Hailey Whitters logs onto our Zoom meeting fresh-faced with her hair in two perfectly braided pigtails hanging over her denim jacket and smiles at the mention of her new album Raised saying “I’m so excited!” She’s living The Dream which not-so-coincidentally is the title of her debut album detailing the 12-years she spent pursuing a career in Nashville. Hailing from Shueyille, Iowa, Whitters grew up in the scenic country environment so often depicted in the lyrics of the very music she aspired to make. “I was [a] starry-eyed naive teenager. I didn’t know anything about the business,” she says to me about her arrival in Nashville at the age of 17. But in a town that chews many hopeful artists up and spits them out, there was nothing naive about Whitters’ perseverance. Her 2020 breakthrough song “10 Year Town” is what set the wheels in motion for the success of her first album, Grand Ole Opry debut, tours with Luke Combs and Maren Morris, a 2022 Grammy nomination, and now the release of her sophomore album.
Sitting before me on the other side of my screen, Whitters is still the same small-town girl at heart laughing at how she wore her 14-year-old cousin’s overalls and a borrowed cowboy hat that fell in pig shit for the album cover of Raised. She didn’t find her voice in Nashville, she simply found the megaphone she needed to make her music reach the right ears. The song “Ad Astra Per Alas Porci” bookends the new album and is also her motto translating from Latin to English as “to the stars on the wings of a pig”. For Whitters, the phrase touches on the impossible “when pigs fly” idea and likens it to finding success in Nashville. Pigs may never fly but they did (in some way) make it onto a country album cover. The same album that Whitters went back to her roots for and channeled her memories into detailing over 17 songs the experiences that gave her those seemingly impossible wings. Throughout our conversation, she opens up about the values her upbringing instilled in her, that Grammy nomination, and the story behind her overall cowboy hat-wearing album cover.
For someone who isn’t familiar with Iowa, how would you explain your hometown of Shueyville?
Shueyville has about 600 people, two bars, a church—life is all about balance. It was a great place to grow up, my house was surrounded by cornfields, [and] my family is massive so there was always something going on. I feel very fondly about my childhood, I had I guess a very “normal” childhood. [I] grew up outdoors, riding four-wheelers, hunting, fishing, camping [and] all those kinds of things. Just an idyllic little small-town upbringing.
What is your favorite memory of music from your childhood?
Going to the county fair, every once in a while someone would come through and my parents would always buy tickets to go there. I remember one time—it was a high school dance so I was getting ready to go to the dance—and my parents called me like hey we just got Brooks & Dunn tickets, do you wanna come? I actually bailed on the school dance and went to Brooks & Dunn. My dad put me up on his shoulders [and] anytime I got to see something like that it made me nervous but also excited and envious because I just knew I wanted to do that and I didn’t know how to do it. I really think those early concert experiences are a large part of the reason I’m here today because anytime I went it lit a fire in me. [It] made me go home, practice my guitar and write new songs and inspired me to try and get here somehow.
I read that a guidance counselor suggested you write your own songs in fifth grade, do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yeah, I wrote a song called “This Kind Of Stuff” and it was about my boyfriend at the time, obviously, [laughs] and how our love was so strong and our parents didn’t want us to be together but they don’t know anything about love anyways.
You have a 2022 Grammy nomination for your songwriting on “A Beautiful Noise”. What does this recognition mean to you and was this part of the dream when you moved to Nashville?
It was one of those things where you’re like yeah sure I’d love to win a Grammy but I don’t think that’s gonna happen. To even be nominated is a huge honor so I really can’t believe that it’s happening—I don’t know if it’ll sink in until we’re actually at the show. That song was such a privilege to be a part of, I respect and look up to all of those women. I’m a total nerd for even getting to be involved, it was a song that we all wrote remotely on Zoom so some of these women I haven’t even gotten to meet yet. The whole experience has been top of the list, dreams that you aspire and hope to see come true at some point.
Your album ‘The Dream’ is about a girl who’s persevering and ‘Raised’ is about what gave her strength, can you share where that strength comes from?
It came from [watching] the people in my town [and] watching my dad build a business. I remember hard work has always been something that has been expected, you work hard and you hope that at some point you get to see the fruits of your labor. I think that’s probably the reason I’ve hung on as long as I have because I was brought up with the mindset that nothing’s easy—especially nothing great comes easy—you work hard, keep your head down and maybe one day you get to see some of that reward.
