Hailey Whitters is exuberant when she calls during an Uber ride from her Nashville home to Ryman Auditorium. The night before, the rising country singer just performed there for the first time, opening for Midland, and she’ll do it again after we speak. Gracing the Ryman’s illustrious stage is a sure sign that an artist has arrived – something that Whitters clearly understands and appreciates.
“The Ryman is so legendary,” Whitters says with awe. “When people ask what my bucket list venue is, it’s been the Ryman. So it’s pretty surreal – last night I got to stand on that stage and sing, and it was this really emotional moment to be able to see that dream actually come to fruition.”
Opening for Midland through Christmas, Whitters will fulfill another career goal – going on her first headlining tour, starting in February in her native Iowa. “I’ve dreamed about doing that since back in the days of a 15-passenger van driving graveyard shifts with the band to get to the next gig,” she says. “I’ve been dreaming about, ‘What would my show be like?’ So to actually do that now, it’s very exciting. I’m very proud of it, and I just hope it’s a big success.”
Whitters is one of the more exciting artists to emerge in the past few years. Her albums beginning with 2015’s Black Sheep, The Dream in 2020, and February’s Living the Dream earned her glowing reviews and opening slots for Maren Morris and Luke Combs. This year, she was honored with a CMT award nomination for Breakthrough Video of the Year for “Fillin’ My Cup” (featuring Little Big Town), and in June she was named the inaugural Opry NextStage artist.
Whitters has also developed a reputation for collaborating well with other artists. That reputation led to an invitation to co-write a song with Ruby Amanfu, Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Alicia Keys, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Linda Perry. The intention? To encourage people to vote in the 2020 election. The result? “A Beautiful Noise,” which was then recorded by Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile which was just nominated for a Song of the Year Grammy.
“I’m over the moon,” Whitters says of the Grammy nomination. “It’s one of the highest honors and I’m very excited to get to share that experience with my co-writers. To get to celebrate something like that with them is already such a win in my book.”
Although it seems like success has come quickly for Whitters, she actually began putting in the work to make it happen when she was still a child. “I grew up idolizing the voices that I was hearing on country radio, aspiring to be like Trisha Yearwood and Alan Jackson,” she says. At the same time, her teachers noted her exceptional writing talent. It seemed only natural to combine her skills and interests and become a singer-songwriter.
“Songwriting became an early passion of mine,” Whitters says. “My mom brought me down to Nashville when I was 15. It was the biggest city I’d ever been to, and I saw people with their guitars standing on Broadway busking for tips. We went to the Grand Ole Opry and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life – I’m moving to Nashville.’”
As soon as she graduated high school, Whitters did exactly that. Despite not knowing a single soul in the Music City, she quickly lined up gigs, despite it being a “crash course” in performing. “To have the guts to leave every single thing that you’ve ever known and move nine hours away to try a career that you had no example for, I think that was a pretty bold move for a 17-year-old girl from small-town Iowa, in hindsight,” she says.
Nashville success hasn’t made Whitters forget her Shueyville, Iowa, upbringing. “I like to go to the cornfield behind my parents’ house. I take a bottle of wine,” she says. “I can see the beauty in the simple landscape and sit and reflect about life.” (Fittingly, one of her stage outfits is a skirt adorned with a prominent corn cob design.) “I like to go back home and talk with the people in my town. I get a lot of inspiration from real-life experiences,” she says.
Whitters’ interest in stories forms the foundation for her songwriting. She points to her 2020 single “Janice at the Hotel Bar” as an example of this. “That song, it’s country because of its storytelling. And that’s my favorite thing about country songs: they feel like real stories. They feel relatable and have an impact on you and your perspective. There’s obviously a lot of light topic matter, especially these days on the radio. But the country songs that I grew up on, the country songs that I have aspired to write, are the ones that have some depth.”
As Whitters exits her Uber, her tone grows even more exuberant, indicating that her excitement level has ramped up several more notches now that she’s at the hallowed venue. “I actually am walking up to the Ryman Auditorium right now!” she says, giddily. She says goodbye so she can prepare for the big show – but even now, she isn’t forgetting her roots: “I’m going to head up to my dressing room and put on my corn skirt!”