You can take the girl out of the cornfield, but you can’t take the cornfield out of the girl. Hailey Whitters represents small town America at its finest as she hails from Shueyville Iowa, population 731. The singer/song writer has just released a new album called “Raised” and like Hailey herself, the record is steeped in the culture of the Midwest. Musically, there are hints of early Alan Jackson and vintage Merle Haggard, and perhaps this is a tip of the hat to the tunes that she heard during her formative years while spending time at her aunt and uncle’s farm in Shueyville. This morning she was up at 4:30 a.m., but these days it has nothing to do with feeding the chickens.
“Yeah, I just got back from doing a few British dates so I think I’m still a little bit on U.K. time,” she laughs over the phone from her Nashville residence. “I had been booked on this festival tour for about two years now and it finally happened. Everybody told me I was going to love it because the fans are so attentive and appreciative of country music and that totally was the case. We played the O2 Arena in London on the last night and there were 14,000 people there. I sang “Janice At the Hotel Bar”, which is a pretty heavy lyrical song for me, and I saw a bunch of lighters go up all the way to the nosebleeds. It was so cool and really surreal.”
“Janice At the Hotel Bar” is a song from Hailey’s previous breakthrough album “The Dream”, an autobiographical record of sorts in which she recounts the experience of leaving her Iowa hometown to pursue stardom in Nashville. “Raised” contains more vignettes about Hailey’s mid-western roots and she co-wrote all but two of the numbers. On the album’s title track the singer looks back at her childhood and closes with the philosophy that “A little dirt don’t hurt nothin’”. The LP is almost structured like a concept album or play, as it begins with an instrumental overture, takes a break in the middle with a musical interlude before closing out with a slight return of the opening instrumental passage.
“When I heard the instrumental “Ad Astra Per Alas Porci” (which literally translates into ‘when pigs fly’) it instantly felt very familiar to me,” she says. “It’s very cinematic and while we had the idea of opening the record with that piece we didn’t set out to make it a concept record. But it does feel like we’re taking you to a place and that instrumental really kind of sets the theme for the entire record.
I’d had the title song “Raised” sitting around for a while and Nicolle Galyon, my co-writer on that, was so genius the way she kind of played on words there. I thought the song was originally going to be one of those hard work, roll up your sleeves, raised in the country kind of things, just talking about the values which I was raised upon. Now it’s almost become kind of a love song for not only who the singer is singing to, but also to the place I came from. This is probably one of my first love songs and I really think it starts the record off on a sweet note.”
Hailey pulls back more of the curtain on her early life on a couple of light-hearted tracks, “Our Grass Is Legal” and “Big Family”. The first number is a true tale about her grandfather’s sod farm while “Big Family” has her looking back at her memories by “Squintin’ through a Polaroid lens”.
“Our Grass Is Legal” is inspired and based on my grandfather’s sod farm from back when I was a kid growing up. He sold sod so he called himself The Grass Man. People from the town over started calling him for pot, thinking he was selling weed so he made his motto ‘Our grass is legal’. In that piece my Aunt Cindy is imitating what it was like to get phone calls back in the day because she used to answer the phone for his business. We tried to share a little bit more of that story with listeners.
As far as “Big Family” goes, my mom and dad are both one of nine kids and my grandpa’s one of 15, Hailey continues. “We’re still thick as thieves. I grew up with more cousins than I had friends. There was always something going on in the family, where we were either celebrating something or commiserating together. That line about my Aunt Tina getting drunk and dancing in the kitchen or living room is so totally true and reflective of my family. They’re such a big part of me growing up and being able to look back upon my childhood and really reflect fondly on it.”
Perhaps the crown jewel of the album may be the first single “Everything She Ain’t”, which somehow combines the words soda, Tacoma and Corona into a single line that also manages to mention ‘Audrey and Hank’. The video for the piece is hilarious as it shows Hailey being crowned Homecoming Queen at her alma mater, affectionately known as Cow Pie High.
“It’s funny because when I wrote that song with Bryan Simpson and Ryan Tyndell, we started off with this kind of dark western ballad. We kind of hit a wall thinking the world is really heavy and the song is really heavy, so we totally switched gears and got into this tune which is really quite the opposite. Once we were on it I think that song jumped out in an hour, and Cow Pie High is a true part of the story. I grew up in a small town and all of the city kids used to kind of turn up their noses and give us crap because our high school was out in the country where all the farm kids lived, so they named it Cow Pie High. I actually was the Homecoming Queen in my senior year.”
Hailey has become another queen of sorts, as her downhome lyrics and simple but catchy melodies have made her the Queen of the Heartland. In fact, some people believe that she brings a fresh new musical perspective to Nashville that has been lacking. Justin Curto of Vulture Magazine says that she’s “The voice for a part of America that Nashville often overlooks.”
