Just How Country Is Rita Wilson?

You know her as Rita Wilson the actor, Rita Wilson the producer, and Rita Wilson the activist. But as she continues down the path to Rita Wilson the singer-songwriter, she’s getting more and more comfortable with this episode of her career.

And you can hear that in the music she’s about to release on Friday (March 29).

It’s called Halfway to Home. One listen in, and you just know this is not some one-off passion project for Wilson. It’s genuine, and she’s poured her heart into every song. There’s something about her voice that sounds familiar but also unique. Sometimes it’s moody, sometimes it has a more halcyon rhythm. Even better, Wilson has the sense of humor that only comes from being grown up and thoroughly self-assured.

I had a chance to talk one-on-one with Wilson about the album: Why now? Why her? Why country? I knew she’d been collaborative from day one, because she’d written 10 of the 11 songs with some of the most prolific songwriters, both in and out of Nashville — Nathan Chapman, Stephanie Chapman, Liz Rose, Kristian Bush, Matraca Berg, Emily Shackelton, Annie Bosko, Johan Lindbrandt, Mikal Blue, Marquita McCue, Jason Wade, Mitch Allen, Kara DioGuardi, Mozella, John Shanks, Trey Bruce, Richard Marx, Kevin Kadish and Jack Tempchin – but what I really wanted to know was, why all the steel guitar? The instrument hasn’t been part of the in crowd in country music for years, and yet you can hear it on almost every song. Which was exactly Wilson’s intent.

Q. Tell me about your decision to put so much steel guitar on the album.
A. It’s such a beautiful instrument, and it should be used more. My producer Nathan Chapman knew how much I revered Linda Ronstadt and those albums she made, and her steel player Dan Dugmore is such a legend to me. He was with Linda for 14 years. So we got Dan to play pedal steel, and I nearly fell over. I was like, “What? He said yes? Are you kidding?” Having Dan and the other Nashville players really makes the music sound a little bit like what I grew up on with that Southern California rock, and that’s the vibe I wanted. Nathan knew exactly how to get that sound.

Q. Did you come to Nashville to write all these songs, too?
A. We actually went to Ketchum, Idaho to write. Kara DioGuardi said, “I think you should do a writing camp.” So we were there for about five or six days. We wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, 24, 7, but we also walked, hiked and drank wine. I was blown away by all the talent I was surrounded with. I know I have 9,900 hours to go before I reach my 10,000 hours of mastery. I know that. Being around those writers, along with Tom Douglas, the Warren Brothers, and others showed me how songwriters are the spine of country music. It’s been such a humbling process, but if not for that, I may not even be writing. If it wasn’t for Nashville, I wouldn’t be the songwriter that I am. The craftsmanship and the discipline might have just been a curiosity at first, but then I went down there thinking, “How do I learn how to write a country song?” Then you realize there are rules, and then there are no rules.

Q. You were raised in Hollywood, so you don’t necessarily have the background — the dirt road life, moonshine by the bonfire, heartaches by the number — that makes up so many modern country songs. So what gives you your country cred?
A. I grew up in Hollywood, but it always felt like a small town to me. My mom was Greek, my dad was Bulgarian. They had no expectations of Hollywood, they just moved there for the weather. I never felt I was in some kind of iconic place. It was just my hometown. We went to school, did chores, rode bikes, cashed in empty Coke bottles, went to the neighborhood store for comic books and bubblegum, ate ice cream on the curb. That was Hollywood to me.

Q. Your Hollywood sounds so un-Hollywood.
A. It was nothing like what people imagine. It was just my life. My dad was a bartender at two horse race tracks — Santa Anita and Hollywood Park — and on Saturday mornings, he’d bring his tips home from the week in a Crown Royal bag. We’d put all of it on the kitchen table and we’d separate the quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies and put them in those little coin wrappers, and my mom would go deposit them. Even now, I’ll never forget the day my dad paid off our mortgage. To see him finally be unburdened? That was extraordinary.

Q. Did your husband (Tom Hanks) grow up the same way, and does he have the same love for country music that you do?
A. Yes. And Tom loves all music, because growing up in California, we both listened to AM radio. That was all we had. And so much of that back then was multi genre. You’d hear Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire, but then you’d hear the Beach Boys, the Supremes and the Beatles. If it was a good song, it was a good song. Tom and our sons (Chester and Truman) respond to a good song.

Q. You’d already released a handful of solo albums in the past seven years, so why did you decide to lean into country on this one?
A. I think it’s just that at my age, I have more to say. Life is like a big, beautiful chest of jewels. And one by one, things are dropped in there. You don’t know how big that chest is until it’s full, and you say, “I have to take the jewels to market.”

Q. So Halfway to Home is your life jewels for sale?
A. It is, because the experience of having lived a life gives you a lot to say. I have no idea what I would’ve written about if I’d started this when I was 25. I’ve had things go on in my life, great things, tough things, and that allows you to see everyone and everything in a different way. And best of all, you’re unfiltered and you don’t care what anyone thinks anymore.

Wilson is currently on tour, bringing the new music out to her ever-expanding group of fans, followers and friends. She’s scheduled to open for Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Lauren Alaina, Cassadee Pope, Lindsay Ell and Clare Dunn at Chicago’s Lakeshake Festival on June 21. And on Friday (March 29), she’ll be honored with the 2,659th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Earlier this year, country’s newest darling Brandi Carlile became fast friends with Wilson and Hanks at a Chris Cornell Tribute. (Apparently, Hanks is a really good listener.)

Alison makes her living loving country music. She’s based in Chicago, but she’s always leaving her heart in Nashville.