'I Was Put on Earth to Break Barriers' (Exclusive): Lily Rose Is Redefining What It Means to Be a Country Artist

Lily Rose will be the first to tell you that her name — yes, it’s her actual name — has hardly been a perfect fit

Published Time: 11.05.2024 - 01:31:13 Modified Time: 11.05.2024 - 01:31:13

Lily Rose will be the first to tell you that her name — yes, it’s her actual name — has hardly been a perfect fit.

“I wrestled with it for a long time,” the 30-year-old artist tells PEOPLE. “It’s such a juxtaposition of who I am, just with so much masculine energy and fierce and intense, and I always thought ‘Lily Rose’ was just so dainty.”

Lately, though, she’s started singing a different tune — literally — about that problematic name. The song is called “Two Flowers,” and it’s one of six stellar tracks on her just-released EP, Runnin’ Outta Time.

Though a co-writer on “Two Flowers,” she’s quick to give credit where credit is due: The song started with a chorus that was brought to her by one of her go-to collaborators, songwriter Blake Pendergrass. He introduced it to her, she recounts, by saying he’d written it specifically for her.

And then he sang it: “I guess the first time Mama held me / she could see it in my eyes / She named me after two flowers / ’cause I was born to be wild.”

“I was in tears,” Rose recalls. “I mean, I was truly in tears. And then we got to write the verses and the bridge, and it was just so cool. I mean, there’s not a more autobiographical song than that.”

Indeed, the entire collection of songs is newly definitive of Rose as she continues her quest to redefine what it means to be a country artist, begun more than three years ago with breakout hit, “Villain.”

No doubt Rose is genre-bending with her pop-forward country vibe. More significantly, though, she’s gender-bending, not just with her appearance but also with one of country’s most distinctive female voices. It’s smoky, sultry, and undeniably sexy, even when the song topic is gravel and asphalt (see the EP’s Track 3: “Parking Lot”).

No one knows better than Rose that she’s doesn’t look, dress, act or sound like any other female country artist.

“You know, it has its hardships and stuff,” she allows, “but I love the fact that I am a masculine woman in country music. It’s who I am every single day. It’s just gonna be the most honest version of Lily, and it’s cool.”

She didn’t always feel that way, and her journey to self-discovery as an artist has come with an extra stretch of highway: figuring out, at age 19, that she’s gay. She wishes, she says, that she’d realized it sooner.

“Where we’re at in 2024 right now is that kids have way more of an ability and freedom to be themselves and parents who allow their children do to that,” she says.

As it was, she adds, she was lucky to have a mother and father who always encouraged her to express herself, even when she was so different from other little girls. As she points out, “I don’t know many more parents who let a 9-year-old have a drum set.”

Born Lily Rose Williamson, she’s the daughter of parents who’ve both had radio careers — her father Neil (Hondo) Williamson is a longtime voice of Georgia Bulldogs football — and she grew up influenced by their love of pop music. The drums became a fixture in their basement after Rose attended a Bruce Springsteen concert and became obsessed with making her own music.

In seventh grade, she heard her first country music — Kenny Chesney singing “I Go Back” — and she was all in. “It just reminded me so much of Springsteen, of just the pictures that were painted lyrically,” she recalls.

Two years later, she discovered Taylor Swift, whose music inspired her to begin writing songs. Around the same time, she also discovered her singing voice when she auditioned for a school choir.

“I don’t know if it was very good back then, but you could immediately just tell that I had a musical thing,” she says. “I think that musicality is just like athleticism. You either have it or you don’t.”

For that matter, Rose also was athletic, an interest that followed her into college. While attending the University of North Georgia, she worked as a basketball referee for intramural games at nearby University of Georgia, and she says, the experience was thrilling.

“There’s no bigger adrenaline rush than when you make a block-charge call in a packed gym,” she says. “Not onstage, not playing Nissan Stadium.” (She should know: She made a memorable appearance on the stadium’s satellite stage at CMA Fest 2022.)

At the same time, she also was building her music career, dropping her last name (too “clunky,” she decided) and playing weekend gigs around the region. An invitation to enroll in a professional referee-training program put her at a crossroads. “You can’t love two things that much,” she says, “and not give 100 percent to one of them.”

In the end, she says, she realized refereeing was too intense for her personality. In many ways, though, she knew music was the more difficult path because, by then, she’d also decided she could only do it as her authentic self.

