I think we tend to undervalue music that finds a happy medium between being smart and accessible; artists don’t have to sacrifice one element to attain the other, nor do they have to see one as a detriment to the other. If anything, I think that divide in country music is even wider than the ever-so-popular traditional versus contemporary one, because while mainstream country radio dials like to feed listeners material that won’t offend or excite them either way, the independent scene can also suffer from projects with writing that, while pretty and poetic, can be esoteric and require a degree in philosophy to properly decipher.
And at the end of the day, music is another entertainment medium that can and perhaps should provide an escape, hence why in recent months I’ve tended to value artists that can stick the landing between being inspirational and straightforward. In other words, I was looking forward to the newest album from Hailey Whitters, a writer who can write with the likes of Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna and, like them, have her own mischievous fun with her material from time to time. But there’s also a slight asterisk I need to insert in terms of what of hers I’ve really enjoyed, because while that absolutely extends to her 2015 debut Black Sheep for sporting an incredible high point like “Low All Afternoon,” 2020’s The Dream felt like a lateral move toward hazy pop-country tones that didn’t flatter her writing or delivery nearly as well. It wasn’t until the deluxe re-release of the album the next year, of all things, that I wound up back in her corner, if only because those five new songs felt like a more rounded, organic blend of pop and neotraditonal country as a whole.
And that focus on returning to the basics fits the mold of newest album Raised really well, in that if The Dream was the low-key, murky and messy breakup with the Nashville establishment, Raised is the return home to find clarity and personal understanding. And for as much as I loved the deluxe tracks from Living the Dream, I would say that Raised is likely Whitters’ most consistently great project to date and arguably her best, even if my initial love for this project has, admittedly, slightly cooled on subsequent listens.
Before digging into that, though, I want to highlight the biggest changes made in instrumentation and production, which feel more like a natural progression of sound when compared to the previous album’s deluxe release, but leaps and bounds better when talking about the normal album itself. In that aside from maybe “The Neon” – where even then I’d argue that the more contemporary atmospherics are blended in really well with the fiddle pick-ups – this adopts a more neotraditional-meets-pop-country tone of the ‘90s, which might be getting played out in certain circles but fits really well within that context of returning home. It’s not so much turning back the clock as it is truly judging how much one has changed by returning to a familiar setting. Granted, there’s also the part of me that’s a sucker for a sound bolstered by tempered acoustics, plentiful pedal steel and melodic electric guitar and fiddle pick-ups that can cut in at just the right time, hence why even if I wouldn’t brand Whitters’ collaboration with American Aquarium on “Middle of America” an absolute highlight, it is a fun way to cut loose.
But it’s also here where beyond the Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna comparisons one can make with Whitters’ work, one to Same Trailer Different Park or Pageant Material-era Kacey Musgraves could slip into the fold as well. And that’s two-pronged, because while you’re going to get a sound that’s earnestly strident in some of its retro flourishes, you’re not to get an album necessarily beholden to the past, but rather something that updates it for the here and now. In an overall sense, the warmer tones are here to keep the content focused and grounded, which is where the other side of the conversation comes into play: lyrics and themes.
Whitters described this album as her way of reconnecting with her roots in Iowa, and indeed, it shows in the various homages to small towns, family, and growing up in that more tight-knit setting. And if that sounds like I’m setting up a conversation that’s also played-out in country music … well, yeah, it’s not the most original idea in the world, but Whitters is a great enough writer to make most of her stories feel lived-in, especially when the family aspect shines brightest and is often the most underutilized aspect of this kind of conversation – a callback to Southern Family that I love and really appreciated here.
With that said, I will admit that this is an album where the sum is greater than any one individual part, and I’d say it’s more of an album connected by a loose-running theme over the concept narrative, various interludes, and run-time would have one believe. And like with her previous work, there are tracks that lean a little too heavily on checklist lyrical constructions, generic platitudes and kitschy puns to drill as deep as they could; “Our Grass Is Legal” is a complete throwaway cut in regard to the latter and drags on way too long. And really, in regards to that Musgraves comparison, I do wish we had more moments of storytelling or deeper drama and darker stakes to fully flesh out this concept and give it added weight beyond, say, the messy break-up of “The Neon.”
But again, at her core, Whitters is still a great writer, hence why these small town narratives always feel more motivated toward personal growth rather than take the “us versus them” approach of knocking down “city slickers” that’s plagued this theme otherwise in recent memory (and which shows up here and there on this album, unfortunately). It’s why I love how the title track introduces the album, because it frames how where one grew up doesn’t shape them into who they are so much as who they grow up with and learn from, be it family or friends that have experience and wisdom to share. Or why because of that, despite the imperfections they might have on “Big Family,” it’s important to have those around to lean on when things take a turn for the worse. But it’s also important to learn how to grow beyond that and not only learn to be self-sufficient, but also to pass along wisdom and experience to others along the way. Take the character in “College Town,” for example, who comes from that smaller background and carries an identity struggle as she heads off to university for the first time and knows that despite the anxiety felt, it’s all for the best. Again, this album isn’t as story-focused as I would have preferred, but there’s a relatability there that goes beyond just that small town narrative.
And really, for tracks going for straightforward simplicity in nailing the basics, you’re still going to get some great cuts in the more relaxed and bouncy “Everybody Oughta” or the quaint yet warm reconnection with old friends on “Beer Tastes Better.” And you’re going to get an album that, at its core, is still able to have fun in what it’s going for, which may offset what I had hoped for from it but is still delivered crisply and warmly enough to work really effectively regardless. And that’s why Raised is, ultimately, an easy album to recommend and enjoy. It may have taken a step backward to attain that clarity, but sometimes you need it to properly move forward in the long run.
- Favorite tracks: “Big Family,” “College Town,” “Everybody Oughta,” “Beer Tastes Better,” “Middle of America” (feat. American Aquarium),” “Raised”
- Least favorite track: “Our Grass Is Legal”