What do you hope listeners take away from ‘Raised’?
I hope it makes them smile, laugh or be able to look back on how they grew up and think of good memories. A lot of this record probably feels midwest centric but that’s because that was the lens I had to look through [and] the scenery I had to be able to talk about my experience. My hope though is it feels universal and there’s something in this record that resonates with them, makes them look fondly on their own upbringing, and feel a little bit closer.
You moved to Nashville at a young age and came into your own in a new city, how did the environment influence your transition from a teenager to an adult?
It was such [a] gradual transition I moved here when I was 17 so in a lot of ways I grew up here. I was [a] starry-eyed naive teenager I didn’t know anything about the business, I kind of jumped in and tried to meet as many people as I could. I’ve been fortunate to always have great people around me and I’m thankful for that because I probably would have fallen for anything [laughs]. I’ve been lucky to be around people who cared about me and were always looking out for me.
How have you changed as an artist and person since moving to Nashville?
I showed up here with a strong sense of who I was, what I wanted to say, and what I wanted to do. Over time, this town can sort of water you down and try and make you like everything else. For a minute I felt like I was totally lost I don’t think I knew who I was anymore and through the process of making this record, I found my way back. I like to think at the core I’m still very much the same and I hope when I go home they think I’m still the same girl that left that place. I hope that I’m always growing, changing, and becoming better versions of myself but at the same time I don’t ever want to lose sight of that girl that grew up there. There are so many great things about that naive aspiration to want to leave and to chase a dream.
You made your Opry debut in 2019 which was a milestone for you, what was the most memorable part of the night?
Just the night happening, the Opry has been such a lighthouse for me throughout the years. It’s the place I always went [to] if I ever felt sad or frustrated with the business [and] it always reignited the magic and love for country music in me. When I moved here that was the #1 goal to get to play the Grand Ole Opry, so to be standing there on that stage 12 years later having that moment, and seeing that dream come true was absolutely surreal.
How was performing at the C2C festival in London? Is there a difference playing in a city where American country music isn’t as ingrained in the culture?
It was amazing and if it’s not ingrained in their culture I sure as heck could not tell. They showed up, packed the place out, [and] sang every single word. It was the biggest show I’d ever played in my career. There were about 14,000 people there, [in a] big arena, and I played “Janice” which is a very lyrically driven song and one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever gotten to be a part of. I played that song and I see all the lighters go up in the room like way back in the nosebleeds and that feeling was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. They made me feel so loved and made me and my music feel so appreciated. I am really excited to hopefully get back there and play again soon.
For your visuals, you have your creative director Harper Smith who grew up 20 mins away from you. When did you start working together and what does collaboration between the two of you look like?
“10 Year Town” came out and some of the team started to really build out but Harper I don’t think came on until “Heartland” which was the fourth single. We went back home to Iowa and this is much like every shoot we’ve ever done—we don’t really have a plan. We’ll go vintage shopping, buy a bunch of things, and stuff ‘em in the car and then we drive around and maybe scout out a few locations but it’s all very loose and on a whim. For this Raised record, we were like let’s just go to Iowa, we bought the clothes—well some of the clothes we didn’t even buy! In the album artwork, I’m wearing my 14-year-old boy cousin’s overalls. I was like I need overalls for this! And he was like you want mine? He went and changed and I put ‘em on.
[For the] cowboy hat, we called my aunt. I wanted to go shoot at her barn and I said are you home? Can I come over? And she was like we’re at the kids having a rodeo right now, why don’t you come over we’re in Anamosa, [Iowa]. So we drove out and ended up shooting a whole music video at the rodeo. Another teenage boy was making fun of the cowboy hat I had on, he told me it wasn’t the right cowboy hat for summer so he gave me his hat that had dropped in pig shit. I still have it, it has a little stain on it [laughs] I put it on and wore it for the music video and artwork. There’s a really natural chemistry between Harper and me and a great level of trust. We just go have fun and somehow we’ve been lucky that things work out in a very authentic [and] organic way.
What does vulnerability mean to you as an artist?
I think [it] means being authentic, telling the truth, [and] not being afraid to tell your story [or] express how you feel. That’s what’s so special about country music is it’s very honest [and] wear your heart on your sleeve. That’s why a lot of listeners are drawn to country music because you can feel connected to someone and there’s a lot of strength in vulnerability.
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