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Anne Wilson on Blending Country, CCM on New Album ‘Rebel’: ‘I’m Not Going to Change Who I Am’

Earlier this month, reigning CMA Awards entertainer of the year Lainey Wilson stood alongside contemporary Christian music star Chris Tomlin at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena as part of Tomlin’s eighth annual Good Friday Nashville concert.

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Standing between them onstage was “My Jesus” hitmaker Anne Wilson. The trio of artists playing to the Nashville audience served as a literal representation of Wilson’s new album, Rebel, with its aim of fully intertwining the two genres via a country sound enmeshed with faith-filled lyrics. Both Tomlin and Lainey appear on Rebel, whichcomes out Friday (April 19) via Capitol Christian Music Group and Universal Music Group  Nashville.

In 2021, Kentucky native Wilson broke through with “My Jesus,” a song she wrote following the death of her older brother Jacob. The song spent six weeks atop Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart, making Wilson the first female soloist to top the Christian Airplay chart with a debut single since the chart’s launch in 2003. Subsequent singles included the top 5 Christian Airplay hits “Sunday Sermons” and the top 25 hit “Hey Girl.”

After she released her debut Capitol Christian Music Group album, My Jesus, which sonically dipped into the grooves between CCM and country, Wilson recalled getting messages from both country and Christian music fans.

“Some would say, ‘We don’t listen to Christian music, but we love your music. It sounds country.’ And then others would say, ‘We love country music, but we don’t play it in the car because we don’t want our kids listening to it, but we let them listen to you — the in between,’” Wilson tells Billboard, while seated at UMG Nashville’s office. “That was encouraging for me to hear, and showed me that’s where we were heading.”

As she began writing for the album in late 2022, Wilson says “the songs that were coming from my heart were leaning more country.” To that end, she’s set about expanding upon her CCM radio success, releasing music aimed at both country and CCM audiences, with her current top 5 Christian Airplay hit “Strong,” as well as country-aimed “Rain in the Rearview.” The songs filling out Rebel flit between themes well-known to country listeners, such as family (“My Father’s Daughter”), Sunday morning church, rural living and the struggles of life on the road (“Milestones”), but also songs that delve deeper into spiritual themes of prayer (“Sinner’s Prayer,” “Praying Woman”), redemption (“3:16”), and worship (“The Cross,” featuring Tomlin).

UMG Nashville Chair/CEO Cindy Mabe also saw the potential in a CCM-country connection and reached out to Wilson’s team in 2023.

“She said, ‘We want to give her an opportunity to take a song to country radio and to expand her reach,’” Wilson recalls. “It was out of the blue, but it made sense. I basically have two record labels, which is amazing. Double the people, double the ideas. It’s been great having so many different people helping with this album.”

Wilson, Zach Kale, CCM singer-songwriter Matthew West and The Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston wrote ‘Rain in the Rearview’ in August 2023 and released it the following month.

“Writing it, producing it and releasing it in like five weeks was very fast, but it’s been cool to see the reaction and how my music has been able to go to both country and Christian platforms and be appreciated in both,” Wilson says.

Certainly, songs of faith have been mainstays in country music from its inception, from the gospel classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” made famous in country circles by The Carter Family in 1935, to Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” and Carrie Underwood’s Grammy-winning “Something in the Water.” But the past five years has seen a particular surge, with more than a dozen country-CCM collaborations released from artists including Dolly Parton, Zach Williams, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and Colton Dixon. Tomlin teamed with FGL for a CCM album featuring country artists, while Steven Curtis Chapman released a bluegrass-tinged project and Underwood issued a hymns album.

With Rebel, Wilson fully fuses the two genres. She co-wrote every song on the 16-track project, reuniting with her core team of co-writers in West and Jeff Pardo, who crafted “My Jesus” with Wilson, and expanding her writing circle, bringing in top-tier country writers including Nicolle Galyon, Emily Weisband, Trannie Anderson and Casey Beathard.

