Archives: Hailey Whitters ‘Black Sheep’ – Album Review
This article was first published on September 24th, 2015 on forthecountryrecord.com.
It’s an amazing moment when you first hear an artist who it’s instantly clear is going to be a star, or at the very least a critics darling with a long career ahead of her. That’s what happened when Hailey Whitters wandered onto my radar a few months ago, and she made an even bigger splash when I got to hear her debut album in full recently. ‘Black Sheep’ is the perfect combination of country and Americana, equal parts sassy girl power and classic troubadour, and 100% beautiful, unequivocal honesty and emotion told through a voice that is raw, personable and possessing the quivering soprano of Dolly Parton, Ashley Monroe and Lee Ann Womack.
It’s rare to come across someone so young (25 years old) who is also so clear on their own identity, and that’s what struck me the most when listening to the record. Hailey is not afraid to say what she needs to say, and that is perfectly summed up in the title track, a criticism of those who ostracized her for being different – and a little bit bad. The Lee Ann Womack reference doubles up here, as this song bears more than a passing melodic similarity to ‘The Way I’m Livin’’, but Hailey makes the track all her own with a feisty strut of a delivery and heavier production. She continues the theme of celebrating imperfections with ‘People Like You’, reminding someone who feels they’ll always be alone due to their sins that she’s just like them. “If you’re broken down, beat up, well I am too, that’s why people like me need people like you,” she sings earnestly on the simple ballad.
Throughout we get the sense that Hailey has spent much of life being a misfit, judged for her indiscretions and struggling to find where she belongs. This comes out on ‘Late Bloomer’, a highly relatable reflection on how some of us can struggle for years before finally settling into place, as well as the wearied frustration of ‘City Girl’ – which bucks a trend as it longs to live in the city rather than dull rural America. The misfit concept is also present on the startlingly beautiful closer ‘Get Around’, a personal depiction of life as a woman who sleeps around in a small town, set to a melancholic tone that highlights her heartbreak.
And if you haven’t shed a tear so far, then ‘Low All Afternoon’ is guaranteed to strike a nerve. It finds us observing the aftermath of an attached man’s affair, and how the mistress is left to pick up the pieces when he chooses to marry the other woman. Again subverting convention, Hailey chooses to tell this story in the second person, making us the subject in a move that is incredibly effective. But first person is the most appropriate for the highly-autobiographical track ‘One More Hell’, a mental processing of sorts for her as she comes to terms with the death of her brother. It’s effortlessly poignant and sums up the conflicting emotions that come with loss, again showcasing her astounding ability to connect with her songwriting.
However, it’s not all sad news on this record, and ‘Heartbreaker’ is a perfect speaker-blaster that spits fire at a no-good man who has been spreading gossip about his relations with Hailey. “I can break hearts too,” she asserts, marking her territory. Meanwhile, there’s another unsatisfactory partner on ‘Pocket Change’ who isn’t treating her as the priority she should be. “I don’t want to love you anymore… I’m nobody’s pocket change,” she sings, on the Revolution-era Miranda Lambert-style track.
“It’s a long road to Heaven, it’s paved with stone and sin, I slip and I stumble,” states the album’s opener ‘Long Come To Jesus’. It’s a fitting entrance for a record that deals with being perfectly imperfect and the trials and tribulations that come along with it, told with refreshing clarity, wit and poetic charm. On ‘Black Sheep’, Hailey Whitters demonstrates that she can come toe to toe with the female heavy hitters of the genre and prove her mettle, following in the footsteps of the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert, Holly Williams, Lindi Ortega and many more. Her artistic voice is unfailingly authentic and her songs are always wonderfully crafted; in fact, I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a new artist. Perhaps it was in 2012, when so many of those smart, storytelling women started to come to the forefront. Either way, I don’t think it will be long before Hailey is sharing the bill with them.