Billboard June Country Rookie of the Month: HunterGirl

June 5, 2024 - News

“Ain’t About You” singer HunterGirl had a “pinch me” moment recently as she was preparing for this week’s CMA Fest, where she’ll perform at the Chevy Vibes stage on Friday (June 7) and appear on the CMA Closeup stage on Saturday (June 8).


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“I had rehearsals with a band and I was thinking back to being 14 years old and playing shows — little Hunter would lose her mind thinking about all these cool things that are happening right now,” HunterGirl said in conversation with Billboard at the BBR Music Group/BMG Nashville offices.

Those “cool things” include not only being runner-up during the 20th season of American Idol two years ago, being announced as part of this year’s CMT’s Next Women of Country class in January and making her Grand Ole Opry debut in March, but also gearing up for the release of her major label debut EP, Tennessee Girl, out Friday (June 7) on 19 Recordings/BBRMG/BMG Nashville.

Born Hunter Wolkonowski, HunterGirl grew up 90 minutes south of Nashville, in Winchester, Tennessee. She earned her stage name by being the only girl named Hunter in her elementary class. Inspired equally by the confessional songwriting of Dolly Parton and the fierceness of P!nk, HunterGirl made her way to Nashville soon after graduating high school, studying at nearby Middle Tennessee State University, while playing the downtown Nashville bars. She won a Nashville Songwriters Association International contest — and then came her career-expanding time on American Idol in 2022. HunterGirl grew up listening to Luke Bryan’s 2013 Crash My Party album, so her stint on American Idol nearly a decade later was full circle, with HunterGirl performing for and being mentored by Bryan himself.

“He’s always told me, ‘Just keep writing songs and always stay true to yourself,’” HunterGirl says of Bryan. “He’s just been such a champion for me since I was on the show and I’m very grateful to have him in my corner.” She will also open shows for Bryan this summer.

Her EP includes “Ain’t About You,” which made HunterGirl the first female country artist in over three decades to write her debut radio single by herself.

“Ain’t About You” – which reached No. 53 on Hot Country Songs — detailed the deflating feeling familiar to so many aspiring Nashville hitmakers who watch as friends and fellow artists reach career milestones and framed the now 26-year-old as a clear-eyed purveyor of emotional depth.

“It was the most honest and vulnerable I’d ever been in a song,” she says. “I wrote it in my bedroom and never thought anyone would hear it. That song and people’s reception to it changed my songwriting because I realized people needed to hear the not-so-pretty parts of your life, the really hard things I was scared to say. After that it made choosing [songs for] the EP so much easier, because I’m like, ‘I’m just going to be myself and hopefully, it touches somebody else out there.’”

The six-song EP weaves in what HunterGirl calls “blue jean jacket songs” and “leather jacket songs.” She explains: “The blue jean jacket songs feel like me sitting in my bedroom and talking about my story, and the leather jacket songs are the ones that make me feel like I can take on the world and feel powerful. So the EP shows different sides of my personality.”

“Bad Boy,” an up-tempo rocker with lyrics that gush over a tattooed, cigarette-smoking guitar player, is a decidedly “leather jacket song,” HunterGirl says.

“I wanted to write a song about my terrible taste in men,” says HunterGirl, who wrote the song with writer-producer Lindsay Rimes and Greg Bates. “I was out after a show and a guy pulled up on a motorcycle, and later I just started singing the lyric, ‘I got it bad for a bad boy.’ I took the idea to them and we just got in the studio and had fun.”

Billboard spoke with HunterGirl, our Country Rookie of the Month for June, about her new EP, songwriting, her passion for supporting the military and more.

“Ain’t About You” was a solo write for you. Why is songwriting such an important aspect of your artistry?

I write every single day. It’s just unloading my day in my diary or in my notes app. I feel like I need to write my songs just because I’ve gone through different circumstances, and I feel like I can talk about them with my audience. I feel like whenever I’m writing a song, it just lets me sit with everybody else and say, “Hey, this is me as a person.”

Do you have a favorite lyric on the EP?

I love the line in “Pretty Much” that says, “Who decided what pretty was?” Even as a young girl, I just worried about how I looked — “Am I wearing the right outfit?” — or when your friend takes a picture and you’re scared to look at it. I’m finally getting to a phase in my life where I’m like “I just want to be myself, say the things I want to say, and be who I want to be — and if you don’t like it, that’s okay.”

A standout on the EP is “Clockworks,” which you wrote with Rimes and JoyBeth Taylor. What do you recall about writing that song?

JoyBeth brought up the title and idea for “Clockworks,” and I thought, “Oh my gosh, that’s my grandpa.” We were just talking about all those moments I wish I could live again. I feel like things move so quickly and I forget to live in the moment sometimes. Whenever I sing that song in my set, it’s a reminder to live in the here and now. I dedicate that song to my grandpa and I just feel like everyone should take that trip, or make that call and tell people you love them while you can.

You come from a family of military veterans. How does that influence your work with military-focused organizations?

Yeah, my grandpa, my great-grandpa, six of my great-uncles, all of them. I grew up around military people. I started working with veterans when I was 17, and I started writing with organizations like Operation Song, Freedom Sings, and A Soldier’s Child. A lot of times, when we write these songs and record them, and then the families hear them, it is the first time the families are hearing about some of the things they went through.

In 2020, I started a female veterans class on Zoom, and it became a community of support. I think when veterans come home, they can feel lost, and that’s what my grandpa and others in my family have felt. Giving back to veterans is important to me, because I’ve seen how much it can change a person to write a song.

When did you first realize you had musical talent?

I started singing at three years old, singing with my grandpa in church. I wrote my first song at nine and some of my first performances were talent shows and county fairs. I played parking lots and car shows, I played them all. Even though they didn’t have any musical background [my parents?] just told me if I wanted to do this, I had to work hard. My family worked multiple jobs, so I saw how hard they worked and that was built into me as a kid.

Did you take guitar lessons or were you in bands in school?

I learned piano by ear first, then I wanted to learn bass because I wanted to be in a band and they needed a bass player, so I sang lead and played bass. Then I learned guitar so I could write on guitar. I want to get back into playing bass. My bass is still at home, and I think my mom is going to bring it up during CMA Fest.

You moved to Nashville and studied music business at Middle Tennessee State University. How do you feel like that prepared you for your career?

I feel like I learned a lot about music and who I am as a person. The songwriting program is great there, and [Grammy-nominated songwriter and MTSU associate professor] Odie Blackmon is amazing, and [MTSU dean of the College of Media and Entertainment] Beverly Keel has been such a champion for me, and for all women. I think I punched the passport for every bar on [Nashville’s Lower] Broadway, going to school while playing shows seven days a week.

I put my classes super early, at like 7 a.m., and then would go to Broadway, play eight to 12 hours, and then drive back to Murfreesboro [Tennessee] to do it all again. I don’t know what kind of coffee I was drinking back then. I remember sometimes someone would say, “Play something that you wrote.” Playing covers for eight hours, then you get to sing your own song? God bless people like that.

What was the first song you fell in love with?

I remember hearing Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” for the first time, just sitting there watching with my dad and Pa. They loved Dolly. I remember thinking, “I hope I can write a song like that one day.” You feel every word she’s singing, and she says such complex things in the most simple way. It feels like you are talking to your best friend.

What was the first concert you went to?

I went to the Southern Ground Festival here in Nashville, with Zac Brown Band. It was so fun and I got to see Willie Nelson perform, so it was incredible.

Who would you most love to collaborate with in the future?

I would love to collaborate with Dolly or Reba McEntire at some point and on the other side of the spectrum, P!nk, definitely.

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