Lainey Wilson says she's been dreaming of days like this for years, but she still wasn't prepared. That's not a bad thing — the "Things a Man Oughta Know" singer and newest Opry Next Stage artist says the good hits just keep coming.

For example, she recently started opening Jason Aldean's Back in the Saddle Tour, and she can't stop smiling.

"It's been happening lately for every show that I’ve been playing, but I still feel like I cannot prepare myself for it, is when people know every word for 'Things a Man Oughta Know,'" she shares with a thick Louisiana accent that you fall in love with instantly. "I literally saw people back there by the dang concession stands singing every word.”

A friendship with Hardy (Aldean's direct support) pre-dated the tour. She also calls Ashley McBryde and Miranda Lambert friends, and that feels a bit surreal. Then there's this thing that happens every time she plays the Grand Ole Opry. Taste of Country is debuting an acoustic performance of her Top 5 single, recorded for the Opry Next Stage program. It's another dream come true.

"That just sounds fancy," Wilson says with bewilderment when her name and "Grand Ole Opry" are put together in a sentence. She made her debut at the hallowed venue on Feb. 14, 2020, two decades after she first sat in the audience to catch a show as a 9-year-old who'd successfully begged her parents to stop in Nashville on their way back to Baskin, La., from Gatlinburg, Tenn.

"I remember where I was sitting. I remember having this crazy, overwhelming feeling that I was going to be up there one day — it was so cool," she recalls.

It took time — about a decade — for the hard work to pay dividends, but eventually that dream became reality. Terri Clark introduced Lainey Wilson the first time she stepped into the circle, and she may tell you every detail if given enough time. The emotions of the day are palpable.

"I like to think I’m pretty tough," Wilson says, "but there are some things that are overwhelming — and that’s one of them."

As "Things a Man Oughta Know" inches closer and closer to becoming her first No. 1 hit, she's balancing hard work and satisfaction. It's a struggle to enjoy these moments in the music industry, because success breeds more opportunity. The race — once an uphill struggle — suddenly tilts. With 300 songs written during the COVID-19 quarantine, there's new music to choose from, should she want to start a new chapter for her follow-up single. However, another song from the critically-acclaimed Sayin' What I'm Thinkin' seems just as likely.

So how does a country girl from northeast Louisiana unwind and soak it all in? Wilson laughs as she admits she has a favorite dollar-a-minute foot spa in Nashville that she'll loiter in on an off day. With all her recent successes, and perhaps a few more dollars to her name, she might be able to stroll in and book a full hour soon. Then again, when she has that money, she may not have that kind of time.

Best Country Albums of 2021 - Critic's Pick

There have been many creative country albums in 2021, but not all have hit the mark. Artists are more than ever toying with distribution methods and packaging as much as they are new sounds, so you get double and triple albums, Part 1 and Part 2, and digital EPs in lieu of a traditional 10 or 11-song release.

The bar for an EP on this list of the best country albums of 2021 is higher than an LP, but one project did crack the Top 10. Too much music proved to dampen other artist's efforts, although Alan Jackson's first album in years was filled with country music we couldn't turn away from. Where Have You Gone has 21 songs, but somehow no filler.

More than ever, this relied on staff opinion and artistic merit to allow for some parity among major label artists and independents. The 10 albums listed below are not ranked, although the year-end list published in the fall will crown a true best album of 2021.

More From 102.7 KORD