While Hailey Whitters’ bright-eyed optimism is infectious on The Dream, the album’s various inconsistencies hold it back from being a better listen.
An old cliché says there’s two things certain in life – death and taxes. Country music has its own smaller version of that cliché – at any given moment, there’s probably an independent talent with real groundswell support that Nashville is ignoring for all of the wrong reasons, and if that artist is female, they’ll face resistance either way.
In that sense, it’s both amusing and sad that Hailey Whitters garnered groundswell support last year when she released “Ten Year Town,” a song detailing the struggles of trying to make it in Nashville, especially on your own terms. She made it by not making it, in other words. And sure, the song’s core theme is fairly common, but it was framed by Whitters’ own personal perspective, and that pain resonated, especially when, in Nashville, if it’s not a hit – like Alan Jackson’s “The Older I Get” and Little Big Town’s “Happy People,” both of which she co-wrote, weren’t – to the industry players it may as well have never been written. So Whitters went from waiting tables at a mom-and-pop Cajun café outside Nashville after her debut album, Black Sheep, never took off to touring with Maren Morris and Brent Cobb, and now she’s gearing up to tour with Tanya Tucker.
The Dream, then, is the journey toward “making it” and finding that happy ending, but while I enjoy Whitters’ other material and find her to be a compelling writer, this album strikes me as a slightly underwhelming listen. It’s an album filled with starry-eyed hope and optimism, making it easy to root for; but it’s also inconsistent, with the writing sometimes not feeling as sharp as it could be and the production feeling a little lacking.
Vocally, Whitters possesses a lot of raw charisma and earnest passion, which translates well for the aforementioned “Ten Year Town” and when she’s playing both the role of the naive, young artist and the titular elder with wisdom on “Janice at the Hotel Bar.” With that said, I wouldn’t say she possesses a lot of natural power, which is basically what she’s relying on for “Red Wine & Blue” and the stark acoustic ballad, “The Faker,” and her flow can get a little choppy, especially on “Loose Strings.” But her optimism also shines through her performances, which can make some otherwise well-worn themes come across with a bright energy. I’m not wild about the looped guitar of “The Days,” but that sunny melody is easy to like, and it is good to hear the album end on a positive note with “Living The Dream.”
In terms of the production, however, it’s another area that feels slightly inconsistent, mostly because this album doesn’t really know what it’s trying to be. Again, it starts off promising; there’s a good blend of firm acoustics and reverb for added atmosphere on “Ten Year Town,” and that space is mostly used for good to help “The Days” soar as a fairly good country-pop track. But the melodies as well as the electric guitar and basslines feel mostly thin and underweight, especially when they’re trying to go for natural soul on “Red Wine & Blue” or “Dream, Girl.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments that come through with real muscle and flair behind them – there’s a thick, echoed smolder to the tones of “All The Cool Girls” with some real groove behind them, and even if “Happy People” is far from a highlight, the added usage of harmonica probably makes it my favorite version of that song.
But it’s those tracks that reflect my other criticism for the project, and it’s that, while the album doesn’t often doesn’t know what it’s going for, sonically, it’s also scattershot thematically. The thematic arc, of course, shows Whitters moving from the rock-bottom depression of “Ten Year Town” to finding stability in “Living The Dream,” and she’s most effective when playing that role of the wide-eyed dreamer. But when she flips the script to play the bad girl hooking up with the bad guy on “The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” or a “player” in “All The Cool Girls,” it’s completely unconvincing. And that’s not to mention that some of the hooks – “Red Wine & Blue” and “Heartland,” in particular, the former of which opting for the weird, patriotic nod that doesn’t fit – can feel clumsy, and whereas “Happy People” has always felt like a preachier, more broadly written version of “Humble & Kind” for co-writer Lori McKenna, for Whitters it feels like the lesser version of “Janice at the Hotel Bar” … which comes right before it and at least fuels its advice with real experience and wit, rather than cheesy sentimentalities. On a positive note, though, “Janice at the Hotel Bar” is a real highlight, where the older woman at the bar offers advice to young women, where the subtext suggests the harder challenges these women will inevitably face have only gotten worse, especially for them in society, and where the ultimate advice is to cherish happiness over wealth.
And while this review likely scans as more negative than intended, I do want to root for Whitters and this album. She’s a phenomenal writer overall, which is why it’s puzzling she relied on the Brent Cobb cover of “Loose Strings” or Chris Stapleton’s “The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” to round out this project, especially when both are lesser cuts. But “Ten Year Town” and “Janice at the Hotel Bar” (tracks she did co-write) do show that talent, and while it’d be impossible for every writer and artist to “make it” in Nashville, Whitters’ breakthrough can’t help but just feel right.
- Favorite tracks: “Ten Year Town,” “Janice at the Hotel Bar,” “The Days”
- Least favorite track: “Loose Strings”