Album Review – Hailey Whitters – “Raised”

When we go back and sift through the chaff of what will be known as country music’s Bro-Country era, there will be a host of women that should have enjoyed huge success somewhere between 2012 and 2017, but didn’t due to the mono-crop nature of what Music Row was growing at the time. And one of those women will be Hailey Whitters. There she was writing for Little Big Town and Alan Jackson, and opening on some big tours. But she wasn’t a Bro, so it was a no go for Hailey.

But despite the odds, Hailey has persevered, and in 2020, released a career album in The Dream. Sensible but smart, it had critical acclaim, but mainstream influence. It was released by Big Loud—the same label behind Morgan Wallen. When she added a few new songs onto the album as a deluxe edition, they were all super country, and super good. She still wasn’t playing arenas, but her persistence had paid off in an audience that straddled the country music cultural divide.

Now for her latest effort Hailey Whitters has returned home to Shueyville, Iowa (pop. 731) to find inspiration for the 17 tracks of her new album Raised. Barring the “Ad Astra Per Alas Porci” intro and outtro, Whitters co-wrote all but one of the tracks, and true to her word, the album takes you right to small town middle America, and like so many of the souls birthed and raised there, it never leaves.

Raised is really an interesting album to ponder. Perusing over the lyrics of many of its songs, you could almost accuse it of being Bro-Country itself. Not dissimilar to a 2015 album from someone like Jason Aldean or Luke Bryan, it’s full of these blustery anthems espousing the virtues of small town life, full of artifactual references to rural norms and implements in a way that canonizes their simplicity and predictability.

“Our grass is legal, and our trucks are diesel. We settle the deal with a handshake,” Hailey sings in one song. Referring to the “Boys Back Home,” Hailey sings, “They’ll pull you out of a ditch or a bar, and they won’t be caught dead in no electric car.” It’s part “Okie From Muskogee,” part John Cougar Mellencamp, and all steeped in a sense of nostalgia for a more simple time and place than most people find themselves in today.

“Everybody Oughta,” “In A Field Somewhere,” and “Beer Tastes Better (In Your Hometown)” really are the exact type of songs you would hear from many of mainstream country music’s male performers, just sung by a female, and sometimes (but not always), from a female perspective. The punchy “Middle of America” featuring American Aquarium backing Hailey Whitters up is downright American Anthemic, making you want to pump your fist for the common folks out there in flyover country getting so commonly forgotten.

So what makes Raised by Hailey Whitters something more than just a female sung Jason Aldean record? It’s the way many of the songs just cut a little deeper, despite all the surface references to fields and beer and trucks. See, it was never that list songs about small towns at the heart of much of Bro-Country were inherently terrible. It was how undercooked and overexposed many of those selections were. Add in rapped lines and electronic beats, and it rendered it all just about nauseating.

But Hailey Whitters proves on Raised that eulogizing small town middle America doesn’t have to be so trite. Whitters and her co-writers like Lori McKenna, Brandy Clark, and Nicolle Galyon know how to take the yearning we all feel for a sense of home, awaken the warm memories of our earlier years, and call to mind the charm of rural life without resorting to the same tired modes, or ignoring some of the hypocrisy and constriction that needs to be referenced to paint the full picture of this life.

One problem though is even with a more refined approach to these type of Heartland songs, there’s still the stigma that hangs in the air about them. And even though these songs cut deeper than Bro-Country, sometimes they still stop short of cutting real deep. “Pretty Boy” says a lot without feeling the need to come right out and say it, “College Town” takes a smart perspective on the rhythms of American life. But “Boys Back Home” and others are heavy on the reflective mood, but light on any enlightening conclusions.

Some more traditional country fans were hoping the bonus tracks on Whitters’ last record symbolized a move towards a more twangy and traditional sound. But just like the songs of Raised come from a Heartland perspective, the music comes with more of a Heartland rock vibe, though with some country songs, and country instrumentation mixed in, qualified with the more mainstream radio approach of the singles “Everything She Ain’t” and especially “The Neon.”

It’s not easy to come to any hard diagnoses about a record like this. In straddling the worlds of the independent and the mainstream, and the commercially viable and critically-acclaimed, you run the risk of not appealing strongly to either. The list like nature of some of the lyricism, and some of the production may turn purists off. But there’s no doubt that when comparing Hailey Whitters to her peers in the mainstream, she’s one of the bright spots, even being able to navigate the difficult task of revitalizing the type of songs Bro-Country sullied for a generation.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.25/10)

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