Independent country artist Hailey Whitters feels camaraderie with independent filmmakers
Songwriter makes her ASCAP Music Cafe debut
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Hailey Whitters prides herself as an independent artist.
“There comes a lot of freedom with being independent,” Whitters said. “Financially it can be quite a struggle sometimes, but I think it can be liberating as an artist. You can truly create art for the sake of vision and it can be pure.”
So her independent spirit soared when she was asked to stream a performance on Saturday, Jan. 30, for this year’s ASCAP Music Cafe at the Sundance Film Festival, which is a major cornerstone for independent films.
“This means a lot to me, because I had to take a chance on myself like a lot of filmmakers are doing,” she said. “Sundance is something that I have wanted to attend as a fan. So being asked to play is a high honor. I just wish we could be out there enjoying the festival with one another, but it is what it is.”
Playing the Music Cafe is another landmark in an eventful year for Whitters.
After spending a decade in Nashville writing songs for such artists as Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and Little Big Town, Whitters released her second studio album, “The Dream,” in February 2020, and things haven’t slowed down since.
“I was waiting tables while I was making it, and I thought of it as my last-ditch effort to make something happen before I seriously considered hanging it up and moving back to Iowa,” she said. “That album changed everything. I toured with Maren Morris, Bret Cobb and Jordan Davis.”
The album gave her the resources to start her own record label, Pigasus Records, and join forces with Big Loud Records and its imprint label, Sons & Daughters.
“It was a total career change for me,” she said.
Whitters will expand the success of “The Dream” when she releases a deluxe edition, which will feature five new songs, on Feb. 26.
“I wanted to show that process from me being a broken-hearted waitress to where I am now with all the bucket-list moments that I had originally given up on,” she said. “So I collaborated with some key artists who have had a big hand in my success these last two years. I wanted to show fans this is what can happen if you don’t give up, stay on course and follow that dream.”
The new songs on the album were written and recorded within the past couple of years, according to Whitters.
“Fillin’ My Cup,” which features Little Big Town, was written in 2019, and “How to Break a Heart” was written with Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey last summer during the COVID-19 quarantine, she said.
“We tried to pick songs that are about where I am now and where I see myself going,” she said. “The songs all serve a purpose.”
Whitters, who still writes songs for a living from 9 to 5 Mondays through Fridays, says writing songs for herself isn’t much different than writing for other people. In her career, she has penned hits for Jackson and Little Big Town.
“I’ve always approached my songwriting as just trying to write great songs, whether they’re for me or somebody else,” she said. “I always try to tap into a little of my own experience with the universal experience. And if I feel a special attachment to something, I try to save it for my own project. But if it’s something another artist wants to cut, it’s a high honor as a songwriter.”
One of those honors came in 2015, when Jackson decided to record the song “The Older I Get.”
“He is a big artist, songwriter and influence of mine, because he’s somebody that writes his own songs most of the time,” Whitters said. “I remember when my co-writers and I finished that song, one of my cowriters, Adam Wright, said, ‘I might send this to Alan.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, dream on,’ but I woke up the next morning to a text from Adam who said Alan wants to cut this.”
Jackson also gave the writing team a critique.
“He wanted us to change the first few verses,” Whitter said. “To have Alan, a hero for me as a songwriter, to look at a song he deemed worthy to be on one of his albums and then to fine-tune it was one of the coolest things, ever.”
In addition to Jackson, other artists who influenced Whitters include the Dixie Chicks, known now as the Chicks, Trisha Yearwood and McBride.
“These are all strong female influences with strong female perspectives that I heard on country radio,” she said. “When I moved to Nashville, I started looking for music more and building my influences that included Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey, and I really got into a lot of stuff that is considered Americana — Jason Isbell, Tyler Childers and Gillian Welch.”
In the meanwhile, Whitters is ready for her ASCAP Music Cafe debut.
“They gave me 10 to 15 minutes, so three or four songs,” she said. “It will be just me and my acoustic guitar, and I’m looking forward to it.”
When: Streaming starts Saturday, Jan. 30
Cost: Free for Sundance Film Festival account holders
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Fans of “Sudan and Me,” a musical written, produced and performed in Park City, can now purchase an album of the production’s songs.