say, "That wasn't me."
In "Wildhorse," you depict someone headstrong and proud of it, happy to be your own person. Is that how you view yourself?
I never thought in a million years I would get married at 21. I never thought in a million years that I would be living in Nashville, Tennessee, at 18 years old. I never thought that Blake Shelton would be like family to me. I never thought any of this stuff would happen, and it all happened because I was myself. I never was apologetic. I didn't know what kind of songs I wanted to write or what artist I was, but I've always been Racheal Lynn Woodward – now I'm Davis – from Baytown, Texas. And I never let that sparkle leave from me. And so, yeah, it's just like "Wildhorse" is such an autobiography for me because it's like every girl has their own "Wildhorse" – or every guy – everybody has that something in them that makes them the person that they are, that little wild streak.