For many of us, the last couple of months have been a whirlwind of unexpected life changes and an array of emotions, topped with feelings of uncertainty. That couldn’t be more true for Rita Wilson.
The singer-actress and her husband, Tom Hanks, announced in mid-March that they were diagnosed with COVID-19 while in Australia where Hanks was filming the movie “Elvis.” Shortly afterward, they continued to keep the world abreast of their conditions, sharing health updates on social media and checking in while quarantined in Los Angeles. Now recovered from coronavirus, both Wilson and Hanks recently donated plasma for COVID-19 research.
For Wilson, the situation was a scary one. But even during quarantine and recovery, she felt inspired. Wilson went viral with her own at-home quarantine cover of Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray,” which led to a proper mashup of the classic 1992 hip-hop track, with proceeds going to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. She also put the finishing touches on her new single, “Where’s My Country Song?” ― a track about women that feels particularly poignant right now.
When asked during a recent phone interview when she wrote the song, Wilson initially said shortly before she and Hanks left for Australia.
“Actually, I will look it up because I keep all these things in my little book,” she quickly added. “Oh no, I actually wrote it in November. God, time flies. November.”
The song has taken on an even more powerful meaning now, as women are on the frontlines during this global pandemic.
In this interview, HuffPost caught up with Wilson about her new song, the Naughty By Nature cover and her coronavirus diagnosis.
What was the genesis behind “Where’s My Country Song”?
I wrote it because I listen to a lot of country music, and I love country music, and I write in Nashville a lot. And I was thinking that there was a section of women that I started thinking about, so many women, don’t get seen, in a way. They’re kind of invisible. Sometimes that’s just the nature of being a woman or I think a lot of women feel that way at certain points in their life. But also, I was thinking about women who are single parents, who are raising kids either alone or with extended family helping out.
I was thinking about women who, like my mom, are housewives and stay home and who raise kids, and cook and sew. And my mom did all of that. She made our clothes. She made our bedspreads, our curtains. She cooked and went to the market every day and she did this all with cheer and joy and put so much love into it. I started thinking about all the women that we come in contact with every day that you take for granted in a way. They’re working at a mini-mart, or they’re in the market, or they’re in some factory somewhere that’s helping to get our food to us, or they’re agricultural workers. But I was thinking, “What are those women’s lives like?” I wanted to just shine a light.
I think they’re heroes in a way, unsung heroes and sometimes now-sung heroes because we are giving credit to so many of those people now when we look at this pandemic and what’s been going on. But I wrote the song before the pandemic. I wrote it because I wanted to say that my mom was my hero, basically, and that she taught me how to put joy and love into everything you do.
And so, I wanted to write a song that was about those women who are working hard and they have worries, and they have concerns. But they’re good moms and they’re doing the best that they can and they’re sacrificing.
What was it like coming at this song lyrically from less of a personal standpoint, and instead writing from a different point of view? Because a lot of times songwriters write about what they know or are experiencing.
First of all, I’m so glad you asked me that question because, as a matter of fact, when I first wrote this song, I did not think that it would be something that I would do because I thought, “Oh, how could I possibly write about this? I don’t have a little baby waiting up for me,” right?
But I started thinking about writers who write from other points of view and I then came across, and this was after I had written the song, but it sort of validated what I was feeling, and it was Jason Isbell wrote in the op-ed in The New York Times after John Prine died, about John Prine ... Some lightbulb went off and he realized that you can write songs because you can be anybody you want to be as long as you get the details right. He talked about John Prine getting those details right. And I thought, “Yes, that is exactly right. If you’re a storyteller, which I think as an actor you are in a way, then why can’t that storytelling translate into another way of being a character?” I looked at it as sort of like, “Yes, I’m telling this story about this person’s life and I hope I get the details right.” Not everybody’s life is perfect.
