If you find yourself driving through the small town of Shueyville, IA, you’ll most likely run into the waves of golden cornfields, two-lane roads, a single stoplight and locals who love to have a good time. For rising country artist Hailey Whitters, this is home.
She may have left behind the Sunday morning brunches with her big family, the four-wheeler rides on her dad’s farm and the memories of her music gigs in a local Chinese restaurant, but she will never forget the wonderful people who raised her to be the person she is today.
Whitters picked up her first guitar in middle school, but it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she began booking shows anywhere that would let her play. Her bedroom was still her musical haven though; a safe place to practice where she was surrounded by inspirational lyrics written across her walls.
Moving to Nashville at the young age of 17 was a dream that became a reality. Whitters shared this rollercoaster of a journey in her 2020 album, The Dream, and now she’s retracing her steps to explain why she came to the 10-year town in the first place. This March, Whitters will take listeners back to her roots in her album, Raised, to introduce the girl in The Dream.
“The Dream was about who I was at the time, my experience with Nashville and the music industry,” Whitters tells Holler from her Nashville home. “It was a record I had to make to talk about my time here. Raised feels like the record I was always going to make. At some point, I was going to talk about where I came from and the people and the place that raised me”.
Each track from this project contains a piece of Whitters' heart, as she talks about the place that made her fall in love with country music, including the local bar where the ‘Beer Tastes Better’ and all the memories shared with her ‘Big Family’ on Sundays.
‘Everything She Ain’t’, the first song released off the forthcoming record, is the “wild child” of the collection - particularly because of its sassy lyrics and powerful undertone. Even in the music video for the song, Whitters relives her high school days when she was crowned homecoming queen of “cow pie high”, the nickname the city kids assigned to her small-town school.
The young girl who started off playing music in local bars and Chinese restaurants has grown into a country artist who is in the midst of her debut headlining tour. Among the 19 stops is the most special one of all - her hometown, which she saved for last. Whitters is ending the tour in the dance hall that had such a big impact on her life and career. It’s her way of showing all her loved ones that she appreciates them for the incredible amount of support and encouragement they have shown her over the years.
Sitting down to reminisce on her hometown, Whitters opens up about the places that have made her not only the country artist, but the person, that we are growing to know and love today.
When you visit your hometown, where is the first place you like to go?
The cornfield behind my parent’s house. Fresh off the plane, I take a beer to the cornfield and sit outback. It’s this big, wide open field, and when I was a young kid, I used to just cut through the corn to get to grandma’s house. It’s a holy place to me; it’s quiet, serene and very, very beautiful. I feel like I can hear myself think out there.
Speaking of cracking open a cold one, you have a song on the new record called ‘Beer Tastes Better’ - I’m wondering if there’s somewhere in Shueyville that the beer truly does taste better than anywhere else?
I love to go to my hometown bar - it’s called Shuey’s. I always pop in there, get a pork tenderloin, a Busch Light and spend a lot of time there. That is the bar where beer just tastes better for some reason; Busch Light just tastes a whole lot better in your hometown bar.
Another song is ‘Big Family’. Is there somewhere in your hometown where you like to spend a lot of time with your many family members?
My mom and dad are both one of nine and my grandpa is one of 15, so we’re all very close. The line in the song that goes, “more cousins than friends”, is so true. We all get together when I’m back and have Sunday suppers, something that my great grandpa started. I remember as a kid showing up at his house after church and it’d just be packed to the brim. Everybody would bring a covered dish and we’d all be sitting around hanging out, eatin’, drinkin’ and recapping the week. We all get together a lot, we’re very close still.
High school was the time when you seriously began pursuing music as a career, but when you were just being a regular teenager, where did you spend most of your time?
We used to go to a place called Green Castle. It was a right-of-passage kind of place that the upper-classmen would hand down. I literally couldn’t tell you how to get there because we all used to pile into the back of someone’s pick-up truck, tell our parents we were staying at each other’s houses and drive the dirt road path back to it.
You drive through the woods and then there’s this clearing where it all opens up. We’d just sit around a fire, drink beer, listen to country music like Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn. It was like the senior’s best-kept secret that all of us kids always knew about, but the cops could never find. You felt like no one could catch you up there.
It sounds like when you weren’t enjoying time with friends, you were playing music. Where was the first place you ever performed in your hometown?
There weren't a whole lot of venues where I come from; I would play bars, and my parents and I would drive into Cedar Rapids where there was a Chinese food restaurant. We became friends with them, and they used to let me come in to sing. It’s kind of cringey looking back, but people would be at the Hibachi Grill and I’d be singing my songs, watching them make the onions stack and throw the eggs in hats.
I booked my first show at a place called Melsha’s Tap, in the town over. It was this tiny little bar that everyone just packed out, and I played - just me and my guitar. In that moment, I had encouragement from the whole town. After that, I started booking more and more shows. I remember finishing and just feeling on top of the world, thinking, “when can I do that again?” It was such a great feeling.
If someone has never been to your town before, is there one place you would recommend that they go to when they visit?
DanceMor Ballroom. I absolutely love that place. If you're wanting to go out, hear music and drink crappy beer in a really cool, old school dance hall, I'd say go there. It’s been around since the 30s, so generations of my family grew up going there in high school and even after.
The building is kinda funky; it has this elevated rectangle part that says, “DanceMor Ballroom” in this really 80’s looking font. You walk in and there’s this entry room where you had to wait in line to get in, then it’s a big open room with wooden beams and its original hardwood floors.
On the sides, it has these old wooden booths that are numbered. My uncle actually got engaged there, so they remember the booth number they were sitting in. People remember their moments there by their booth number. I played there in 2019, we packed the place out and we hung tinsel on the back of the stage. We actually shot my music video for ‘Heartland’ there and they’ve kept the tinsel up since then.
Hailey Whitters' new album, Raised, is out March 18th via Pigasus Records / Songs & Daughters / Big Loud Records. You can purchase the album from one of Holler's selected partners below: