The dog and pony show just wasn’t doing it for Hailey Whitters.
After her self-released, heartbreaking ode to the cruel realities of the Nashville music business, “Ten Year Town,” took off while she was waiting tables, Whitters found herself doing the usual rounds to major labels — singing a few songs, going through the motions, hearing the excuses for why they wouldn’t be able to sign her after all. She’d dress up just to get let down, and, 12 years into a 10-year town, the experience was still living up to the myths she was singing about.
“It was always very noncommittal responses and misogynist excuses,” Whitters says, calling from the East Nashville home where she’s been spending her quarantine. “Excuses like ‘We already have a lot of girls’ or ‘girls are more expensive.’ Just really stupid stuff. I have no problem with someone telling me they don’t like my music, but this didn’t seem to be about the music at all. All the major labels felt very fear-based, and it seemed they would rather sign an Instagram influencer over an actual artist who spent a decade honing their craft.”
Instead of wasting more time knocking down doors that might never open, Whitters decided to stay independent. She formed her own Pigasus Records and released her terrific LP The Dream, assembling a team, including managers Matt Graham (Midland) and Chris Kappy (Luke Combs), that supported her decision to only partner with a label when, and if, the symbiosis was right.
Finally, it was. Whitters announced Thursday that she is signing with Big Loud Records and Nicolle Galyon’s woman-driven Songs & Daughters to launch her own Pigasus imprint at the label, home to Morgan Wallen and Hardy. “It felt like the right fit,” Whitters says. “I admire their willingness to be innovative in a format moving towards digital. It’s not some major [label] being run by a 70-year-old man who grew up in an industry that was heavily reliant on radio and selling jewel case records for $17.99. It was just very fresh.”
Country as a genre has been slow to shift its business model from focusing on radio and albums, even with streaming on the rise, but Whitters delivered the pieces of The Dream completely on her own unconventional schedule: in halves. She also built momentum on the road opening for Maren Morris, Brent Cobb, and Jordan Davis, and showed that she could amass a fan base on the strength of her music alone.
“It’s the antithesis of what we know is the label machine,” Whitters says about her rise over the last year. “It felt true to my Nashville experience. But the way of releasing music and the way of making music is changing. I hope other artists are seeing this happen and realizing this is how it can be done. I was so old school, thinking that to be an artist in country music you needed radio and a major label behind you — ‘This is the system, go climb.’ This record showed me it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.”
Indeed, artists like Morris, Luke Combs, and Tyler Childers used streaming success and independent releases to break the usual Nashville mold, and Whitters is further proof that there are ways to subvert the Music Row order — if the material is strong enough. Her songs, like the superb “Janice at the Hotel Bar,” showcase a writer able to capture vivid narrative scenes, country wordplay, detailed storytelling, and lingering life lessons all at once.
One track from the album, “The Days,” has come to carry particular new meaning in the pandemic: “Instead of counting up the days,” Whitters sings, “I just want to make them count.” Though it clearly wasn’t intentional, “there’s a perspective on this record about accepting and appreciating what’s around you” that feels exceptionally timely now, she says.
At home, Whitters has been playing guitar and listening to a lot of music — Bobbie Gentry, James Taylor, the newest from Sadler Vaden — with her boyfriend and producer Jake Gear, “going up pants sizes and drinking way too much beer with my chickens.” She’s been doing Zoom co-writes and is thinking about heading to the studio soon (socially distanced, of course). She even hopped on a Zoom call last night to announce her Big Loud signing to a group that included her management, label, and industry leaders like CMT’s Leslie Fram and Spotify’s John Marks.
“In a non-COVID world,” Whitters told the callers, assembled in squares across the screen, “we’d be at Mickey’s Tavern buying shots instead.”