How her storytelling country songs found a wider audience by getting in with the right crowd.
Hailey Whitters' new album, The Dream, has opened up new pathways for the rising country singer/songwriter, and she’s even been dubbed "Nashville's newest unsigned star" by Rolling Stone. But the album was almost her swan song.
"This was my last-ditch effort at making a record I loved and believed in," reveals Whitters, who moved to Music City from small-town Iowa in 2007. "Ten Year Town," the album's opener, is a heartfelt ode to all she's put into her career. "I had hit my 10-, 11-, 12-year mark in town," she says, "and I was starting to wonder if my role was in Nashville and if I was supposed to be here still. I kind of gave up on it and went to make this record like, 'If this is the last record I'm gonna make, if I'm gonna move back to Iowa after this, I just want to make something I love.'"
Whitters' appearance on Spotify playlists can be seen as both evidence of The Dream's success and a contributing factor to its forward momentum; her song "The Days" is included in the On Our Radar playlist for March. "I knew it was on [Spotify's] radar for sure," says Whitters, "but I'm so grateful for the playlisting opportunity they've given the record."
As an artist aiming for the brass ring without big-label backing, she's seen the difference that playlist placement makes firsthand at her shows. "To be able to walk out on stage and see fans already singing the words back to me is a really cool feeling," Whitters says.
The attention garnered from Spotify playlist exposure has been a crucial boost. Whitters hasn’t missed out on the effect they’ve had on the trajectory of her music. She says, "Definitely people are just finding out about me and hearing about me more and more thanks to playlists, streaming, the press—all those things in combination."
Coming into her own
Even though Whitters is busting out as a performer right now, she's not new to the music scene. She also occupies another of Nashville's most respected roles: songwriter, and her success in having her tunes cut by top-tier country stars helped put her on her path. She says it all came out of "years of grinding, years of co-writing four to five days a week, just building my catalog. I had a cut with Alan Jackson [2017's 'The Older I Get'] and Little Big Town [Top 40 country hit 'Happy People'] and Martina [McBride, 'Low All Afternoon' and 'The Real Thing' from 2016's Reckless]. And that started to build my street cred. I always consider myself a songwriter first and foremost, but I've always loved the performing side of it."
From the low-key collection Take It Slow to Fresh Finds: Country, the playlists that include Whitters place her alongside plenty of gifted peers. So who does she listen to on her own time? "I'm kind of all over the place," she says. "I'm constantly listening to music. I'm really interested now in Phoebe Bridgers; I really love her last record and the single she just put out, 'Garden Song.' I love Brent Cobb [whose 'Loose Strings' is on The Dream]; I'm just a huge fan of his songwriting. Lori McKenna [co-writer of three songs on The Dream]—I'm so inspired by the music she makes, and her artistry."
Whitters is a storyteller at heart, so hearing one of her songs is like walking into a three-minute novel. And the more mileage they get from the playlisting universe, the wider the audience for those stories becomes. That fact isn't lost on Whitters. "I get an email every time one gets added to a playlist," she says. "I feel like the way the industry is running, people are able to discover music more commonly, and they can just open up a Spotify app and hear somebody like me who doesn't have a record label and doesn't have radio support, and they can become a fan and come to live shows. For an artist like me it kind of just makes my music more available to the masses."
Whitters had an opportunity to share some of her hard-won career wisdom on the podcast Surviving the Music Industry. She says her best advice to music-makers is, "Just do what you do best and focus on that. Tune out the noise, tune out what everyone else is doing; find the people who inspire you, that you believe in, and the people that believe in you, and create from that place. You'll go crazy otherwise."
With The Dream, holding tight to her beliefs served Whitters well. "I think seeing the response to this record in general has been very validating," she says, "in that it's important to do what you believe in." It doesn't look like she'll be heading back to Iowa after all. "I don't think anytime soon," she laughs. "Except maybe to buy a farmhouse or something."