It's been more than five years since the country darling first caught Blake Shelton's ear with her Pistol Annies-inspired blind audition on The Voice's second season. "I heard this voice start to sing, and it was familiar, but it was also like something I'd never heard before," Shelton tells ET. "Instantly, she looked like a star standing there -- an unexplainable thing that she has about her that separates her from everybody else in the world."
Then just 17 years old, competing for Team Blake, RaeLynn was ultimately sent home by her coach during the competition's quarterfinals. And that's when the real work began.
"I went straight back to Nashville, started writing Monday through Friday, then got my butt in a van," the 22-year-old tells ET. "I went to every country radio station in the U.S., got ready in gas stations, lived off Starbucks and Chick-fil-A -- that's how it was. You have to do that groundwork."
In that time, she released a five-track EP with Big Machine Label Group (the longtime home of Taylor Swift) and cracked the Billboard Hot 100 with its lead single, "God Made Girls." She toured with both Shelton and his famous ex, Miranda Lambert, numerous times, and, by her estimate, wrote more than 200 songs. RaeLynn's voice is now stronger, her songwriting sharper, and her look more mature, trading flowers in her long blonde hair for tattoos, a cropped 'do and a marquise diamond on her left hand from husband Josh Davis, whom she wed in February 2016 and who, just last month, shipped off for basic training in the U.S. military.
Rae, as she's known to both friends and fans, likens it all to a college experience, culminating in something of a thesis: her debut album, WildHorse, out March 24.
"When you're a freshman to senior, you change so much in those four years and I've changed so much," she says of her post-Voice experience. "I'm so thankful that I've waited until now to put out my record, because I know I'm proud of this record."
The fact that The Voice has yet to launch a true superstar is not lost on RaeLynn (born Racheal Lynn Woodward) or her coach-turned-mentor, Shelton. As the show rolls through its 12th season in six years on NBC, both parties are making their case to change that narrative.
"This is my thing," Rae says matter-of-factly. "No singing reality show is gonna make you a superstar. What makes you a superstar is what you do after that."
RaeLynn may not have chosen Adam Levine to be her coach, but he's proven to be a strong mentor all the same. She recalls his most powerful words of wisdom.
"'Everybody who wants to be a singer now wants to have instant success and instant this and instant that,' he said, 'but it took me 10 years, it took Blake 10 years to get where we are today. They don't want to put that work in,'" she echoes. "So anybody who asks me, 'Should I do The Voice?' I'm like, 'Of course you should do The Voice! You should learn from that experience, you should get fans.' I said, 'But it doesn't stop when The Voice ends. You're not a superstar at that point. You have so much more work to do.'"
"I truly believe in RaeLynn. She's not like anybody else that's ever been on country radio," says Shelton. "I think she's gonna have a huge impact on our genre. She's just now coming into her own as a songwriter, and I think the world is at her fingertips."
The Texas native -- now a member of the Warner Music Nashville roster alongside Shelton -- was first featured on country radio with a cameo appearance on his 2013 hit, "Boys 'Round Here." (The line, "Are you gonna do the Dougie?" was, hilariously, her first official foray into music chart territory.) But she broke out on her own in 2015 with "God Made Girls."
The song was met with criticism from some for what was interpreted as an anti-feminist message, but it resonated with other listeners, peaking at No. 61 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100.
"It's just a sweet song about the connection between guys and girls," she told ET in a 2015 interview, asserting her own beliefs as a feminist. "The song came from a very pure place. I mean, heck, I'm a girl that's very driven, very much in her career."
RaeLynn still oozes sweetness, but she's added plenty of strength to her repertoire. She sings candidly about love, heartbreak, jealousy, faith and her own free spirit on WildHorse, and offers her heartbreaking perspective as a child of divorce on its lead single, "Love Triangle."
"I didn't know if a lot of people would relate to it, and honestly, I didn't want my parents to get upset with me," she says of releasing the song. "My parents were amazing parents but, yeah, I had to go through some crap. And, yeah, I did feel like I was in the middle my whole life. I didn't want them to think that I was being disrespectful to them."
