Dixie Musgraves. That’s the short version, but this is a blog, not a Twitter account, so here are 800 more words on why you should listen to this excellent album.
Hailey Whitters once sang of living in a Ten-Year Town. She broke through in Nashville a decade after moving to Music City whereupon a global pandemic didn’t allow her to tour that breakthrough album The Dream. Collaborations with Trisha Yearwood and Little Big Town boosted her following and now, as she prepares to unleash this masterful album about Small Town America onto the world, she is promoting her music in Europe at long last.
The title track is the first time we hear her voice. It’s Dixie Chicks meets Kacey Musgraves, hymning the rural life that has served her well. The album is a concept album with different spins on the theme of living in the country: tracks like Big Family, Our Grass Is Legal – a Hailey Whitters 100%-er that recalls some of the work Brothers Osborne have done – and Boys Back Home could mix down into a single song but, when the arrangements are so good, why not elaborate on the theme? The melodies are hummable and the rhythms are toe-tappers. As for the voice, it’s purer than Kacey’s.
The poppy single Everything She Ain’t contains the best chorus on the album: it’s the one that goes ‘whiskey in your soda, lime in your Corona’ and that is rather ballsy to use the name of that drink after the last two years. If I were Hailey, I would consider running the song next to There’s Your Trouble because it’s basically a rewrite, albeit one which substitutes June and Johnny for ‘Audrey to your Hank’. There is also fiddle.
Plain Jane picks up the theme of self-expression. It was made with Hillary Lindsey, on which Hailey says she won’t change for anybody, ‘love me or hate me…That’s how God made me, how my mama raised me’. This will connect with thousands of young women who are ‘a little more Messed-Up Mary than Plain Jane’. There lies a t-shirt slogan.
Pretty Boy, written with Scooter Carusoe and the legendary Tom Douglas, sounds like a career song: in an era of male vulnerability, being sensitive is cool. Hailey offers a song to guys who find it hard to be themselves and strong, who have ‘always been a bit different’. Thousands of young men will etc etc.
BJ Barham of American Aquarium, a man who has made vulnerability into art, pops up on Middle of America, which is effortlessly poppy and cinematic and has been given an outing Hailey’s recent live sets. ‘A whole lotta nothin’s still something to some folks’ is a great line, as is the hook where folk are ‘left right in the middle of America’. It’s great when a top songwriter gets the spotlight too. That song, by the way, was written with Bobby Pinson, who is best known for Toby Keith tunes like Beers Ago and Made In America.
College Town is a killer tune, one of two tunes written with the mighty Nicolle Galyon (the others are Raised and Big Family. As I was listening to College Town, which is basically the continuation of the story of the girl from Wide Open Spaces coming back to the less wide open spaces, I said out loud: What a great song. College life can change a person but ‘they don’t teach you in school’ what you learn at college. Again, this will impact so many young women, who already have fine role models in Carly Pearce and, to a lesser extent, Kacey.
Since she wrote every song here, Hailey’s personality is all across the album. Whenever Lori McKenna writes her last song, Hailey will pick up the baton. Lori was in the room for both The Neon, a heartbreak song where Hailey heads to the bar to ‘get back on that barstool again’, and Beer Tastes Better, which picks up the themes of College Town because it’s always better to hang out in your hometown reminiscin’ about stuff.
Elsewhere, Everybody Oughta offers advice on how to live a country way of life – heartbreak, alcohol, music, ‘a real good dog’ – set to a warm production which lets the arrangement breathe. In A Field Somewhere ends the album, discounting the instrumental coda: it starts with Hailey learning to drive, then moving to drinking, smoking, swimming and finding love. With a fiddle chugging away, Hailey reminds the listener that ‘life in good’ in the country just as she has done in the preceding 45 minutes.
Hailey Whitters will be back in the UK soon, and I am writing this even before she impresses the big arenas with her take on a country way of life. As country music tries to sell itself (out) to city folk, there is still joy in celebrating the small towns of America.