“It was really life-giving as an artist; this album felt very free-spirited, like I can write about my faith, but also about different things, too,” say Wilson, who is part of both the Opry’s NextStage Class of 2024 and the CMT Next Women of Country Class of 2024.

She teams with “Wildflowers and Wild Horses” singer Lainey Wilson (no relation) on “Praying Woman.”

“I loved working with her,” Anne says. “I met Lainey on Instagram in 2020. Then we met [in person] last year, and we wrote the song the same day … We were talking about our moms, and we both remember our moms praying a lot when we were kids, getting on their knees and praying for things, and we got to write a song to honor our moms and talk about what it means to be a woman who prays and faith.”

She says Lainey is “like a big sister,” explaining, “The thing I love about Lainey’s story is she worked for so many years, lived in a camper and all these things and never changed who she was. She trusted that she was going to keep being herself and something was going to happen one day, and it did. She’s told me multiple times, ‘Don’t change for anyone or anything.’”

“Next Thing You Know” hitmaker Jordan Davis joins on “Country Gold,” a tender, breezy ode to the riches found in the simplicity of family, friends and rural living. They first collaborated during the ACM Honors last year, performing Davis’s hit “Buy Dirt.”

“He’s such a good guy,” Wilson says. “When I wrote ‘Country Gold,’ and it felt like it could be a collaboration, the first person I thought of was him. He said, ‘Yes,’ and I think his voice adds the perfect touch. It’s one of the more straight-forward country songs, just with valuing small-town life.”

“Milestones,” written with Galyon and Hungate, delves into the trade-offs that come with life as a musician on the road. “I remember Nicole asking me, ‘How are you?’ And I was like, ‘Good,’ but she was like, ‘No, how are you really?’ And I just started crying, and telling her all these things that I’ve been going through, and the pain of missing milestones. You hold it in one hand, the incredible opportunities I’m getting, and then in the other hand is all the milestones you have to miss; it’s just this exchange. But I think anybody can relate to that in a sense. My team’s really good about giving me grace for that, too. I’m a people-pleaser; I don’t like to disappoint. But I think it’s about figuring out what are the most important moments in my life and making sure those stay on the calendar, and then everything else works around it.”

Meanwhile, “Red Flag” serves as an older sister of sorts to the song “Hey Girl” from Wilson’s My Jesus album.

“All the little girls love ‘Hey Girl,’ and we thought, ‘What’s the grownup version of that song?’ After you’ve told them about their identity in Christ and loving themselves, the next thing is a boy that comes into the picture. I’ve never written a song about a boy — because, thankfully, I’ve never had a bad breakup story — but my mom had always told me about red flags: ‘Look for this and don’t look for this.’ This song ended up being like a continuation of ‘Hey Girl,’ to encourage them and tell them what to look for.”

While sonically and thematically, the album stitches together the threads tying country and Christian music, the title track stems from her struggles to meld the two genres.

Wilson had been taking that title into writing rooms for a few years, but says, “No one wanted to write the song. They were like, ‘How do we write a song called “Rebel” when you are this five-feet, little sweet Christian girl who’s not a rebel at all?’… At one point, I had a song go to [Christian] radio and they said it was too country for them to play it, though the message was very faith-based. I remember being frustrated, as any artist would, but it fired me up to want to write this album. A lot of the reason we called it ‘Rebel’ is I decided I’m just going to be who I am. I’m not going to change who I am to please Christian radio and I’m not going to change who I am to please country radio.”

To that end, her upcoming summer dates will include a mix of Christian and country festival performance slots — with Wilson playing the same set of songs, whether playing to a more country-leaning or CCM-leaning crowd. One thing Wilson is looking forward to is appearing at some country festivals where Lainey Wilson is also playing: “So hopefully, we’ll try to perform [“Praying Woman”] together,” she says.

Wilson is also set to lead her second headlining tour in the fall.

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