When Hailey Whitters was writing songs for her new album Raised (out March 18), she found herself returning to a place both familiar and inspiring in her hometown of Shueyville, Iowa: the cornfield.
"About four o'clock, I'd take a bottle of wine out to the cornfield and park a lawn chair and just kind of sit and think. Whitters tells Wide Open Country. "It's kind of a holy place for me."
Whitters, who's written songs recorded by Alan Jackson, Little Big Town and more, writes and sings about her own kind of country -- one that's thoroughly Midwestern and, most importantly, centered on the places -- and people -- who made her who she is today. Drawing inspiration from folks from back home ("Boys Back Home," "Middle of America") and her own family history on songs such as "Big Family" and "Our Grass is Legal." ("My grandpa was a sod farmer," Whitters says. "He called himself the 'grass man' and a lot of people started calling him thinking he was selling pot. So he made his motto 'Whitters Turf Farms: Our Grass is Legal.'" Whitters' Aunt Cindy appears in a skit leading into the song.)
Now based in Nashville, Whitters' approach to songwriting hasn't always been embraced in Music City.
"Sometimes you get feedback on songs within the industry, like, 'Oh, that's a little too specific. It's a little too niche. Nobody's gonna know what you're talking about. You need to broaden it.' To be honest, I think that sometimes the more specific it is, the more universal it becomes," Whitters says. "Everybody has a grandmother's old sweater with a hole in the shoulder and knows exactly what you're talking about, you know?"
But Whitters has stayed true to her vision. Raised on the story songs of '90s country radio, such as Tim McGraw's "Red Rag Top" and The Chicks' "Traveling Soldier," and Heartland heroes John Mellencamp and Bob Seger, she's made a career out of writing what she knows. Where her sophomore album The Dream chronicled her decade-plus journey to make it as a singer-songwriter in Nashville, Raised is an ode to Whitters' midwestern roots.
"It would be inauthentic for me to write a record about growing up in the south because I didn't grow up in the south," she says. "I think that hopefully a lot of the bigger elements are probably very universal and people from all over can feel them...But, for me, the scenery -- it's cornfields, it's chert rock roads, it's boys in ball caps instead of cowboy hats. I think that's just me being able to talk through the lens of where I grew up, which was the midwest."
Her love and respect for her rural roots shine on songs like "In a Field Somewhere" and"Middle of America," an epic Heartland rocker worthy of "Pink Houses"-era Mellencamp, featuring B.J. Barham of American Aquarium.
"I just admire him as an artist, as a writer. I love the way he thinks," Whitters says of Barham. "It's been really fun getting to write some things with him. We had recorded 'Middle of America' and, with just me on it, it felt a little flat to me. I was like, 'We need something here. This isn't really doing it for me yet.' I think [Barham] brought some of that rough, raw, edgy Heartland rock element that was so desperately needed. He definitely took it to the next level and made the song what it is."
The song, which mentions a fight to save a family farm, hits close to home for Whitters.
"I come from a family of farmers. My aunt had an animal farm. My grandpa had a sod farm. My dad is a crop farmer. I just remember not that long ago, driving around western Iowa and seeing a bunch of signs saying Stop the Airport. Save the Farms. [I wondered] what's going on here? Then I learned about eminent domain and... the state wanted an airport so they were taking these farms away from these people that had been in their family for generations -- their entire livelihood. I understand that maybe in some ways it's better for the entire community to have the airport, but it really made me sad that people could be losing these farms."
Whitters builds on the patchwork tapestry of Raised with "College Town," about a small town girl going off to the big city (or at least a slightly larger city) and coming back with "a whole new opinion her parents don't share" and the Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon co-write "Boys Back Home" ("They ain't scared of nothin' except for your brothers/ They walk like their daddies and marry girls like their mothers/ Their dreams are Carhart and chrome, the boys back home," Whitters sings.)
Whitters doesn't shy away from exploring the pain and anxieties that come from feeling like an outsider in a small town on the moving "Pretty Boy," which she wrote with Tom Douglas and Scooter Carusoe.
"I was thinking a lot about the kind of the boys I grew up with.... I just have so much respect for those boys. I grew up with a lot of brothers, a lot of uncles, a lot of very strong men in my family. [They were] kind of raised with that tough, be strong, be a man kind of mentality. I think, in some ways, a little bit of that is productive for boys and girls growing up," Whitters says. "But I also think that it can reach a line sometimes where I feel it can be very damaging -- for boys especially. There's a lot of expectation for boys, societal pressure -- 'Don't cry. Don't be vulnerable. That's weak.' I think that actually being vulnerable is a strength...that song is just to let those boys -- or really whoever needs to hear that song right now -- know it's strong to show your weakness and to be vulnerable. I actually think that that's kind of what makes you more of a man."
Beyond the release of Raised, Whitters has even more to celebrate. She earned her first Grammy nomination, a Song of the Year nod for "A Beatiful Noise," a Brandi Carlile and Alicia Keys duet, which she co-wrote with Ruby Amanfu, Carlile, Brandy Clark, Keys, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Linda Perry.
"I don't think it has fully sunk in yet. A Grammy is something I've always aspired to be able to be nominated for, or win, or be a part of," she says. "Now it's here and it just really doesn't even feel real. I'm just so thankful to even be involved, to have gotten the call that day, to get to sit in a room with some of my heroes and collaborate on a song that's so powerful...I'm very excited to get to go to Vegas and hang out and celebrate with so many people that I love and respect."
'Raised' Track List:
Raised is available to purchase here.
READ MORE: Rooted in Country: Hailey Whitters on The Chicks' 'Wide Open Spaces'
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