RaeLynn remains close to both parents (she's bringing her dad as her date to the Academy of Country Music Awards in April), but admits that her song brought them to tears. "I played them this song and I asked them if I could put it on my record," she recalls. "They said, 'Yes, you can. This song is gonna heal so many people, and even though it's sad for us to hear, because we never wanted you to feel this way, it would be stupid for you not to put it out because it's such a beautiful song. And if you felt this way, there are so many other families who feel this way.'"
RaeLynn says that her album, produced by Jimmy Robbins and Nicolle Galyon, "sounds different than anything that's out there right now."
Bringing her signature southern twang to the country pop format, this point is perhaps never more evident than in her effortless transition between the EDM-inspired "Trigger" on track nine, to the countrified 10th track, "Graveyard" -- which feels like it would have been right at home on an early Lambert or Pistol Annies album. Somehow, each song seems equally likely to spark a dance party.
And while Shelton is happy to have her in the country community, RaeLynn seems less keen to box herself into one genre these days. Her upcoming tour, dubbed "RaVe," will feature a DJ dance set, where she'll take a break from performing and dance with her fans in the audience. She also openly says that had Miley Cyrus -- a country-pop crossover star herself -- been a coach during her time on The Voice, "I probably would have picked Miley."
"I think Adam would have made me a pop artist," she says, looking back on having both Levine and Shelton turn their chairs for her Voice blind audition.
"I told Adam, 'I didn't even know that my voice could really be a pop voice until I started writing pop country songs, so you really did see something special in me!'" she says with a bubbly laugh. "But I think it would have totally been different. I can't even imagine it. Like, it'd be so weird."
"That's one of the times that Adam has been most upset with me, is when RaeLynn chose me to be her coach," Shelton admits. "She's still one of his favorites that ever came off the show and she may be my absolute favorite that's ever come off the show. She's just a special person."
The bond shared between Shelton and RaeLynn is unparalleled. ("She's felt like a family member since the day that I met her," says Shelton.) Beyond collaborating and touring together, the duo maintain a close friendship in real life. Shelton was joined by girlfriend Gwen Stefani at RaeLynn's whimsical Tennessee wedding, and RaeLynn compares the 40-year-old singer to "my dad-slash-brother."
That's why, she explains, she couldn't duet with him on her album. "There were no songs that I felt like we could do together," she says. "I'm not gonna do a love duet with him. That'd be so weird. ... It would have to be a fun, upbeat song just about life."
Since the pair met in 2012, much has changed for them both personally and professionally. As Shelton's star continues to rise, he's found himself in the crosshairs of intense public and tabloid focus in recent years."When I first met Blake, he was just, you know, moving up, and now he's just a massive superstar," RaeLynn says. "One thing that I can say about Blake is he's never changed."
Rae recalls one very specific learning situation when, during a lunch out in Los Angeles with Shelton and his manager, they were mobbed by paparazzi. She was 19. "We walked out of the restaurant and I was like, 'Oh my God!' All these people are outside. I was like, 'How do you handle this?' He goes, 'You just handle it. You have a smile on your face and you talk to them,'" she recalls.
"He's so himself, and that's one thing that I take from him. You just can't let any of that change you. You always have to keep people around you that are gonna keep you grounded and tell you, 'Hey, that's not you' or 'That's not the person you want to be,'" she says. "It's just about keeping checkpoints in your life. That's one thing I can say about Blake, he's the same today as he was when I met him."
Half a decade into her own career, RaeLynn is preparing for her album launch, wrapping up her role as the opening act on Shelton's "Doing It to Country Songs" tour and readying her first headlining tour. Meanwhile, the newlywed celebrated her first anniversary with husband Josh Davis on Feb. 27 -- but it was a party of one, with Davis unable to call or text while away at basic training.
"I just ate chocolate cake and called it a day," she says with a pained laugh. "I just love him so much."
