Hailey Whitters on her new album, Grammy nomination and surviving a 'Ten Year Town'

Hailey Whitters returns with a personal, introspective return to her roots on her latest album, "Raised."
Hailey Whitters returns with a personal, introspective return to her roots on her latest album, "Raised."

Iowa-born Nashville resident Hailey Whitters is both currently a Grammy-nominated songwriter and preparing to release "Raised," her third studio album, on March 18. Three years have elapsed since the vocalist surged into Music City's mainstream consciousness via "Ten Year Town," her earnest self-reckoning ballad. Though the song is about trying to make it big in country music, Whitters' frank, unadorned style resonated with listeners and led to her breakout moment.

For an artist who always saw herself as being far from stardom, she's now nearer than ever to massive country and pop appeal. The perspective change hasn't changed her, though. Instead, it's sharpened her focus on her songwriting and career goals.

"I was raised adoring country radio, and artists like Alan Jackson, The Chicks, Trisha Yearwood and more traditional sounds like steel guitars and fiddles," says Whitters. "The first time I heard Alan Jackson's 'Remember When' on the radio at ten years old, it froze me in my tracks. it made me want to aspire to create those feelings with one of my own songs one day."

"Raised" features songs like that, such as "College Town," which is described by Whitters as "on the surface a bop about getting drunk and being young." However, she adds, "there's a storytelling element there, too, because telling stories is what initially attracted me to country music.

In general, she says that erring for classic country's creative aesthetic lent itself to developing a "wide-open feeling" to the album. "These songs are airy, breathe, and organically feel good because there's so much 'rootsiness' in them. That's who I am as a country fan, and that's what I'm bringing to this record."

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The album's lead single, "Everything She Ain't," also features a video that doubles down on the artist's frequent desire to err towards more classic country imagery to match her songwriting urges.

"That's all my creative director Harper Smith," Whitters notes. "She's from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 20 minutes from where I grew up. She's more tapped into who I am visually than I am. She advised me to wear less makeup, and less preparation with my hair to highlight my authenticity. Our partnership has aided my confidence."

Even deeper, the album opens with an instrumental track entitled "Ad Astra Per Alas Porci," which was also the personal motto of her favorite author, John Steinbeck. The Latin phrase translates as "to the stars on the wings of a pig." Thus, it serves as both an homage to Pigasus (a portmanteau of pig and Pegasus, the winged horse famed in Greek mythology) and her self-founded independent label from which she's released her two prior albums.

It also points directly at the soul of who Whitters is as an artist, creator, and human being.

"There are a lot of pig farms in Iowa. But really, it's also talking about how some people could attribute the idea of 'when pigs fly' to thinking about achieving the seemingly impossible goal of succeeding in Nashville. Also, [John] Steinbeck's 'East of Eden' is one of my favorite books because, as he said, 'man must aspire to the stars, even though he is earthbound.''"

Hailey Whitters performs on the RAM stage during the 2021 CMT Music Awards at Bridgstone Arena in Nashville, Tenn, on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.
Hailey Whitters performs on the RAM stage during the 2021 CMT Music Awards at Bridgstone Arena in Nashville, Tenn, on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.

Before the release of her 2020 album "The Dream," Whitters was already pushing ahead with her career aims and recording the music that encompasses "Raised," which she also describes as a "mystical, whimsical and cinematic record."

The musical evolution Whitters experienced came from feeling like she was spinning her artistic wheels in Music City and needing to expand her vision.

"I was homesick and longing for home," Whitters continues. Spending over a decade in Nashville put her into a bit of a creative rut that found her questioning her resolve. "I needed space to sit, think, and have the muse pop out of the sky and just hit me," she adds. "I had to refill my well to inspire myself again. Some may think that's counterproductive, but there I was, spending more time with my friends and family, hearing gossip at my local bar back home, reading books, planting flowers, hiking east of Nashville, and living real life. I couldn't just sit in my room, stare at the wall, and hope a song would jump out from it."

Whitters has not just penned an entire album for herself of late. 2020 found her rediscovering her musical roots — while writing songs for others — via a quarantine trip to her mother's home in Shueyville, Iowa.

"I've written some of my best songs sitting in my backyard back home in Iowa, drinking a beer and watching my chickens run around." This was how she aided in the writing of Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile's duet ballad "A Beautiful Noise," currently nominated for a 2022 Grammy for Song of the Year.

"I was Zooming from my mother's porch with Brandy Clark, and she asked me to pair with Lori McKenna and Hilary Lindsey on a song about the hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote. They're my three biggest songwriting heroes, so we got something started. Then, Brandi Carlile got involved with us on another Zoom, and it ended up with Linda Perry, Ruby Amanfu and Alicia Keys. It's been such a cool collaborative process from start to finish."

With a third album — and potentially a Grammy — in her future, Hailey Whitters appears to have slain Nashville, the mythological beast-as-"Ten Year Town" that spurred her breakout success. However, she remains humble and focused when contemplating what's next.

"I moved here at 17, nine hours away from home, trying to make my way. Nashville was — and still is — really hard. It'll find any reason to disappoint you and send you back home. But I love making music. And as long as you constantly find the willpower to stay here and make music, success is possible."

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Hailey Whitters talks about new album, Grammy nomination and more