When we think of country music and the places from which it is inspired, what comes to mind? Is it the Georgia clay and the Southern stars which have been made such clichés by mainstream artists? Is it Appalachia, whose creeks and coal mines have been brought to life in recent years by the likes of Charles Wesley Godwin and Tyler Childers? Maybe it’s the wild emptiness of west Texas and Oklahoma romanticized by so many names in the Texas and Red Dirt scenes, or even the deserts and canyons depicted by artists like Alice Wallace and Marty Stuart who are striving to keep the “western” part of country and western music alive. But most of us would overlook the Midwest, a place just as “country” as any of the others but often ignored by mainstream and independent artists alike. Hailey Whitters has arrived to rectify this, making a case that the cornfields and sod farms of Iowa can be just as country, and just as romantic, as the mountains of Kentucky and the endless skies of the West.
Whitters' love letter to her hometown of Shueyville, Iowa, and to the Midwesterners who often find themselves left out by even the genre of American music meant to tell the stories of rural people, takes the form of the loosely conceptual album Raised. Raised remains "loosely" conceptual because all of these songs can stand on their own, but taken as an album, they paint a beautiful picture of small-town Midwestern living. Whitters takes the tropes of checklist country and bro country and turns them into thoughtful, nostalgic pieces of commentary on growing up, leaving home, and eventually longing to come back and to embrace a simpler way of life. In the hands of other artists, cornfields and moonlight are the settings for hookups and parties, but in Hailey Whitters' hands, "In a Field Somewhere" illustrates the backdrop for life lessons and marriage proposals. "Boys Back Home" could easily veer into listastic territory celebrating tough guys who drink beer and hang out on tailgates, but instead, Whitters delivers a song about the men who will pull you "out of a ditch or a bar," the ones that helped her to become the person she is today. And a title like "Beer Tastes Better" might give you pause until you hear Whitters' account of catching up with an old friend and recognize the comfort she feels in her hometown, the same comfort so many of us experience when surrounded by the people and places that made us who we are.
Similarly to turning lyrical clichés into meaningful expressions of art, Hailey Whitters also takes a modern country pop sound and expertly demonstrates how the style can be respectful to both country and pop. The songs are built around catchy hooks and infectious melodies, and the album is not without electronic elements. But there are also heavy doses of fiddle and steel all over this record. It's not traditional, but it's the kind of album that pushes the genre forward while still proudly embracing country's roots. It's the type of record we should be recommending to younger listeners to get them properly interested in our beloved country music, the sort of album that showcases the value of pop country for the survival of the genre, if only it is done right.
Hailey Whitters has achieved several significant accomplishments with the recording and releasing of Raised. Firstly, she has captured the beauty of a land so often forgotten and reminded us that, as she says on "Middle of America," even the most ordinary places are "still something to some folks." Secondly, she has proven that even the most worn-out clichés of mainstream country music can be given new life when they are placed in capable songwriters' hands. She has produced an excellent case for the fact that pop country is not inherently bad and that it can even be artful and inspire something as cinematic as a concept album. Lastly, though the record was made to celebrate the people and places of the Midwest, Hailey Whitters has spoken to us all, delivering a timeless album that perfectly captures the beauty of small towns all across America, the burning desire that so many of us have to leave those little map dots, and the sense of home and belonging which only comes from returning.
Raised is available now everywhere you stream or purchase music.