Scan through all the accolades that came her way over the past 12 months, and 2017 might seem the year of Lauren Alaina.
The Georgia native and onetime “American Idol” runner-up topped the country charts with “Road Less Traveled,” the title track to a sophomore album that addressed issues of self-image that have seldom, if ever, reached country radio. The tune became a monster hit, triggered a television movie of the same name, sent Alaina on the road with some of the genre’s biggest names (including summer shows with Luke Bryan, Rascal Flatts and Darius Rucker), and cemented the status of an artist whose presumed stardom proved elusive.
“What a year,” said Alaina, who performs Friday night at Rupp Arena with fellow Georgia native Alan Jackson. “I don’t even know what to say about it, honestly. I’ve been working for six, seven years now, but last year, all of my dreams came true.
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“I feel I’ve broken through that mold of, ‘Well, who’s this girl and what’s she going to do and why should we pay attention to her?’ That’s such a good feeling. Half the battle is getting people to think you’re an artist they need to pay attention to, and I finally had that year. I’m pretty excited to build on top of that and hopefully have an even better year in 2018. I don’t know how I possibly could do that, but I’m very hopeful.”
She’s barely 23, but Alaina’s story began in her teens. The singer was 15 when she auditioned for “American Idol,” 16 when she competed on the show’s 10th season as the runner up to Scotty McCreery, and just shy of 17 when her debut album, “Wildflower,” was released.
The album was a Top 5 Billboard hit, but it by no means solidified career success. Alaina struggled to maintain commercial momentum, and offstage, she battled an eating disorder that shattered her confidence and caused her to question her self-image.
That resulted in the 5 1/2 -year gap between the release of “Wildflower” and “Road Less Traveled.” Much of the personal renewal Alaina strived for during that time formed the basis for her new album, which she co-wrote with friend Meghan Trainor and and pop stylist Jesse Frasure.
“I struggled with an eating disorder for six years,” Alaina said. “I was super young when I came into the spotlight and was already struggling. I wasn’t happy with my weight, and people made a lot of comments online about it. When you’re already insecure about something and someone else comments on it, that makes it 10 times worse. So I really struggled with that for a long time. Still, I wanted to write a song about it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have that same problem, and it’s heartbreaking. I feel like it’s a topic that’s not been discussed very much on country radio at all, but it’s a real and very prominent problem.
Another ally during those years between albums was the artist she will share the stage with at Rupp.
I owed a lot of just finding myself to Alan and being out on the road and falling in love with being on the road and knowing that I was doing what I really, really wanted to do.
“In times of my career when I wasn’t having tons of success and was really trying to figure what I was going to do and just trying to get through the hard times, Alan Jackson would take me out on the road. He really helped me in a time of need,” she said.
“That was a hard time. I struggled with my identity really, really badly back then. When I was on ‘American Idol,’ I wasn’t old enough to know who I was. Everyone expects you to know who you are. They’re looking at you to write this music that says what you want to say to people. It was just a hard time, and I was really trying to figure it all out. So I owed a lot of just finding myself to Alan and being out on the road and falling in love with being on the road and knowing that I was doing what I really, really wanted to do.”
So far, 2018 is proving to as vibrant as last year for Alaina. Her newest single, “Doin’ Fine,” is doing exactly that by scaling the Top 40, and a tour with Cole Swindell and Chris Janson begins in February. But her performance Friday will reaffirm several key performance lessons instilled a few years ago by the evening’s headliner, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame late last year by none other than Kentuckian Loretta Lynn.
“Alan and I are really different performers,” Alaina said. “I’m someone who runs around on the stage and talks a lot and tries to get the crowd to interact and all that stuff. Alan is proof that you don’t have to always do that. That was a really valuable lesson for me, to pull back and have these intimate moments. He has built an entire career on intimate moments. It’s been so great for me to be on tour with him because we entertain so differently. I’ve been able to take in a lot from watching him.”