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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March 23, 2022 @ 8:28 am
Great review. I was really looking forward to this album but was a little underwhelmed. Love her voice but the lyrics were nothing special as you mentioned
(Me and) Paul
March 23, 2022 @ 8:35 am
I really enjoyed some of the bonus tracks on her last album but felt most of the original was fairly so-so. I think this entire album is overall an improvement even if some of the lyrics are fairly pedestrian.
March 23, 2022 @ 8:57 am
Same feeling. Thought some of her songs on her last album definitely were tighter lyrically. They also had deep subject matter before. Some of these songs felt much more generic and canned. Closer to the I’m country because of this list songs that contemporary artists do now days. I need more Janice at A Hotel Bar less Boys Back Home. But overall it’s still definitely on the top 10 percent of Contemporary Country right now so I can’t blame her for trying to get paid and get a hit on radio via this record which is what I assume is trying to be done by her team. Otherwise her major lable days maybe done soon if she don’t produce for them soon charts wise.
March 23, 2022 @ 9:02 am
when you listen to songs like “Glad to Be Here” with Brett Cobb you can hear what potential she has to be a true country singer with good songs. First time I listened to her was when I heard that song. After listening to this I am a bit disappointed. Not bad by any means but clearly not what I was expecting/hoping for.
March 23, 2022 @ 9:20 am
Nothing special. Middle of America is kinda cool.
Jerry Clower's Ghost
March 23, 2022 @ 9:49 am
I wish I was in that corn silo.
March 23, 2022 @ 10:04 am
I really like this record. “The Neon,” “Everybody Oughta,” and “Boys Back Home” are standouts for me, and I think each of them has a country sound and an overall country “feel.” I agree that some of the songs have weaker lyrics than I was hoping for/expecting, but it’s overall a solid project that makes me (who grew up in New England cities) feel like I had Hailey’s upbringing or at least a version of it. It’s clear the music is authentic to her and the Heartland rock/country mix is a potent one, in my estimation.
Hailey is also such a skilled live performer, and that’s a really big reason that she’s a bright spot in the contemporary country world as well. I saw her in Boston last month and she killed it from the stage presence to the vocals to the guitar, banjo, and tambourine playing. 2/2 guns up for Hailey!
March 23, 2022 @ 10:08 am
I wouldn’t give this a single shot from a 410. This is nothing special or that good. I can’t agree with this review but I respect the view of the writer.
March 23, 2022 @ 10:29 am
I don’t understand your rating system, to tell you the truth. You admit that she sounds like bro-country but that her songs go a little deeper than that, and you give her a 7.25. Yet Ned LeDoux only got a 7.5!
March 23, 2022 @ 10:45 am
You should see what the latest Staind-“country” album got. The numbers are not really super important but I like the site anyway.
March 23, 2022 @ 11:02 am
Well, my ratings are based on the album not the artist. And I’ll say it again: Aaron Lewis by all accounts is a blowhard. He also released a pretty good album.
Jerry Clower's Ghost
March 23, 2022 @ 11:14 am
I’m confused. Your “ratings are based on the artist, [not] the album”?
Am I right that was a typo?
I’ve also never seen you state this before. I always thought the ratings and guns up were album grades.
March 23, 2022 @ 11:21 am
If it was up to me, I would never post grades. They’re too analytical. We’re posting grades on art, which is inherently subjective? But I get even more complaints when I don’t post grades than when I do. So I post them, reluctantly, and ambiguously, hoping to entice people to read the review to decipher what they really mean.
Jerry Clower's Ghost
March 23, 2022 @ 11:45 am
Your typo comment said the ratings were based on the artist, not the album. That’s why I was confused. But you’re actually saying the ratings are based on the album, not the artist, and THAT’S why we’ve previously been confused about the album grades. If you’re taking in to consideration the way an album is released, or where it’s being released, then that’s not really basing the grade on the album by itself. It also seems unfair to albums that aren’t supported by a mainstream label. I don’t think anyone has a problem with the album grades being used. It’s just weird that they’re not better wired to the review. Sorry if I’m not explaining my thoughts on this well.
March 23, 2022 @ 12:47 pm
LOL, the best Staind- record is still terrible to my ears but to each their own. It’s absolutely not country by any stretch whatever you want to rate it. But it’s not like Staind- was evermore than a hybrid of Nu-metal and emo. So not exactly starting with a good foundation. Bless his heart for trying though!
March 23, 2022 @ 11:00 am
“I don’t understand your rating system, to tell you the truth.”
Good. Because it’s purposely meant to be confusing and ambiguous so that people pay more attention to the review itself—where the true opinion of a record resides—as opposed to the rating.
