They say it takes a decade to make a name for yourself in Nashville. After closing in on the milestone without the artistic trajectory she’d hoped for, Iowa-hailing singer-songwriter Hailey Whitters started to question her fate. Though the 31-year-old’s pursuits of becoming a country star were certainly never idle – she’s racked up numerous song-writing credits for artists including Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and Little Big Town – something wasn’t quite clicking. Stepping back from the daily grind, Whitters realised that instead of waiting for Nashville to write her story, she had to write it herself. It was then that she became the fearless songwriter she is today – bold, inspired and truly independent.
What inspired you to make the move to Nashville?
I come from a town in Iowa of about 600 people. It's very small, everybody knows everybody - we don't even have a stoplight! Growing up I always had this really odd inkling that I wanted to make country music, and I think that probably stemmed from having country radio as one of the only sources of music. I just grew up with my ear to the radio, and to a lot of the 90's country icons: Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood. I was hellbent on figuring out how to be in country music someday.
When I was in elementary school, I asked my guidance counsellor how you become a country music singer, and he told me that a lot of country music singers write their own songs. So I thought, "Ok, well, I'm going to start writing songs then". I got a guitar, I started learning a few chords, putting a few things together, then when I was 15, my mom brought me down to Nashville and just unveiled this whole new world to me. I remember we went on a tour of the Opry and the curtain went up, and it was just like, "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life" - that was the moment that I just knew. As soon as I graduated high school I moved to Nashville, and I've been here now for 13 years.
16 is such a young age! Was it a warm welcome to Nashville, or did you have to fend for yourself until you found the right people?
It's incredibly young! I'm a pretty strong-headed person and it served me well in this case. I owe a lot of credit to my parents because they really supported and encouraged me. It was interesting though, because I didn't know a single soul. So not only was I moving away from my entire family and friends, but I was also moving to a brand-new city - and I'd never even been to a city at all. I just started knocking on doors – I’d go down to Broadway and walk into the honky-tonks and ask the club owners for a show. MySpace was a thing then too, so I got on there and started messaging songwriters, venues and anyone I possibly could co-write with. I learnt very quickly that Nashville is a co-writing town, and I knew I needed to meet people, so I really just started asking anyone who would listen if we could collaborate. Nashville is a very friendly community, but it is also very hard to break into that industry for a while - it's very tight, but once you can get an in, you're in. But it did take me several years to get an in. I was just spending a lot of time honing my craft and trying to write some songs before I had those meetings.
Initially, was your time in Nashville more dedicated to writing than performing?
Absolutely. I thought that if I could write great songs then that was what would grab people's attention first, so that was the focus. I don't know if that came from looking around and seeing that all my favourite artists were songwriters first. I was looking at Eric Church and Miranda (Lambert) and some of these Americana artists - everyone was writing their songs, so I thought I had to have a good handful of my own songs before I could really pursue the artist thing.
You’ve had some experiences of going to record label meetings in Nashville and experiencing sexism and misogyny. It's also a common theme in your lyrics?
Yeah, it's the strangest thing. I don't know what it's about - I kind of wish they would just come out and tell me. I was taking a lot of meetings - I wasn't seeking them out, they were coming to me - and I just felt like a show pony. I went in, put on the dress, played a few songs, and then it was like this weird stalemate. I remember I was in one and the label head was saying all these dirty jokes and shit. I guess that's his humour, and I can roll with some dirty jokes, but I just didn't feel like I was being taken seriously. But you see things they are signing, Instagram influencers and shit getting record deals, and then it started to make sense. I was like, "Ok, they're not really interested in great song-writing or great artistry, they just want what is already famous". That's not what I'm interested in. I'm interested in creating art that is going to last, art that is going to move people. It's not like I'm some art snob, I'm just trying to create great music. You know, great music - the music that I grew up on, the music that told a story, the music that I was moved by when I was just a small-town girl in Iowa listening to the radio, hearing songs like 'Red Rag Top' or 'Remember When'. I felt those songs in my core, and it clicked something in me. That's what I'm trying to make, that's what I thought Nashville was about and that's what I came here for.
Are there any other kind of troubling systems or attitudes still in place in Nashville?
I don't think so. I'm not trying to dog on anyone for doing what they feel like they have to do to keep their job, but that sort of toxicity and mindset was just completely uninspiring and deflating to me. That's why I stopped taking those meetings, and why I was so relieved to find Big Loud, who are so open-minded about the industry. It might be a generational thing, the mentality of those who were used to making 20 bucks on a CD in the 90's, but it’s just not the reality of the industry anymore. It requires open-mindedness and new innovative ideas. I see Nashville starting to adapt to that a little bit more. That's cool to me. There’s a lot of positive growth and change that's happening in Nashville.
What's your favourite thing about Nashville?
My favourite thing would probably be that it's all about the song. Everyone says Nashville's a song town. I want to preserve that - that's the reason people come to Nashville. You can come to Nashville and still hear a song, just a guitar melody, that will melt you. I think that that's something that maybe gets lost a little bit as Nashville becomes more modernised in its production, but I think if you strip it back to a guitar, vocal, a set of words and a melody, it's as simple as that. It's something that's desperately worth preserving in this town, because we have some of the best songwriters in the world, and it makes me sad to see ones that are getting different jobs or leaving the town altogether. Nashville was built on songs, and I hope that there are people in charge that are preserving their power.
Hailey Whitters' latest album 'The Dream' is out now via Pigasus Records (Big Loud / Songs & Daughters).
Photography by Harper Smith.