Pigasus Records / Sons & Daughters / Big Loud Records
Release Date: March 18th 2022
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- Ad Astra Per Alas Porci
- Everything She Ain’t
- Big Family
- Middle of America (feat. American Aquarium)
- Plain Jane
- College Town
- Boys Back Home
- Everybody Oughta
- Pretty Boy
- The Neon
- The Grassman
- Our Grass is Legal
- Beer Tastes Better
- In a Field Somewhere
- Ad Astra Per Alas Porci (Reprise)
Some albums come along and take you by surprise, in either a good way or bad, and that’s certainly the case with Hailey Whitters’s new album Raised, quite possibly one of the albums of the year that is genuinely a feel-good album. While a lot more country albums this year have a lot more instrumental intentionality and come across as having a lot more anthems and power ballads, this new album from Hailey seems to buck the trend, and this time delivers something sweet and innocent, alongside it being small town-ish. It’s a reminder for each of us, that country album releases need not to be grand and gusto for it to have heart, emotion, passion and soul, something that Hailey (and this album) has in oodles. But let me just say from the outset- I don’t know much about Hailey or her music. Sometimes I still don’t. Only that her song ‘Raised’ was on rotation on Spotify once upon a time, and then I thought ‘let’s check it out’, thinking ‘Raised’ was a single. Then I found out it was a 17 track album, and the rest is history. No other prior information. Nothing else. Even though I haven’t heard of Hailey’s music prior to this album, Raised is actually her third- she’s been writing music for quite some time, and has even written for superstar country band, Little Big Town (their 2017 radio hit, ‘Happy People’, was written by Hailey back in the day).
Hailey’s been in the industry for some time, but it wasn’t until her 2nd album that released in 2020, The Dream, where she was put on the map, and people knew her for her own music, rather than just a songwriter as she was more known for in the past. So, with this new album standing at a whopping 17 tracks (inclusive of 2 interludes, an intro and an outro), Hailey decided to not hold back and deliver arguably one of the most left-field and exciteable country album releases this year (granted, as of me writing this review, I’d have to say that Carrie Underwood’s Denim & Rhinestones would be a highly anticipated country album of the year, and could be a left-field album release, next to Hailey’s). While I didn’t know much about Hailey going into this album, now I’m deciding to consciously choose to listen to her 2 previous albums, going forward, and understand that Hailey the artist is by far one of the most underrated country female artists over the last few years (together with Carly Pearce, Lainey Wilson & Lindsay Ell).
Let me just say that from the outset, this is not a review. Not in the sense of how reviews normally go. How they analyse tempos; and compare songs from albums and see what influences from yesteryear is hidden in the songs now. Because in all honesty and frankness, for someone who’s still relatively ‘new’ to the music of Hailey, and country music in general (I only started listening to country music on the regular, a few years ago); I still don’t know about the things that I assumed I knew a lot about, if that makes sense. Ever since I checked out Grady Smith’s in depth dive into Hailey Whitters and this album, I felt (and still feel) inadequate in ‘reviewing’ this album…because Grady does it so much better. He speaks in such a way that makes me feel as though I’m still an amateur in terms of me and my reviews of country music (I probably still am), but nevertheless, what this body of work will be, instead of a review, is a kind-of musing, about the album as a whole, and a reflection on how Hailey has come to be one of the most underrated female artists within country music, just by hearing this album alone (in my honest opinion). If you do want a review of Raised, then check out his video of it down below- it’s exquisitely done, and if you were to ask my very opinion of Raised, then I’d have to say ‘see Grady’s review. I agree with in 1000%’.
So, what am I writing this for? It’s to remind myself, and others I’m sure, that country music is by far, so much more than the few country songs and artists they have on rotation on the radio all the time, because just like any other genre, country music still falls into the same pitfalls that other genres have. Everyone knows the usual artists within the genre that receive the praise and love all day long- artists like Keith Urban, Luke Coombs, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Florida Georgia Line, Dan + Shay, Lady A, Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Swift, Sugarland, Leann Rimes, Jason Aldean, Brandi Carlisle, Eric Church, Chris Stapleton, Brad Paisley, and Darius Rucker. But what about the up-and-coming artists, the country acts that are gaining traction now, that are seemingly still being put to the side in favour of a lot of these artists I first aforementioned? Artists like Tenille Arts, Tenille Townes, Mickey Guyton, The Shires, Maren Morris, Jana Kramer, Hunter Hayes, Maddie & Tae, Lauren Alaina, Lindsay Ell, Kelsea Ballerini, and now adding to this ever-growing list; Hailey Whitters. Not to say that I dislike all the country artists that radio seem to favour as well. Not at all. I love me some great Keith Urban music, and the group Rascal Flatts would have to be one of my favourite country groups, ever. It’s just that just like any other musical genre, there still seems to be an imbalance- seasoned veterans and tried-and-true legends of a certain particular genre are emphasised more on radio than artists who are starting out. And so, the radio should prioritise these artists ahead of relative unknowns. Nevertheless, how is the next generation of country/pop/CCM/worship/rock artists going to come through and make their mark if the radio stations have their pool of artists that they pick from, and that’s it?
