Interview: Hailey Whitters Looks Back to Move Forward on ‘Raised’
“Ad Astra Per Alas Porci,” the evocative overture that bookends country singer Hailey Whitters’ new album, Raised, takes its name from the work of John Steinbeck. Though he notably botched the Latin in his own translation, Steinbeck was known to inscribe his books and letters with the phrase, which means, “To the stars on the wings of a pig.”
“It seemed like the perfect phrase to set the scene and open the album on,” says Whitters, who describes being nearly brought to tears when her co-producer and fiancé Jake Gear played her the song for the first time. “It feels like taking you to the heartland.”
It’s not every country album that opens with a piece of orchestral music — let alone one named for a literary deep-cut — but Whitters is not every country singer. This slightly off-kilter perspective, plus a healthy dose of creative ambition, has made her a rising star in the genre.
Whitters refers to Raised as a "prequel" to The Dream, the critical and commercial breakthrough that she released on her own Pigasus Records (another Steinbeck reference) in 2020. Whereas The Dream found Whitters struggling with personal heartbreak and career disappointments, Raised takes a nostalgic look at the people and places that shaped her childhood in Shueyville, Iowa.
As such, this album is cheerier than its predecessor, tonally more similar to the deluxe tracks on last year’s triumphant reissue of The Dream than the more dejected original, but Whitters says the idea for both works germinated around the same time.
“I was feeling very nostalgic for home,” she says of her mood during writing sessions for The Dream, which also produced some of the songs on Raised. “I was at a point in my life here where I was starting to think, maybe my Nashville chapter’s up.”
She was wrong, of course — what she feared was the end of the road was actually the start of an incredibly fruitful creative period. On Raised, she continues this winning streak, pulling off the neat trick of conjuring an idealized version of small-town life without leaning on the platitudes that are endemic to country radio.
“I don’t want it to be a cliché,” she says. “These are real people, and this is their real life, and it’s more than a cliché to me.”
Taken out of context, a few lines on the album might scan as reactionary (“They won’t be caught dead in no electric cars,” she scoffs on “Boys Back Home”), but Whitters insists there’s nothing political in her approach. She considers herself a documentarian, reporting on what she sees without necessarily subscribing to it.
“I try to just leave the story as it is, and people can infer from that whatever they want,” she explains.
The opening line of “Our Grass Is Legal" recalls “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard’s contemptuous, maybe-satirical anthem for red America. But the title of Whitters’ song is itself a joke, taken from a slogan her grandfather (nicknamed “The Grassman,” per the preceding interlude) adopted in response to people from neighboring towns calling his sod farm looking for weed in the '70s.
These kinds of specifics give the album its lived-in feel, which extends to the music. The major sonic touchpoints are heartland rock and 90s country, with Whitters citing both John Mellencamp and Alan Jackson as major influences. “Middle of America” is a perfect Mellencamp pastiche, while “In a Field Somewhere” opens with what could be a lost verse from Jackson’s “Drive.”
“I totally lived under a rock growing up,” Whitters says of her early exposure to music. “I didn’t have internet, didn’t have cable. It was pretty much just whatever I was hearing through the radio.”
Raised also brings to mind the Chicks’ early work, most acutely on the sly “College Town,” which follows a “first-generation homecoming queen” who finds her world thrillingly upended when she moves away for school. Wry and charming, the song brings to mind “Wide Open Spaces,” the Chicks’ immortal 1998 hit about a girl leaving behind her parents and making a life of her own. Whitters still remembers the first time she heard the song, which she often uses as an encore at her live shows, as a 10-year-old sitting in her mother’s car.
“I probably didn’t even realize the depths to which it spoke to me at that age,” she admits, speaking for a generation that grew up with the song.
For the Chicks, finding “Wide Open Spaces” meant striking out for the proverbial West, away from home and away from family. But when Whitters speaks about the song, it’s clear that it’s taken on a different meaning; in her version, returning to one’s hometown is as enlivening as leaving it.
“I grew up in those fields, driving out in the middle of nowhere in those wide open spaces,” she says, indulging for a moment in early memories. “That’s where I feel like I can breathe.”