I hesitated, at first, to review this album. I’m not generally a fan of country music, and I didn’t know if I could pull off something both generous and honest, without getting caught up in genre biases. I listened to Black Sheep, set it aside, walked away. Then something strange happened: I couldn’t get Hailey Whitters’ voice out of my head. Part Lucinda Williams, part Emily Saliers, it snagged me and dragged me outside of my comfort zone. It convinced me to listen to the album again.
Each time I go back to it now, her incongruous, rolling mezzo pulls me deeper in.
A Shueyville native, Whitters released Black Sheep, her debut album, in October, which is appropriate, as the tracks seem tailor-made for the chill of an Iowa fall. There’s a darkness here that is evident from the first hypnotic bars of opener “Long Come to Jesus” to the lazy, spiraling swirls of “Get Around,” the final song. It is an album of deep self-exploration, even (perhaps especially) on the faster, heavier tracks—dance songs for a dark and dirty dive bar, with lyrics full of defiance.
Whitters is a savvy writer. She knows her vocal strengths and plays them well, while spinning lyrics that allow her to show off her agility. Only two of the ten songs lack her writing credit. On “City Girl,” the album’s second track, you can feel its absence. The lyrics aren’t as subtle or as sincere; the music seems designed to create a radio hit, and lacks the grit the others have. Her cover of Mando Saenz’s “Pocket Change” is just as obviously not hers, but she seems to be having much more fun with it, and although its delightfully distortion-soaked tone sets it apart, it feels more thematically aligned with the whole.
The best moments, though, are Whitters’ most honest. “Late Bloomer,” a reflection on a slow-spent youth, and “One More Hell,” a warm and conversational ode to her younger brother who passed away, are the clear stand-outs on the album. She almost seems to be oblivious to the recording process, singing as though no one else can hear her. It’s this openness to intimacy, I think, even more than her engaging voice, that forces the listener to stick with Whitters.
She maintains that drastic sincerity even on poppier, rock-tinged tunes like “Heartbreaker” or “Black Sheep,” the album’s title track. She’s claiming herself and her identities in a way that feels as personal as it is confrontational. These and other heavier songs on the album also allow Whitters and her backing band a chance to show off their solid musical chops. The guitar lines on “Long Come to Jesus” are just delightful.
Black Sheep is the first step on what is bound to be a long and fruitful path for Whitters. The kind of groundwork laid here speaks to both her current skill and her future potential, particularly as a songwriter. If Hailey Whitters really is a “late bloomer,” then country music has a lot to look forward to from her.
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 188.