More specifically, I thought the Ned LeDoux album was better, so it got a better rating. But you also have to consider how an album is being released, and judge it next to its peers. Ned LeDoux released a recording into the independent music world of country cowboys. Hailey Whitters released a record on the same label as Morgan Wallen in the mainstream. In the mainstream, Hailey’s record scores in a higher percentile than most, even if compared to Ned LeDoux, it might seem much worse. That is the reason you’ve got to read the reviews, and not just trust the ratings.
March 23, 2022 @ 11:12 am
That’s an extremely well thought-out response. Thanks for taking the time to clarify!
Jerry Clower's Ghost
March 23, 2022 @ 11:20 am
Why not just drop the grades altogether? Readers like Jerry, and im sure most everyone else here, aren’t just skipping to the grades. If we’re confused by the review vs grades, then that means we’re reading your reviews. It’s just that some of the grades don’t make very much sense after reading reviews like this one that have more criticism than praise.
I also don’t agree with giving mainstream releases a pass, so to speak. Why do records that have major label support and all that goes with that somehow deserve a handicap when it comes to album grades?
March 23, 2022 @ 1:39 pm
Again, when I don’t include a grade—which I do sometimes—the complaints are louder than when I do.
I don’t give any album “a pass,” mainstream or otherwise. But it is fair to judge music alongside its peers, so how a grade a mainstream album is different than an independent one, or a bluegrass one, or a folk one. That’s yet another reason to not take the grades themselves too seriously, and instead focus on the review itself.
March 24, 2022 @ 11:33 am
“Good. Because it’s purposely meant to be confusing and ambiguous so that people pay more attention to the review itself”
i hope you really go deep on doing this. give things shitty number ratings that you gave great written reviews, and vice versa. kinda like a VH brown M&M move.
March 23, 2022 @ 10:39 am
Tough crowd in the comments!! This record is so lively and fun and a showcase for fiddle and great detail in the lyrics. I guess I like feeling happy?? I also think that Hailey is even sort of rebellious in her choice to lovingly look at the normalcy of her home and upbringing, rather than trying to burn it down in some kind of cynical revolt. To me, that gratitude makes it a really sweet and interesting listen compared to a lot of independent releases.
March 23, 2022 @ 10:41 am
Wow. A promo photo of a Nashville lady singer that actually looks country. The world must be ending.
March 23, 2022 @ 11:57 am
I personally think that this record is a standout. At the show I went to, I was surrounded by millennial women who were all singing along to country music. It isn’t pop music with a twang, it isn’t Americana, it’s just country. I think that’s rare to find right now. Maybe this record resonates more with women than with men. 2/2 guns up from me.
March 23, 2022 @ 1:25 pm
I really like her and really like the album. From what I can make out, she is a decent person for starters, which always helps.
The extra tracks on her last album deluxe version were superb.
This album reminds me of earlier Kacey and a bit of Miranda. There are a lot of tunes across this album. Very enjoyable.
March 23, 2022 @ 2:51 pm
agree on the Kacey and Miranda feeling, it’s not Mckenna deep but still a smart, fun and well executed mainstream country record
March 23, 2022 @ 5:11 pm
I agree with Will and Amy above. I really like this album and might even grow to love it. At the very least I think it’s honest and from the heart. It’s Country, sounds great in the car, and Jake’s production is A+ once again. That and the fact they put out the single and only one other song in advance so it’s all fresh. Got that new album smell! I gotta admit I was a little nervous when I first heard Neon a couple weeks ago but that’s only one song and it’s ok. She was great here in February so much so that might I make the trip to Milwaukee to see the Pardi, Lainey, Hailey show in Sept. since it isn’t coming here. You’re right Trig it’s tough walking that independent and mainstream line while trying to make a living and maintain integrity. That’s the way the business has been for decades. I like her and hope she does well.
March 23, 2022 @ 7:44 pm
I don’t give a flip about critics. Most of then wouldn’t know a harmonic scale if their life depended on it (Trigger excluded as he is a musician). I have kind of a Kid Rock attitude without the language and rap of course.
What I am picking up here is a woman singing bro-country home town songs with good musical overlay. And because she is a woman who has been neglected, that makes it all right.
If the EXACT same songs, at least the samples above, were sang by Aldean, etc. with the exact same music, I doubt it would have gotten whatever in the heck a 7.5 is. Hence, I smell an agenda. That is what most “critics” have though not referring to Trigger specifically. I think he is as even-handed as you will find. But this review looks like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and claiming how good it goes together.
By the way, I like her stuff decently. Keep up the good work Trigger. You have exposed me to artists I probably would not have heard otherwise. Love ya though you have picked a profession one step above prostitution (LOL).
March 24, 2022 @ 6:14 am
I like her, and this album, a lot. Yes, it does sound like a woman singing bro-country, but I’m ok with it. It also reminds me a lot of Kacey Musgraves first 2 records that I really liked.
April 6, 2022 @ 5:38 am
The problem with country music critics is that they talk almost exclusively about the lyrics and gloss over the music. The grooves and melodies on this record have an effortless complexity that is genius, if they cared to listen.