Get To Know: Hailey Whitters [Exclusive Interview]

Standout tracks on 'Raised' include "Boys Back Home," "Everything She Ain't," and the stirring "Pretty Boy."

Written by Jeremy Chua
Get To Know: Hailey Whitters [Exclusive Interview]
Hailey Whitters; Photo Credit: Harper Smith

Over the last decade, several country artists have released noteworthy neotraditional country albums. They include Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof (2012), Ashley Monroe’s The Blade (2015), Pistol Annie’s Interstate Gospel (2018), and Jon Pardi’s Heartache Medication (2019). Now, joining the ranks of these laudable projects is Hailey Whitters and her brand-new record, Raised.

Whitters is no greenhorn in country music. She moved from her home in Shueyville, Iowa over a decade ago to study at Belmont University in Nashville. While it wasn’t long until she snagged her first publishing deal after graduation, the ride after was riddled with twists and turns. Whitters took on odd jobs to stay afloat as she navigated her way through Music Row. Opportunities to follow the then-trendy pop-country sound even presented themselves, but Whitters didn’t cave in. So with her head down, she continued hustling in hopes of making her dream a reality.

The tide finally turned in 2020 when Whitters released the autobiographical “Ten Year Town” and her sophomore effort, The Dream. What was made as her potential final hurrah in Nashville emerged as a life-changing record. Whitters finally broke through with an album that received some buzz from fans, critics, and Music Row’s suits and ties. The Dream was also given a deluxe treatment last year, with singers like Little Big Town and Trisha Yearwood joining on new tracks. Now with her follow-up third album, Whitters is taking a musical journey back to her roots.

Hailey Whitters
Hailey Whitters; Album Cover Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

A masterful collection of 17 songs, Raised is a nod to Whitters’ humble roots and upbringing. Veering more into the lane of neo-traditional country, the LP offers nostalgia (“In a Field Somewhere”), tongue-in-cheek sass (“Everything She Ain’t”), tributes (“Boys Back Home,” “Middle of America”), insights on small-town shenanigans (“Our Grass is Legal,” “Big Family”), and a heart-rending reflection on masculinity (“Pretty Boy”).

With an album like Raised, it’s clear that the longevity of Whitters’ career in the storytelling format is bright, and so is the torch she bears for traditional and neo-traditional country. Make no mistake, Whitters is the answer to the hollers of traditionalists for a more rootsy sound in mainstream country.

Humorously dubbed “corn queen” on Zoom, Sounds Like Nashville got to sit down with Whitters recently to chat about her Iowa upbringing, her more-than-a-decade-long musical journey, and her latest record, Raised

Introducing the next promising artist you have to “get to know”: Hailey Whitters.

What was your childhood like in Shueyville, Iowa, Hailey? How did you get into music?

I grew up in a very big family, so there were a lot of cousins, a lot of chaos, and something was always going on. I lived so close to everyone in my family. I had a really golden childhood from what I can remember. I really didn’t start doing music until I was a teenager. I was a dancer, I was very involved with my friends and family. I was out riding four-wheelers and playing outside most of the time. I feel so lucky because when I look back on my childhood, I feel like I had a really good and fun one!

How would you describe Shueyville for those who haven’t been to or heard of it?

It’s a small town, we’ve got two bars and a church. We don’t even have a zip code, actually, because we don’t have a post office! Where I come from, it’s a lot of clusters of these small towns.

Who are some of your musical influences? 

I was a kid of the radio. We didn’t have cable growing up, and the internet didn’t come in until much later. I was basically listening to whatever I heard on the radio, so at that time it was Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, The Chicks, Martina McBride, and a lot of the females of the ‘90s. I would say probably them. I remember getting an Avril Lavigne CD at some point as a teenager, too. I actually have a funny story of riding the school bus when I was in kindergarten. Every day, this high school boy would get on the school bus with a boombox on his shoulder, and he’d walk straight to the back every day, with the boombox, and he would play Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill record. So that’s kind of my random influx of influences, I guess! [laughs]

You moved away from home for college in Nashville. What spurred that decision?

I was pretty much going to move to Nashville no matter what. My parents were a little nervous about that because I was their oldest daughter and about to move nine hours away from anyone I had ever known. It was also very important to them for me to go to college because no one in my family had gone to college at that point. So I enrolled at Belmont University. The whole time I was there, I was kind of the worst student because I was very excited to be in Nashville and trying to hustle outside of my classes to gain some sort of recognition in the industry and a deal. 

What did you do after your 2012 graduation? 

I got my first publishing deal I think within a year after I graduated. However, because it was my first deal, it didn’t pay [much] and I had to work my side jobs to be able to pay my bills, rent, and all that kind of stuff. I became a nanny and a receptionist at a hair salon. That was paying my bills so that I could keep writing and playing shows. I really didn’t use my degree too much after college, which makes my parents very proud! [laughs

I’ve heard you mention that you tried pandering to the pop-country sound after releasing your album Black Sheep in 2015 but realized it wasn’t working for you. Would you talk about that? 