Rae first publicly announced that Davis had enlisted in the military on Valentine's Day, calling him her "hero" and asking fans to "keep him in your prayers" as he fulfills his dream to serve his country. (She has declined to specify which military branch Josh is serving.)
"What do you say?" she shrugs. "Me in my selfish ways, I wanted him to be with me 24/7, but Josh supports me in every single way with my career and when I'm traveling. Even though it's sad to leave him, I'm doing what I love. If this is what his passion and his love is, then, as his wife, I have to support him! When you don't support each other, then you're not gonna be good for each other in the long run."
"It's just such a selfless thing to do, too," she adds. "I'm just so excited for him."
RaeLynn doesn't expect to see her husband again until after her 23rd birthday on May 4. "He wrote me a letter before he left," she gushes. "He goes, 'You're gonna be doing a tour, your record's coming out, all these changes are gonna happen and I know it's all gonna be for the best.'"
Yes, she says, Davis has already heard WildHorse in full.
"I think it's gonna make us stronger and it's just gonna be a lot of sacrifice," she says of their separation. "There might be things that I want to do in my career that I can't because I need to go spend time with my husband, because our schedules are both so different, and I'm OK with that. Marriage is about sacrifice and there might be certain things that I really want to go to that I can't, and vice versa for him. But that's the beauty of being married and loving somebody, you're gonna have to sacrifice certain things."
In its entirety, WildHorse is about honoring her past and present. The album title was inspired by a poem written by RaeLynn's maternal grandmother, from whom she likely inherited her songwriting gene.
"She was such a prolific writer," RaeLynn says. "[The poem] was talking about how my mom was the good kind of crazy and all these amazing things, and when [my mom] read me this poem, I began to cry because it was just so perfect. I was like, 'Oh my God, that's gotta be the title of my record! But now I gotta write a song!'"
"WildHorse," the title track, followed, with lyrics like, "Ridin' with the fire in my eyes, flyin' straight through the open wide/ ‘Cause baby I'm a wild horse."
And while her parents' failed relationship inspired the heartbreaking lead single, Rae honors her own marriage and husband on the song "Diamonds," singing, "A diamond's just a diamond 'til you put it on the right left hand/ Love is just a word 'til you feel it and finally understand/ That some things don't mean anything 'til one day they mean everything."
"In my life, I don't want to ever go through a divorce," she says bluntly. "I'm gonna work through it. And my mom and my dad both regret their first divorces, because they were like, 'We could have worked through it but we just didn't.' And I think that's something that a lot of people don't really fight for anymore. Coming from a broken home makes you want to fight even more. ... I come from a long line of divorce and the buck stops with me."
When it comes to her songwriting, RaeLynn is gifted at injecting her larger-than-life personality into any scenario, drawing on ideas from her own life and others'. Though WildHorse, she says, is a pure representation of her own experiences.
"Some of these songs are definitely not in the headspace I'm in now, but they were when I wrote them," she says. "I think that's the beauty of songwriting and music. You can channel that emotion at any time, and it's cool to look back and see, 'Oh my gosh, I was so sad when I wrote that song.' Or, 'Oh my gosh, I was so sassy when I wrote that song!' You can go back and see what you've overcome with what songs you wrote."
Today, she's already working on music for her second album. On the day of our interview, she had just finished up two polar opposite, equally powerful songs and was positively giddy while playing them for her team over her iPhone. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t seem likely that fans will need to wait another five years to hear more from RaeLynn.
"Anybody who's ever met RaeLynn, they'll never forget her," gushes Shelton. "She's just a charming, incredible personality and a super talented, incredible songwriter, a great singer."
"Outside of that, I don't care if RaeLynn came to me one day and said that she wants to work in the post office and, 'Do you got any strings you could pull for me?'" he jokes. "I guarantee I would get involved. She's a great friend and a good kid, and I just want to see the best that can possibly happen for her, happen. That's why I'm glad to see her getting the recognition that she deserves with 'Love Triangle' and this new album. It's gonna be incredible."
Simply put, according to Shelton: "I just think she's gonna be a huge star. I truly believe that."