This ‘review’ isn’t meant to ‘bash’ anyone. But what I will say is this- I learned Hailey’s music from Spotify, and if the radios are serious at continuing their craft, they really need to shake up their content, to include both old and new music, to remind listeners that an artist like Kelsea Ballerini or Hailey Whitters has things to say about life, as much as someone like a Taylor Swift or a Shania Twain. Alas, I learnt about Hailey’s music from Spotify (it is what it is). But what I will say is this (and then I’ll direct you to Grady’s review for the ‘real’ in depth album analysis). Hailey’s music is raw, real, honest, emotional, compelling, challenging, and heartfelt. Title track ‘Raised’ is an homage and a respectful nod to the place that raised Hailey (Iowa), while ‘Big Family’ is a reminder that there’s something unique and different about being raised in a big family as compared to a ‘normal’ one- 2 adults and 2 kids. ‘Everything She Ain’t’ sees the persona warning someone else about a relationship they are in, and then offers themselves as the person that they should be dating and with (all done in a super comedic and innocent way), while ‘Plain Jane’ reminds us that people who seem to ‘appear’ as a ‘plain jane’ actually have a few more layers to them- they’re usually the ones who want to break out of their proverbial shells and prove to people that ‘…I ain’t a dime-a-dozen, I’m all or nothin’, love me or hate me, take me or leave me, but don’t try and change me, I’m cool with the way I am, throw shade or praise me, that’s how God made me and how my mama raised me, if you know me, you’ll understand, I’m worn-out blues over straight lace, a little more, “Messed-up Mary”, than “Plain Jane”…’
‘College Town’ delivers a story about a persona’s journey through college (is it autobiographical?) and the events that happen that allow the persona to see that life and all its complexities is so much more than the places you were raised in and believed to know from day dot; while ‘Pretty Boy’ tries to break the stereotypes society seems to place upon men, especially men typecast as the boy next door, the geek, the loner, the best friend, the one that sticks by their female best friend because they want to be chivalrous and not tell their friend they love them so as not to jeopardise their friends ‘actual’ romantic relationship with _____. As Hailey herself gets vulnerable about the stories behind these two songs in particular, we see such vulnerability shown from her, and realise that just because country songs are ‘catchy’, doesn’t mean they can’t be heartfelt and emotional too-
STORY BEHIND COLLEGE TOWN: ‘…I’m very proud and very appreciative of my education, but I remember thinking, “Going to college wasn’t that cool.” You know what I mean? I wanted to go straight into songwriting and be a writer and be an artist and all that. I remember going home a few times and just thinking my parents were just so old-fashioned and had these ideas and beliefs and, “That’s not the way the world works. You guys don’t know. Blah, blah, blah.” I was that girl in that second verse, and it kind of makes me chuckle now. It makes me cringe a little bit, too, but it’s also just like… I just think that, especially that going to college and stuff, that’s been such a thing in our generation and everything, and I just think that there’s so many more things that you learn that aren’t in the textbook. I think that having those four years to really figure out who you are is a really good thing to be able to get the opportunity to do…’
STORY BEHIND PRETTY BOY: ‘…I just feel like that song on the record, I’m really excited, I’m anxious, I am nervous for people to hear it, because I do think it’s just something that I feel like I haven’t really heard anyone say and could be something that people are either going to hate it or love it. But I wrote that song about some of the boys that I know from my town and some of the things that I’ve seen and I just want them to know that it’s cool to be vulnerable, it’s cool to show people who you are, it’s cool to express yourself, to say I love you, to tell someone you love them. Yeah, I’ve seen ways in which I think suppressing a lot of those emotions can really be damaging to a boy, and so I want them to know it’s cool to do that. You know? …’ ‘…I was thinking a lot about the boys that I grew up with. I grew up with three brothers, a bunch of boy cousins and uncles, really wild boys that turned into strong, tough, hard-working men. And I was just thinking about some of the ways in which the expectations we put on boys and men to be tough, to not cry—‘crying’s weak,’ ‘man up,’ things like that. I think that to expect that boys aren’t supposed to cry or show emotion or anything like that, I think that can be a little destructive. So I wanted to write that song to speak to them and tell them that I actually feel like vulnerability is a strength and to let them know that it’s okay and it’s actually really cool to be yourself…’
