'I Stuck to Who I Am' (Exclusive): With New Album, Anne Wilson Takes a Leap of Faith into Country

So is Anne Wilson a Christian artist or a country artist? If you have to ask that question, you’re missing the point

Published Time: 23.04.2024 - 07:31:13 Modified Time: 23.04.2024 - 07:31:13

So is Anne Wilson a Christian artist or a country artist?

If you have to ask that question, you’re missing the point. In these genre-fluid times, the artist behind the blockbuster contemporary Christian hit “My Jesus” wants to be both, and she’s taking her leap of faith with sophomore album, Rebel, out on Friday.

“I didn’t change who I was,” Wilson tells PEOPLE, harking back to her 2022 debut album, also titled My Jesus. “I stuck to who I am and what I believe,” she says about the new album, “and it’s really cool to see how it’s all come together.”

Indeed, Rebel is a coming-together — a melding of faith-infused lyrics and country music, a sound that has unmistakable echoes in her first album. No doubt that’s what persuaded Nashville recording exec Cindy Mabe to ask Wilson to add a country label to her portfolio and release her second album to both markets.

“I was hesitant at first,” the 22-year-old artist recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not gonna change who I am to do country music.’ And she said, ‘We want you to be exactly who you are. We don’t want you to change a thing, and we need you to bring God back into country music.’”

Not that God had ever departed entirely. Faith themes are sprinkled into countless country songs. But Wilson embraced Mabe’s vision, and she has now crafted a trailblazing album that’s unmistakably both country and Christian, with a faith element in every one of its 16 tracks. It’s as entertaining as it is nourishing — chockful of lively, often sassy melodies delivered by one of contemporary music’s freshest new voices, regardless of genre.

Wilson proves she’s equally fluent in both the country and Christian vocabularies, and she capitalizes on all their overlaps, too. Her faith may be lightly dusted onto the lyrics, as she does in current country radio single, “Rain in the Rearview,” when she offers counsel to “listen to the voice that you hear when you pray.” Or it can pour out like mighty waters, as it does in current contemporary Christian No. 2 single, “Strong”: “I hit my knees with my hands held high / saying dear Lord Jesus you know I / can’t do this on my own.”

The two sides — her heart for country, her soul for Jesus — seem almost inborn in Wilson, a Kentuckian who grew up steeped in the church and grounded in her state’s deep musical roots. How she arrived at this moment in her career, though, is surely one of the most improbable journeys.

By now, her background is well known to her growing fan base: Just seven years ago, at age 15, she found the courage to sing a praise song at the funeral of her beloved older brother, Jacob, who had been killed in a traffic accident. A subsequent YouTube video, intended only for family and friends, soon went viral, and a Nashville talent scout reached out. Two years later, Wilson signed a recording contract to launch her contemporary Christian music career. She was 19 years old when she released “My Jesus”; both the single and the album reached No. 1 on the Christian and gospel chart, and the album went on to earn a Grammy nomination.

Incredible as all that is, there’s more: Wilson not only had no singing aspirations when she agreed to perform at the funeral, but she also didn’t think she had a voice. Her mother was the one who urged her to the stage after hearing her privately sing and grieve at their home piano.

“I thought I was horrible singing,” Wilson says now. “I thought I was so bad. I never believed in myself that I could be a singer. It’s just not something that crossed my brain, which is crazy now.”

Just before that initial performance, Wilson experienced a life-changing God moment, hearing words calling her to a life of praise and worship. Never in her wildest dreams, though, did she interpret that to mean “platinum-selling recording career.”

“I thought I would be a worship leader at a church,” says Wilson, who had previously aspired to use her math and science skills to become an astronaut. “I thought, I’m gonna just sing at church and hopefully encourage people who have lost someone, and I’d live in Kentucky my whole life.”

As Wilson would be the first to say, God had other plans. In fact, she says she has felt a strong guiding hand on every step of her unlikely path.

“It was ultimately a surrender to God,” she says, “and to say I’m gonna lay down my desire to be an astronaut and all the other things I want to do with my life just to go follow you. And the ride God has taken me on has been crazy. Some days, I’m like, ‘OK, God, you can slow it down’ or ‘Let’s take a break for just a second, so I can breathe.’ And it has not stopped.”

Since she moved to Nashville at age 18, her growth opportunities have arrived as swiftly as her accomplishments. Developing a recording career comes with the weighty responsibilities of running a small business and managing a team. Touring is a whole separate education.

“Some people forget how young I am,” Wilson says. “I will say I’m probably more mature than the average 22-year-old, but still, it’s really hard to do it at 22 and to manage it all. Sometimes I feel like I’m in my thirties because of all the life I’ve lived, but literally last year I became an official adult.”

