Hailey Whitters on Writing 'Raised' and a Year of Firsts

If there's any artist in country music, or the music industry in general, that should be described as “one to watch,” it’s Hailey Whitters. Her second record, The Dream, which was released in 2020, spurred Whitters into the spotlight. Her crisp, dreamy, and natural-sounding voice goes hand-in-hand with her honest and palpable songwriting that sets her apart from her peers. Whitters, an Iowa native, connects to her midwestern background in her third LP, Raised.

The new era, teased by vintage-looking, grainy photos of Whitters in a corn field and seated in a silo, began with the single “Everything She Ain’t.” She speaks on the track stating, “You know, I think 'Everything She Ain’t' is just so fun and I feel like, production wise, shows a lot of influences on the record.” Whitters also notes that the track was a clear favorite within the team of people around her. “It was kind of the right foot to start out on.”

The video for the song features Whitters in an old timey homecoming dress appearing next to girls in cheerleading uniforms. “I did the video with my creative director Harper Smith,” Whitters tells The Nash News. “We always find a way to show some personality, or to show people who I am visually, and this idea for the music video is inspired by an actual true occurrence of me being the homecoming queen of my high school.” She sings in a school gym and under the flashing beams of a disco ball. The video perfectly captures the straightforward boldness of the lyrics.

The second single, “The Neon,” was quite drastically different from “Everything She Ain’t.” It was written by Whitters, Lori McKenna, and Rodney Clawson; it was the first time the three of them collaborated together. “It’s kind of an interesting combo for me just ‘cause I feel like I love what each of them do,” she explains with attention to her craft. “Lori and I tend to dive deep into songwriter land and I feel like Rodney helped keep it fresh and reinvent the idea in a way.” McKenna was the one who threw out the title, and right away Whitters knew the direction it would go. Whitters goes on to describe it saying, “It’s kind of a fun spin on going out and getting drunk and sitting in neon lights which is definitely a thing I’m no stranger to. It sounds different so I thought it showcased a whole different side of the record.” “The Neon” is muddled with a trippy, dark twang that gives off a moody attitude.

Whitters got to collaborate with one of her favorite bands, American Aquarium, on the rock-influenced “Middle Of America.” “We actually laid down that song and it just had me on it and it was falling a little bit flat. Me and my producer were like ‘Man this needs some of that edge,’’' she shares. Whitters producer reached out to BJ Barham, the lead singer of the band, and he was thrilled to be on it. “Hearing his vocal on it now, it was just totally the missing piece. It was exactly what the song needed to take it to that next level.” Later this year in June, Whitters is set to play the Ryman Auditorium with the group. “That room is a holy place for me. To get to share the stage with those guys, it’s a very special night,” she attests.

Family is a huge theme of Raised, one of the songs is even titled “Big Family.” The notion of familial saga is also ingrained in the quirky track “Our Grass Is Legal” which appears towards the end of the 17-song collection. It was one of the older songs Whitters featured on the project; she had written it years ago. Her grandfather had a sod farm in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was where her father and all of her uncles worked. Whitters tells the story enthusiastically stating, “He sold sod and he called himself The Grassman and people started calling the office asking for pot thinking that he was selling weed. So he made his motto, ‘Whitters Turf Farm, Our Grass Is Legal.’” As she sat down to write a narrative about her grandfather, it ended up turning into a midwestern anthem that celebrates the quirks of growing up in that specific part of the country. In the bridge she sings, "And we raise hell and raise kids / And we bring 'em up the way our parents did / And supper's our kind of casserole on Sundays, find a fishin' hole / And we drag someone out of a ditch / Take care of our own, that's the way it is / Around here, yeah."

Whitters is excellent at writing in a delicately, vulnerable manner about people who aren’t herself; “Janice At The Hotel Bar,” a favorite from her previous record, does just that. “Pretty Boy” on Raised accomplishes a similar feat. “I wrote that song thinking a lot about the boys that I grew up with. I have a lot of brothers, a lot of boy cousins, my uncles were very strong influences on me growing up,” she says in a serious manner. “I feel like, I see ways in which society kind of puts that expectation on boys to be tough, to be strong, not to cry, to not be vulnerable, and I feel like that can be very damaging sometimes. I wanted to write a song for those guys and say it's cool to be strong and it’s also cool to be vulnerable. It’s not just how many beers that you can crush that makes you a man.”

Photo by Harper Smith

Since the record quite literally hits close to home for the singer-songwriter, every track is filled with personal stories. When asked which one feels most individualized to Whitters she responds, “I think ‘Boys Back Home’ to me, has always felt really close. I feel like if you could encapsulate this whole record in a way, that one really feels like the song that does that for me.”

As she talks, she points to a specific moment in the bridge with the lines, "Well, I left that town and we all grew up / But sometimes I still miss that girl that I was / When I was a shotgun seat in their trucks / Singin' along to the radio.” She continues on, “That to me, it sounds so simple, but it’s kind of like an ode to that 17 year old girl who’s starry eyed and wanted to move to Nashville who was dreaming about getting the heck out. That song really embodies some of the characters that built me, that raised me and then to be able to now, 14 years later, be able to bittersweetly and nostalgic-ly look back."

In general, Whitters feels as though she has shown much progression as both a person and an artist from her second studio album to her third, even though they’re only two years apart from one another. “If you listen to The Dream it sounds like a really broken-hearted, frustrated girl waiting tables, trying to hang on and see it through. And then you hear Raised, you can kind of see the ways in which my hometown built me to be a girl who was working hard who was willing to go back and get a day job to continue seeing this dream through.” She speaks eloquently with tenacity as she adds, “You can see a girl that is not gonna quit. A girl that’s gonna persevere, a girl that’s gonna hang on, that’s gonna do what she set her mind to do despite some of the challenges.” To Whitters, although Raised comes chronologically after The Dream, it almost feels like an honest prelude.

Whitters is currently on her first ever headlining tour across North America. It’s her first time to have a full, 90 minute set to herself, and she’s getting to play some of the deep cuts that were rarely heard live. “It’s been mind blowing to see from the moment I walk out on stage, that entire 90 minutes, to see and hear them singing every word it gives me chills.” She references a recent Boston show at Brighton Music Hall where the venue had a place for her to immerse herself within the crowd. “To really be all connected, it was an amazing feeling and it made me feel like I’m on the right path and these records mean something to people. And that’s all I really wanted from the get-go,” she tells us. She's often seen on stage in a corn skirt, a fan favorite outfit of hers. Later this year, Whitters is set to go on tour with Jordan Davis, Lainey Wilson, and Jon Pardi.

Separate from her own music, Whitters scored her first Grammy nomination and it’s for one of the major categories. She’s nominated for Song of the Year alongside Hilary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Brandy Clark, Linda Perry, Ruby Amanfu, Brandi Carlile, and Alicia Keys for their work on “A Beautiful Noise.” Whitters reminisces on the call about the nomination; she was in a coffee shop when Brandy Clark gave her a ring. “She just said, ‘Hailey.' I could tell that she was either gonna make me scream tears of joy or scream tears of sadness,” Whitters recalls. “I literally screamed. That was such a special song to get to be a part of. I’m very proud and honored to have my name on the list next to all of those women. I'm a big fan of all of them.”

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