“The last year in college, my wardrobe shifted just to wearing stuff that felt more like me, which is just masculine clothes,” she explains. “I wear all dudes’ clothes, and that’s what make me feel great. But there were definitely times those early years in college with big, wide-eyed dreams, that I was like, oh, man, am I gonna have to do more feminine things?”

Her refusal to compromise didn’t come without fear. “Am I too different to have a shot?” she says she often asked herself before her move to Nashville in 2017. But then -

she would answer, “No, Lily, everyone that sells out stadiums are the first of their kind.”

Though country music is built on authenticity, being who she is in the genre, she admits, is “definitely not for the faint of heart. But my parents raised a really strong, independent, chase-your-dreams kid. And I truly think I was put on this earth to be one of the people to break those barriers in country music.”

As most Nashville newbies do, Rose struggled to gain a toehold as a songwriter and performer, all while scraping by on odd jobs. The break finally arrived in late 2020 when she posted a clip of “Villain” on TikTok, along with the hashtag “#lesbiansinger.”

Out and proud, for sure — but, she says now, it also was a marketing decision. “I am also a businesswoman, and it worked!” she says with a laugh. “Yeah, it got people’s attention.”

The virality was almost instant, and the timing couldn’t have been better: The day before the post, Rose had $173 in the bank, and she’d had to purchase a $162 battery for her car. Within weeks, she signed with both a management company and a record label. By the end of 2021, she’d released her debut EP, Stronger Than I Am, and she’s issued a stream of singles since then. She also wed longtime girlfriend Daira Eamon, a merchandising manager whom she met during her lean years.

Rose has steadily built her fan base over the years, as well as avid support from key Nashville players. Attracting fans from the LGBTQ+ community was perhaps to be expected. “I think they’ve waited so long to feel represented within the genre,” she says, “and I’m so grateful they’re still there and rocking.”

But, she says, “I’ve never wanted to be the gay country artist. I’m just the country artist who happens to be married to a woman.” She’s been gratified to watch her fan demographics “go from being pretty niche to wide open,” she says. “And that’s been the goal the whole time.”

She’s received no bigger boost than from Sam Hunt, who has picked her to open three of his tours; she wrapped the latest last month. “It’s just so cool to have somebody that was an idol to a mentor to family now,” she says. “It's a dream come true.” Shania Twain also tapped her as an opener for her 2023 “Queen of Me” tour, and this summer, she’s set to open for Cole Swindell and Luke Bryan.

“All these folks are giving me a shot,” she says. “I get to potentially get 14,000 new fans every night, so I try to make every single night — every second up there — intentional.”

The past three years also have delivered a sharp learning curve. After “Villain,” Rose admits she submitted to the pressure of trying to write hits. “And it just wasn’t working,” she says. Gradually, she submitted instead to patience — and to the notion that she needed to simply tell her own story.

Over the past year, she has been able to identify and rely on a strong list of co-writers who, as she says, are “really dialed into the Lily Rose thing.”

 The result is Runnin’ Outta Time, six songs that say “this is who I am,” says Rose, who adds that she hasn’t felt so strongly about new material since “Villain.”

The title track, Rose says, is a driving testament to her sense of urgency about her life: “I’ll fill up these pages / not wastin’ a single damn moment / ’til my wild and free’s gone / I’ll keep on this high I’ve got goin’.”

But Rose says it’s also a reminder that “we are just getting started. This is the new chapter of Lily.”

In counterpoint, “The Goal” reminds Rose what really matters to her: “Put family first but still put the work in / Live them words in the Sunday sermon / See a half full glass of bourbon / and make time to go back home / Do what you love, love what you’re doin’.”

“True North," like “Two Flowers,” celebrates Rose’s origin story, this time as it relates to her Georgia roots: “I head down south to my true north.” “Back Pew” offers a humble view of Rose’s strong faith. And finally, “Parking Lot” is pure nostalgia wrapped around an exhilarating beat. Rose dropped it into her setlist during Hunt’s and Twain’s tours, and she says she’s watched as it’s turned crowds from “oh, she’s cool” to “I’m in.”

“We all feel it,” Rose says of the crowd spirit. “That’s the live one that I get the most comments on.”

This weekend, Rose will get a much-coveted opportunity to introduce the new music to a national audience when she makes her Grand Ole Opry debut. It’s been a long time coming, but Rose makes plain that this day could have come sooner.

“All of them at the Opry have been bugging me for three years,” she says. “They’re like, let’s go, let’s go. And I’m like, it ain’t the right time yet.”

What makes this the right time?

“I wanted to make sure that when I stepped in that circle for the first time, it was because I had something to say, not because I could,” she says, “and I finally have that now.”

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