Wilson addresses the cost of her artist’s life in “Milestones,” a cut on the album that she considers among her favorites. The lyrics address all the personal joys with family and friends that she’s sacrificed for this calling, and then she adds: “Don’t get me wrong / I love it, I’m grateful / I just miss having dinner at a table / gotta plate full.”

“I had a moment when I was writing it last summer and I broke down, just crying,” she recalls. “I felt like I do all this just to miss milestones.” At first, she says, she thought the song -

was too vulnerable to record, but then she decided, “I’m going for it, and I’m so happy with how it turned out. And I think I’ve realized over the last year — and this has been probably the biggest part of my growth — that I’m figuring out what my new normal is.”

It includes, she reports, intentionally taking time for herself and doing things that recharge her: diving into daily Bible study, volunteering in her church’s nursery on Sundays (“I love the little kids!” she raves), playing pickleball with friends, and taking the occasional long weekend to visit her family’s Kentucky farm, where her brother’s grave is located, just to remind herself “where I came from.”

At the moment, she says, she’s made little time for dating, but she wants it to come. “I don’t want to look back and go wow, I didn’t even live life, and I was on the road for all of my twenties,” she says.

Yet her drive to share her faith message is all encompassing and unrelenting. At its base is what put her here in the first place.

“Everything has to do with the loss of Jacob,” she says. “I would not be singing if he had not died. I would not be on this path. I’m standing for my faith because I know how short this life is. I think the loss of Jacob is intertwined through every single one of my songs.”

Wilson knows the grief will never go away, but she says that she, her parents and her older sister also have recently realized that the suffering has lessened. “It was a moment where we were like, thank you, God, for healing us to a point where we can reflect on him with joy instead of grief,” she says. “And then I started writing the record right after that. So I think the record is me in a healed place.”

Clearly, that place has awarded her the freedom to fully straddle the genres and open herself to the opportunities that brings. While she’s still relying on her go-to songwriting collaborators Matthew West and Jeff Pardo — both well known in contemporary Christian music — she’s also expanded her palette to include name songwriters (Casey Beathard and Nicolle Galyon, among others) from the country community. Contemporary Christian star Chris Tomlin has been tapped for a duet on one of her most religious tracks, “The Cross,” but she’s also enlisted country stars Lainey Wilson and Jordan Davis to duet on two more songs.

The two Wilsons — no relation, but they like to call themselves “the long-lost Wilson sisters” — had been DMing each other for years when Anne Wilson extended a writing invitation. They met for the first time at the session.

“I was so nervous because I love Lainey,” Anne Wilson says, but the two women quickly got to work on an idea inspired by their mothers, resulting in the album cut “Praying Woman.”

“She’s exactly 10 years older than me,” Anne says of Lainey. “She’s a big sister to me. She’s got so much experience that she’s been so gracious to share and kind of be a mentor to me.”

Wilson is hungry to keep learning and growing as she heads out to promote Rebel. The album’s title track has Wilson describing herself (as well as her Bible heroes) far more as a revolutionary than a rabble-rouser, and certainly her onstage presence — petite frame, girlish blond curls, flouncy outfits and sparkly boots — is anything but threatening. Perhaps not surprisingly, among her most avid fans is a massive throng of girls, middle school-aged and younger, who hang on her every sung and spoken word.

At an album-release event this week in the Nashville area, they made up a sizable portion of her audience of several hundred, and Wilson responded to their rapturous gazes with smiles and waves and a meet-and-greet that allowed her to hug every last one of them.

“Being a positive role model is something I really value, and I want to be that for little girls,” says Wilson, who created Hey Girl Nation, an online community to connect to this particular fan base.

Still, her overarching ambition is to spread the gospel message to anyone who will listen. This summer, she’ll be splitting festival dates evenly between Christian and country venues, playing the same set list at both. On Sept. 12, she'll launch her own 28-stop headline tour.

Out on Scotty McCreery’s tour earlier this year, she discovered how country fans are “night and day different” from the audiences at her Christian concerts.

“Christian crowds are more there to worship, whereas country crowds are there to have fun,” she says. “They don’t even pay attention to the lyrics. They’re there to have a blast. Both of them are awesome, but country crowds are actually really fun.”

That doesn’t mean she’s giving country fans a pass on Jesus. Every performance also includes an impassioned testimonial about her faith, born out of the grief of her brother’s loss. Wilson has been gratified by the reception so far.

“Sometimes it can feel hard to get up there and have the courage to do it,” she says, “but every time I do, I feel so glad I did it. Someone will always come up to me after the show and say, ‘Hey, I’ve never heard of you before, but I needed your message of hope tonight.’”

What keeps her emboldened, she says, is constantly reminding herself of her purpose. She may be carving out a new lane as a Christian and country artist, but her goal remains the same.

“Why am I actually doing this?” she asks, and then answers: “It’s for God.”

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