“I didn’t necessarily set out to do that but I’m very honoured to be thought of that way,” Hailey admits. “For me the record’s scenery is very Midwest-centric but that’s mostly because that’s how I grew up. That’s the lens I had to look through, and it’s a little more cornfields and ball caps than cowboy hats. I think whether you come from the north, south or west coast, my hope is that there are some very universal elements on this record. It’s about growing up in a small town, and about some of the values and characteristics you derive from that. I’m very proud to be from the Midwest and if I’m going to be the voice for it, I’m happy to. That’s very cool.”
When you listen to Hailey’s songs about farms and small town life, it brings to mind the work of John Mellencamp. Nowhere is this connection greater than on the upbeat “Middle Of America”, which is propelled by a guest vocal from American Aquarium vocalist BJ Barham who very much sounds like Mr. Cougar in his prime.
“John Mellencamp was a big influence on me growing up,” she says. “I remember having a box set of his which I took from my parents. I just loved his music but I had no idea how big of an artist he was. I just really resonated with his songs. In hindsight I can see that it looks like he’s talking about where I came from. I feel like “Middle Of America” is a bit of a tribute to him in trying to do the Midwest justice in a way that “Small Town” or “Pink Houses” did. I’m so happy with the way it turned out and I’m happy that BJ got on it because I think his vocals elevated the song.”
Hailey’s last album “The Dream” earned wide critical praise and racked up 75 million global artist streams making her an over-night star, although it was 10 years in the making. One of the lines in Marty Stuart’s song “Sundown In Nashville” says, “Each evening at sundown in Nashville, they sweep broken dreams off the street.” Hailey laboured for 10 years in Music City and she was within a hair of having her dreams swept away when her big break came, thus providing hope for the many young artists there that continue to work at their craft.
“For 10 years I just had blinders on,” she says. “I was running full speed ahead trying to break through the wall and make something happen. Toward the end of that time I wasn’t where I wanted to be as an artist, and I was back to waiting tables. I was really frustrated and broken hearted and I started to have some serious doubts about my career path. For the first time I was genuinely questioning whether I should just hang it up, move on home to Iowa, say I tried, and figure out something else. It kind of took me getting to that point to be able to put everything I had into “The Dream”. I put that record out and it just absolutely 180 changed everything for me. It’s allowed me to do music full time and it’s such a big part of the reason that I get to do another record.”
Beyond “Raised”, Hailey is nominated for a Grammy at the upcoming awards show for “A Beautiful Noise”, a song she co-wrote for Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile. She wraps up her Heartland Tour in early May with two very special engagements at the DancMor Ballroom in Swisher, which is located a stone’s throw from her hometown of Shuey in Iowa. (“I was always a little envious of my older relatives who got to experience the DancMor when it was a hopping place so it was a goal of mine to bring it back to life a little.”) After that you can probably find her decompressing “In A Field Somewhere” as per the album’s penultimate track.
“I learned how to drive in cornfields and I used to go running through cornfields with boys from my high school, drinking beer. I got engaged in a cornfield. To this day when I go home and visit my parents’ house, my favourite thing to do is just park a lawn chair in the cornfield. It’s kind of a holy place for me where I can unwind and think about life.”
Other Country Stuff
Alberta’s Dan Davidson has released his newest EP “6 Songs To Midnight”, which debuted at #1 on the iTunes sales chart in Canada. The six track collection is more than just another EP release for Dan – it’s being offered as a “thank you” to fans as he embarks on the next chapter of his career. “This record is, in many ways, the period of a sentence of an important part of my growth as an artist,” Dan says. The album features fan favourites such as his collaboration with The Road Hammers on “Roll With It,” the heartwarming track “I Do“, the drinking anthem “Role Models“, plus two unreleased songs, a live recording of “Don’t Judge a Beer By The Label” and a taste of Dan’s next chapter with “Blindspot.”
Platinum-selling country stars James Barker Band celebrate a major career milestone with the announcement of their fourth #1 at Canadian country radio with “New Old Trucks,” featuring 14x Grammy-nominated selling artist Dierks Bentley. This most recent #1 comes just in time for the award-winning quartet to celebrate with fans across the country as they get set to head out on the road this spring on Dallas Smith’s Some Things Never Change Tour 2022.
Calgary’s breakout country rocker and multi 2022 Country Music Alberta Awards nominee Devin Cooper will release his debut album “Good Things” on March 25. Having spent the past three years travelling between Nashville and Calgary, writing songs and performing over 350 shows across Canada, Devin has taken the time to develop and discover his voice as an artist. He’s chomping at the bit to play his new songs live and says he ”Can’t wait to get back on the road, do some shows, and meet some new fans this summer.”
We close this month with two hot new singles by a couple of southern Ontario acts, Johnson’s Creek and One Ugly Cowboy.
The Johnson Creek boys are back with “Burn It Up”, a two-and-a-half minute thing of beauty that will have you breaking out the air guitar and singing along to the chorus.
Equally catchy is One Ugly Cowboy’s “I Love Watcha Do”, propelled by Jane Sowerby’s raunchy vocals and Richard Zwic’s soaring guitar. As Jane suggests in the first verse, this one’s “Gonna knock your socks off!” Be sure to check out One Ugly Cowboy at their rescheduled dates at the El Mocambo on May 20 and 21 with The Road Hammers.