‘Middle of America’ is a song written as a response to seeing corporations doing whatever they want to take the space and place of hard-working Americans in the middle of the country and ‘modernising’, all in the name of ‘improvement’. The song reminds us all, that sometimes the industries within a certain country that we can overlook (just as common folk), are really the industries that drive the whole economy of the country forward (and these corporations don’t know this, or they do, and they just don’t care). ‘Boys Back Home’ has Hailey remind herself that the ‘boys back home’ are seemingly much more grounded and ‘better’ than the men that she’s known outside of the town she grew up in- meaning that more often than not, people in smaller towns are much more down-to-earth and grounded, than people in the bigger cities and people who have ‘sold out’ to chase the corporate dream; whilst ‘Everybody Oughta’ challenges the everyday man to accomplish a lot of things in their life, in order to increase their life experience, and learn and grow as people (doesn’t mean that everyone will, but everyone oughta). ‘The Neon’ is the album’s lone upbeat track (and therefore seemingly feels a little out of place on this album), but because of the different stylistic change, ‘The Neon’ stands out in all of the right ways- the song speaks about trying to get out there, at least to a bar or just to catch up with friends; after a dark and difficult break-up.
‘Our Grass is Legal’ portrays an honest look at life in Iowa (and maybe every other small town in the country), as it is refreshing for a song to show a life that is honest (even though the song shows life that is ‘rough’ around the edges) over a ‘perfect’ song about life that is really ‘fake’; while ‘Beer Tastes Better’ is really a metaphor about homegrown produce (or even homegrown anything) versus anything else that is ‘imported’ from elsewhere. We all know that food from someone else doesn’t beat what you produce and grow yourself, and what you create with your own two hands gives you a sense of pride that you’ve done something yourself, compared to something that you’ve ‘purchased’ and bought in from…well, not where you are. The album then ends with Hailey’s honest track ‘In a Field Somewhere’, a way of Hailey saying that all of her important experiences happened ‘in a field somewhere’. What she experienced in Shueyville, Iowa is important to her, even though people assume that the only thing there of importance is corn. Yes, there’s corn, but someone’s experiences in a certain place can make the place much more than what people assume it to only be. Or in Hailey’s words herself, ‘…when I say I’m from Iowa, people kind of laugh and roll their eyes and say, ‘What’s up there, corn?’ And there’s a lot of corn. I grew up in a cornfield, and it’s so much more than that to me. I learned how to drive in a field. I used to go out streaking, drinking with the boys from high school. We’d go cut through the cornfield and stay up all night. And I actually got engaged in a cornfield. So it felt really symbolic to me, just growing up and having all of my young life experiences in a field. And still to this day, whenever I go home, my holy place is to grab a bottle of wine and a lawn chair and go out back behind my parents’ house to the cornfield and just sit and listen to music and relax and take it all in and think…’
Hailey’s 3rd album is nothing short of a masterpiece. Even though I don’t know all the ins and outs of Hailey’s music as much as Grady Smith does, I can still see and appreciate someone’s music and craft for what it is- and Hailey has undertaken this album with a lot of grace, humility, poise, and courage, reminding us all not to be ashamed of where we were raised and grew up. That where we came from, shapes us as much as our experiences now. Not to discount our own histories, but to look them straight in the eye, and to acknowledge the things in our past that God has used in our lives up until now, and to be reminded that where we were raised, how we were raised, and who we were raised by, has more of an impact on our lives than we care to know and admit. And if Hailey’s album allows us to undertake such introspection and reflection, then she’s done a great job. Well done Hailey for this masterpiece of an album. Definitely one of my favourites of 2022 thus far. Now here I come, off to listen to The Dream. Anyone else with me?
4 songs to listen to: Raised, College Town, Plain Jane, In a Field Somewhere
RIYL: Lainey Wilson, Tenille Townes, Maren Morris, Morgan Wade, Ingrid Andress