With 'The Dream' Hailey Whitters Sings About The Ups And Downs Of Showbiz

Mar 8, 2021
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In early 2020, Hailey Whitters released "The Dream," a collection of country songs about the difficulties of making her way in the world, especially the world of Nashville songwriting and recording. The album contained her first big hit, "Ten Year Town," and went on to appear on numerous year-end country best lists. Now in 2021, Whitters has added five new songs to "The Dream" and calls this expanded version of the album "Living The Dream." Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's more proof of how good and how important Hailey Whitters has become.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEN YEAR TOWN")

HAILEY WHITTERS: (Singing) I'm 12 years into a 10-year town. I'm too far in to turn around, too old to go back to school. Won't be much longer, I'll be old news. I thought I'd be a big star. Now I'm 12 years into a 10-year town. For 15 minutes of fame...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: More than a year ago, Hailey Whitters sang, I thought I'd be a big star; now I'm 12 years into a 10-year town. At the time, she couldn't have known that after a dozen years of trying, she'd achieve her big-star status over the course of 2020 and be collaborating with some of the big stars she used to idolize from afar. "Ten Year Town" was key to bringing her attention and fame, but here's the thing. The song is actually a sharp critique of the kind of success its narrator claims to want. As both a writer and a singer, Whitters has rapidly proven to be one of the most interesting voices in country music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FAKER")

WHITTERS: (Singing) He bought me diamonds. That's all I'll say. They were rhinestones - plastic and paste. He gave me sugar, or that's what I thought. But it was artificial and store-bought. He was a faker. I was a fool. Falling for an imitator - that's what I do. He was a lesson I learned about later. I was a sucker for the faker. We were so happy.

TUCKER: Raised in Iowa, Whitters went to Nashville and spent more than a decade waiting tables and working in a hair salon while pitching songs. She had some early luck having her stuff recorded by Alan Jackson and Martina McBride but not enough to quit her day job. When her boyfriend said he was giving her an engagement ring, she said she'd rather the money go to finance the recording of the album that became "The Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING THE DREAM")

WHITTERS: (Singing) The dream is a paycheck at the end of the week, waiting tables, making small talk out back on your break. The dream is a one-bedroom walk-up apartment, cheap Christmas lights out on the fire escape. Oh, the one thing I've learned is that the world keeps on spinning. Love's the only thing that makes it go 'round. I've given it all with the time I've been given. I'm out here living. Ain't we all just living?

TUCKER: Whitters' singing has an apple cider vinegar tartness. Her material is characterized by vividly specific details, like a drinking buddy who tosses her car keys out onto the front lawn so she doesn't drive home drunk on the song "Loose Strings."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOSE STRINGS")

WHITTERS: (Singing) You left your jacket in the backseat. That's why I'm calling you now. I found it curled up in a ball. I was cleaning the 'yota (ph) out. Swing by the house anytime you want, or I can drop it off. You know, whiskey makes me honest. Tequila makes you mean. Last thing I remember, you were cussing.

TUCKER: The five new songs Whitters has just added to "The Dream" find her working with some of the stars she used to pitch songs to. Singers Trisha Yearwood, Brent Cobb, Jordan Davis and the marvelous singer-songwriters Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey collaborate with Whitters on the new material. Little Big Town's 2017 cover of "Happy People," a song Whitters co-wrote, was one of her first breaks. Now the hugely popular quartet happily joins her in a song Whitters has co-written called "Fillin' My Cup."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FILLIN' MY CUP")

HAILEY WHITTERS AND LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) It ain't the bartender. It ain't the bottle. It ain't the headache I'll have tomorrow. It's a high-low life when you shake it on up - filling my cup. It's all my people sitting 'round a table, real sad country on the radio, my go-to blues and my old faithful, barely pushing 20 but still carrying me home. It's one part happy and one part chaos, whole lot of borrowed, little bit paid off. You can't appreciate the sugar if you never had the salt. Ain't it nice and sweet even when it's on the rocks? Yeah. It ain't the bartender. It ain't the bottle.

TUCKER: I'm pleased to say that based on the five new songs here, Hailey Whitters' new opportunities to rub shoulders with stars has not lessened the flow of fine details in the lyrics or the vulnerable ache in her voice. Like all artists worth their imaginative salt, she knows that you don't actually have to live in poverty to stay in emotional touch with your roots. Indeed, that's one of the things imagination and artistry are all about.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Hailey Whitters' new album "Living The Dream," her expanded version of her 2020 country album "The Dream." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Katie Engelhart, author of a new book about the right to die and how that's played out in states and countries that have right-to-die laws, in the clandestine groups on the Internet known as the euthanasia underground and in families where one member asks another for help in hastening death. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.