Not everybody’s life is what you see in a movie or what you see on a commercial or a TV show. People have complicated, complex lives and it doesn’t mean that they’re unhappy, but there are a variety of different lives out there in this world and sometimes we’re looking at a narrow focus and I wanted to broaden that a bit.
I just thought, “Yes,” and it really liberated me. It was like, “Yes, don’t be afraid. You can go into these other worlds if you get the details right.”
There’s been a lot of talk about country radio and the lack of women who get played on country radio. You mention radio a lot in the song. Were you thinking at all about that notion ― of women’s presence on country music radio?
Yes, definitely. There are women who work in country music that are doing extraordinary things to try to move that needle. I also think that there was a period of time where women dominated country music: Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn, and Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Shania Twain. It goes on and on. Somehow it’s become something different and it’s much more male. I don’t know why that is. I wish somebody would do a study on it.
And we know the studies that the Annenberg School is doing and their dismal statistics about how much women get played. I think for every 44 songs on country music, only one is a female artist. So now, I don’t know if that has shifted in the last few months, maybe. There have been encouraging things, like Gabby Barrett and Ingrid Andress have had successful songs recently in country music. But I think that is coming because people are bringing some attention to this. And look, it’s still very, very male and the people who program music are mostly male. And so, it’s like anything, if you want to hear the stories of women, you have to tell the stories of women and you have to hear them from women. So, the more we put that out there, the better it’s going to be.
You co-wrote the song with Lee DeWyze of “American Idol” fame. How did he come into the fold?
I love Lee. Well, first of all, I had never met him before and I’d never worked with him before. And his wife, Jonna, had heard my recent album “Halfway to Home” and said to Lee that she thought we should write together. So, he just reached out and we set up a session. I had this idea for the song and the title and he really brought all of that gorgeous melody to it. He understood instantly the tone of the song, what I really wanted that song to feel like and have it feel as if it was a meditation of somebody who gets in their car after a long day of work and puts on the radio and it’s just ... Haven’t you ever had that? It’s sort of like a stream of consciousness.
I wanted it to be really honest. I also wanted to communicate that there’s nothing better, your most important job is raising a child. Your most important job is taking care of that human being and making a good person to go out into the world. So, I really wanted to acknowledge that for the women who are doing that, sometimes alone.
Switching gears a bit, what was it like to recently revive the Naughty by Nature song, and were you surprised by the reaction? It went viral.
I was completely surprised. When I did it, I just thought, “Well, I’m feeling better from coronavirus.” I wanted to exercise my brain and I had learned Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray” for a movie called “Boy Genius” with Miles Brown. It was so hard to learn that song. It took me like a month. And so I thought, “Well, I wonder if I still remember it.” I went through it a couple of times and I was like, “Oh yeah, I kind of do.” I still had to refresh my memory. But I thought, “I’ll just put this up on Instagram because it’ll show people that I’m feeling better and haven’t lost my sense of humor,” and really had no idea it was going to do any of that. Then I also anxious because I put it up and then soon afterward it was night in Australia and I went to bed, completely surprised by the next morning, what happened with that. Then I saw that Naughty by Nature liked it and was appreciative of it. Then I felt good about it because I thought, “What if this just fails in the worst possible way?”
I imagine being diagnosed with COVID-19 has brought on so many different emotions. I’m so glad to hear you’re doing well and everybody’s good. You recently donated plasma. I imagine that it also sort of inspired you a little bit as well with all of the support you received?
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it really taught me that every day is a gift and that things that you used to think happened to other people actually happen to you now. You’re the one out of eight women who’s going to get diagnosed. And so, that taught me to really not take anything for granted.
Then getting coronavirus, I was very thankful that I got it early on so that I was not aware of what the death toll was going to be and how severe it has become, because I think that would have been all the more terrifying. Coming through it and being on the other side of it has just reinforced that idea that every day is a gift, and I am trying to do the best that I can, and loving and being with the people that really mean the most to you, your family and your friends. And so, I think this time has been, as everyone is calling it, a reset of what’s important.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.