Canadian country singer Lindsay Ell doesn’t go off on a philosophical tangent after hearing she’s only one of three female-led acts playing this year’s Country Thunder.
Instead, she hoots and hollers, and declares: “We’re holding down the fort!”
Ell is joining 2011 American Idol runner up Lauren Alaina and their friends in Runaway June as the small percentage of women on the early April festival headlined by Jason Aldean, Toby Keith and Luke Bryan.
Ell and Alaina, it turns out, are best friends and equally thrilled about hitting the stage together.
“It’s hard to make friends in the industry,” says Ell, who sang the Canadian national anthem at the NHL All-Star Game in January. “Lauren and I have become super close. I love her to death.”
Alaina lets out a long “oooooooh” with an increasing squeal when told Ell is playing Country Thunder with her.
“Lindsay Ell, let me see… she’s the most kind-hearted, sweet-spirited soul I have ever met. I love her.
“There are so few women on the radio that it’s really scary for all of us. A lot of us are working toward success, but few of us have been able to achieve that. It can be competitive. It can be scary. It can make you insecure. Lindsay has never made me feel like she’s being competitive with me. She’s just kind and loving and supportive and wants everyone to win. I never doubted her—ever. I love that girl to death. And she can play that guitar. She’s not playing around.”
The ride from American Idol to Country Thunder has been a “crazy” one, she says.
Releasing her first album shortly after Idol, she really made her mark with 2017’s Road Less Traveled. The title track was her first No. 1 song.
“The day I went No. 1 was one of my favorite moments,” Alaina says. “I had been working for years and years to get a song on the radio. Then, finally, I got the call that my song I wrote with such a personal message was the No. 1 song in the country. I don’t know how anything will top that moment, other than me getting married and having kids.”
Written in 2013 by Alaina, Jesse Frasure and Meghan Trainor, the song “Road Less Traveled” describes the singer’s emotions surrounding her parents’ divorce, her bulimia and her father heading to rehab for alcoholism.
“It was definitely a good lesson because it was scary to write personal songs like that,” she says. “There’s a lack of female presence on the radio, but also men have insecurities. They’re different from ours. I was honored to be able to say something like that on the radio.”
Alaina chalks up her success to her honest songwriting.
“Country music, at the end of the day, is about honesty,” she says. “I wrote about hard topics that I never expected to write about—divorce, dad’s alcoholism, my eating disorder, my journey overall, my boyfriend.
“I wasn’t in the studio trying to write hit songs. I was trying to write my truth. It just so happened that they were hit songs.”
With a baseball hat pulled low over her blonde hair and a guitar slung over her shoulder, Ell takes the stage to open for Brad Paisley at Gila River Arena in January.
She’s calm and collected, but plays a mean guitar. When she hears that, she gets giddy and constantly says “thank you.”
“I started playing guitar when I was 8; piano when I was 6,” says the Calgary-born Ell. “I had my first show when Iw as 10 years old. From that point forward, music made me happy and nothing else does for me what music does for me.”
Ell was valedictorian for her class at Bishop Carroll High School in Calgary, and graduated a year early. She studied business at the University of Calgary and music at the Berklee College of Music. Eventually, she sat down with her parents—an engineer and an educator—and said she was going to quit school to pursue her dream.
“I said, ‘I need to do this,’” Ell recalls. “ ‘I need to do this now. I can always go back to school, but I’ll never have the opportunity to follow my heart and dreams.’ I have the two best parents. They gave me their blessing and, with one person’s name on a piece of paper, I moved to Nashville.”
She worked for a few years between Calgary and Nashville, and moved to the States full time after she received her visa.
Her debut album, The Project, went straight to No. 1 on the Nielsen SoundScan’s U.S. Current Country Albums chart in the summer 2017. It was produced by Sugarland’s Kristian Bush.
“I thank my lucky stars for him every day,” Ell says enthusiastically. “He’s one of the sweetest human beings you’re ever going to meet. I call him my ‘Studio Yoda.’
“He understands because he’s done everything—songwriter, producer, artist. He made me knock down the walls I had around my creativity.”
When girls or women see her perform, Ell hopes they’re inspired.
“Girls can play the guitar, too,” she says coyly. “It’s a shame there aren’t more female-fronted bands. I love Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt, but there are few women who front bands and still play instruments.
“Fans have looked at me as a guitar player. When I hear, ‘You inspired me to start learning the guitar,’ that makes me know I’m doing something right.”
The three ladies in Runaway June don’t need to boast about famous relatives to get attention. The voices of Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne prove the point just fine.
A former Quartzsite resident, Cooke doesn’t mention Wayne’s grandfather, the late, great John Wayne. Instead, she’s thrilled about joining Alaina and Ell at Country Thunder.
“We love those girls,” she says. “They’re so talented and we’re friends with both of them.”
Although the percentage of women at Country Thunder is small, Cooke says it doesn’t represent the industry.
“I feel there’s a change happening,” explains Cooke, who, along with Mulholland and Wayne, is working on Runaway June’s debut album.
“There’s a positive change with the female voices coming back. We grew up in a time when women were dominating the charts—Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood. It’s nice to see it’s coming back. It’s slow, but it is coming around.”
up in a time women were dominating the charts, Shania, Dixie,
Country Thunder Arizona, 20585 E. Price (Station) Road, Florence, countrythunder.com, various times Thursday, April 5, to Sunday, April 8, $75-$190. Lauren Alaina performs on Thursday, April 5, while Lindsay Ell hits the stage on Sunday, April 8.