The 22-year-old was clearly thrilled to have scored her first chart-topper — but also, it seemed, a little relieved. Her career has been an object lesson in the brutal economics of Nashville, where young talent rarely gets a second chance — and Alaina, after a promising breakout on “Idol,” had seen five previous singles flop over the past six years.
Country music is the last genre in which radio support is crucial to success, but programmers are quick to move on if an artist can’t land a hit — especially a woman in a male-dominated industry.
“I just can’t believe it,” Alaina said, crying again as she addressed her fans. “I’m just so humbled and thankful and proud of all of us, because we’ve all gotten me here, and you guys have never given up on me. It took us six years, but we finally did it.”
Even though Alaina had a major label behind her (Mercury, owned by Universal Music Group), her singles lagged. Her first album, “Wildflower,” debuted in October 2011, about six months after she was crowned the “American Idol” runner-up. It sold about 300,000 copies, but all three singles (“Like My Mother Does,” “Georgia Peaches” and “Eighteen Inches”) moved slowly on the radio charts, unable to crack the Top 25.
In 2013, she released “Barefoot and Buckwild,” which barely made an impact. Two years later, the flirty “Next Boyfriend” stalled around the Top 40. Finally, “Road Less Traveled,” released in July 2016, started to move, aided by iHeartRadio’s “On the Verge” program, in which the company’s country stations are required to play a chosen song a certain number of times. In January, the label had enough confidence in the single to release Alaina’s sophomore album, also called “Road Less Traveled.”
It’s fairly unusual for a label to keep supporting a singer with such a long lag time between albums — but the timing may have worked out in her favor. As Alaina explained on syndicated radio host Bobby Bones’s podcast, it was a tough transition going from being a teenager on “Idol,” where she was treated like a star, to just another Nashville singer in the extremely competitive country industry.
“You’re excited — and then your singles don’t work and then things don’t happen the way you think they’re going to,” Alaina said. “But it was the best thing that ever happened to me, losing those singles and realizing I’m actually not important. … I was not ready as a 16-year-old girl for what I have now.”
Since “Idol,” Alaina has also faced personal challenges, and she has opened up about many of them, including her bulimia. She was temporarily out of commission after vocal cord surgery. Then her parents got divorced, her father went to rehab and her mother married her father’s best friend — all of which she sings about in her opening album track, “Doin’ Fine.”
Now, as “Road Less Traveled” (written by Alaina, Meghan Trainor and Jesse Frasure) hits its peak, many in Nashville — and Alaina’s rabid fan base — are celebrating the achievement, as she has gained a lot of goodwill from her tireless effort to break through in the industry.
“I’m going to have a No. 1 hit for the rest of my life,” Alaina said in her Facebook video. “I just wanted to say thank you to everyone, and say that I hope it’s the first of many.”