I was trying something else and trying to figure out if there was any way for me to make the kind of music that was happening at that time. I did a project with a producer in town and it did sound very pop-country and much like what was going on. I remember we had our first meeting to play it for someone in town and I was just like, “Man, that just does not feel like me.” Sitting in that meeting just didn’t feel like me. So I scrapped the project, it never came out, and I never had another meeting with it. I had my come-to-Jesus moment where I was like, “Look! You got to do you. If you strike out, at least you know you were being real, authentic and you were being you. You’re not going to be able to fake this version of you that you’re trying to be for much longer, so you might as well just figure out a way to do what you love and get your music out there.”

And this translated to your acclaimed follow-up project, The Dream, right?

Yeah, that’s when I went into the studio and made my record The Dream. I just had to tune out a lot of the industry noise. It’s really hard to be in a town like this and to see all of these things happening and feel like you’re still so far behind. I really had to tune out what everyone else was doing and just focus on me and my music. Ironically when I did that, I just a hundred-and-ten-percent focused on being myself, that was when it actually started getting attention from the industry.

Raised sounds like the prequel you were lucky enough to make after the make-it-or-break-it record The Dream. What went into the creative vision of this project? 

It totally does feel like the prequel of The Dream even though it came after it. The mustard seed that started Raised is probably the song “Heartland” on The Dream. I was at a time in my life when I was starting to feel homesick and nostalgic for where I grew up and was writing a lot of songs about that. That’s when I went into the studio, recorded six songs, and it started to take shape. We recorded the rest of the album over the next few months and tried to tell the story of where I came from the best that I possibly could.

“Everything She Ain’t” is the lead single off this record. What made you pick this song as the introduction to Raised

It just felt like a good next step after the deluxe side of The Dream that I put out last year. It felt like a lot of the sounds and the production seemed to live in the same land. So it felt like an organic fit and bridge from the last project to the new one. It’s just a really fun, light song with a lot of influences that I grew up on musically! 

You wrote the powerful “Pretty Boy” with Scooter Carusoe and Tom Douglas. It’s a song that, I think, will stop everyone in their tracks. What inspired the narrative?

That’s one of my favorites on the record! I have a lot of brothers and really, really strong men in my family that have been so influential on me growing up. There’s this sort of tough mentality for boys. “You’re supposed to be strong,” “don’t cry,” “crying makes you weak, and “vulnerability makes you weak.” Maybe a little bit of that is productive when you’re growing up, but I also think too much of it can be very damaging to boys sometimes. I feel like we don’t put that much emphasis on girls. Girls are very emotional and expressive. I’ve seen some of the ways that some of this toxic masculinity can be very damaging to boys. I just want them to know that being vulnerable is actually a strength. It makes you strong. It’s okay to be vulnerable. This is a message for those boys or really just anyone who needs to hear that.

“Boys Back Home” is preceded by a stunning prelude on the album. Would you talk about the placement of it? 

The prelude before “Boys Back Home” was by Mike Rojas (keyboardist) and Pat McGrath (guitarist). They were getting ready to lay down their parts on “Boys Back Home” and started riffing off each other. It was so moving to me. I immediately felt emotionally attached to it. That’s when I told our engineer Logan to hit record as they did their thing because it was stunning. It was totally natural, just them playing in the studio from their heart. I was pretty adamant about that being there, I don’t care if most people skip or if it’s too long. For the few people that are going to listen to that – it might move them like it moved me.

You co-wrote “Boys Back Home” with two other hitmakers, Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon. What’s the story behind this song?

I wrote that song with those girls and I was thinking about the boys I grew up with. I have so many memories with them and riding around in their pickup trucks. We all used to all pile up on someone’s pickup truck on a Friday night and drive out into a clearing in the woods. We called it Green Castle. The cops and our parents didnt’ know where it was. Only we high schoolers knew, and we would go start a fire, bring out a case of beer and just sit, hang out and talk. They had such an influence on me growing up. They taught me how to drink, fight, stick up for myself, how to kiss and how to cry. I hadn’t heard a song like this from a girl’s perspective that isn’t a love song. It’s just about celebrating them and saying “thank you” for all the things they taught me.

“Everybody Oughta” is the only song that you didn’t write on this record. What drew you to it?

Well, I’m a songwriter and I love cutting other people’s songs. There are so many people in this town that can write circles around me, so I have no ego about that. I just want to put the best songs on my record. Usually, my indicator on whether I want to cut an outside song is whether or not I’m jealous that I didn’t think of it first, and “Everybody Oughta” was certainly one of them. It definitely continues to tell some of that “how I grew up” story.

With Raised, are there any goals, in particular, that you hope to achieve?

I would love to be nominated for the first time! I want to go to the ACM’s! I would also love to be on country radio too. As a kid who grew up ear to the radio, I would love to be able to hear one of my songs on the radio. That would be really special. In terms of the bigger picture, I would love to have it reach as many people as possible, continue putting out records that I love, and continue to headline tours. I’m so lucky I get to do this for a living and I want to keep it that way.

Finally, if you could travel back in time, what would you tell younger Hailey who had just moved to Nashville?

I would tell her to be herself, keep going, and try to enjoy it along the way. It’s so easy to think, “What’s next? What are my next goals? Did I check that off? What’s next?” I’d just say to step back, think about that girl, think about how far she’s come, and soak it all up.

Purchase or stream Hailey Whitter’s Raised here.