I’ve lived in Iowa for almost 25 years. When people ask me where I’m from, I still say New Jersey. The places where we grew up never leave us. When I return to the Garden State, I no longer feel at home. It’s much different than the one I left. I grew up about 20 miles from where Bruce Springsteen lived and am familiar with the South Jersey he described in his songs. Now the landscape is mostly chain restaurants, strip malls, and such—just like Iowa today.
Hailey Whitters comes from Shueyville, Iowa, a small town about 20 miles away from my current domicile. She left Iowa more than ten years ago for Nashville to pursue her dream of becoming a country star. It’s been a difficult journey (check out Whitters’ confessional song “Ten Year Town” for an inspired version of her story), but she has made it. She recently won “New Female Artist of the Year” at the 58th Academy of Country Music Awards. Her single, “Everything She Ain’t”, went gold and has been played over 175 million times on TikTok. She’s received numerous accolades (and a Grammy Award nomination) for her musical efforts.
Whitters has just released a six-song EP to capitalize on her newfound success. It includes “Everything She Ain’t”, and YouTube features a video to accompany each new track. I’m in Love is corny—literally. The films all contain Iowa-style backdrops with cornfields, John Deere tractors, and other symbolic Hawkeye state references. Whitters herself wears gingham dresses, blue jean overalls, and other rural, stereotyped costumes that were out of date on young girls even back when she lived here.
Yes, Whitters is an authentic, dyed-in-the-wool Iowan, even if she has spent the last dozen or more years in Nashville. But in these songs, she is playing an Iowan, not being one. There is nothing wrong with that. This makes me proud. When I first moved here, I felt pride in Iowa. It had the best public schools in the nation, progressive-like politics (gay marriage was approved here before New York and California), and such. Now things have deteriorated. Suffice it to say schools in Iowa are not what they were, and our politicians are frequently the targets of the nation’s ridicule because of their ineptness and hypocrisy. Whitters’ songs evoke the Iowa of an imaginary past while proclaiming its currency. That’s the problem, and it’s inevitable.
I wish Iowa were the place Whitters depicts. Alas, I’m sure Whitters and her millions of fans do, too. Many of us want to live in a small town where life is simple and love can flourish with the crops. (I always think of that British lady from the Kinks’ “Oklahoma USA” who yearns for the Sooner state) But as the recent Jason Aldean kerfuffle about small towns has shown, nothing is as simple as it seems. On one song, Whitters name-checks John Mellencamp (“Mellencamp”) in tribute to his classic songs about small-town Midwestern life.
In some ways, Whitters’ song is reminiscent of Eric Church’s breakthrough hit “Springsteen”. The more recent singers reach to the past to remember a better time with cooler music. By the way, Whitters is opening for Eric Church as part of her upcoming live performances. Whitters also gives a shout-out to Patty Loveless (“She’s a throwback classic / like an old Loveless song”) on another. Whitters’ Iowa is the last place where country rock played on the radio when she was a kid.
It was always Whitters’ dream: being a Nashville star. Who can blame her for basking in her glory and going over the top in her songs and videos now that she has succeeded? Tracks such as “Tie’r Down” and “Countryside Chick” are bucolic but bouncy. Check out the videos. The lyrics don’t always make sense, but the scenery is lovely. For example, the title song seems particularly cryptic: “Tips in the apron, hair’s in a braid / Mercury’s all in retrograde / Silver in the spoon, no blue in his blood / Hе’s in Levi’s, I’m in love.”
The words don’t make sense as written. Presumably, love is supposed to leave one all mixed up, and the narrator is lost in love. Whitters can also hurl out catchy couplets that capture a mood (“She’s the whiskey in your soda / The lime to your Corona / The Audrey to your Hank”) or a person’s character (“She’s got a baby doll face / But she’s steel toe strong”) in just a few words. Whitters’ greatest forte as a songwriter is her creative ability to capture complex thoughts and feelings in vernacular language. Rather than portray caricatures, she creates characters to whom we all can relate, even if one isn’t from Iowa.
Unlike Whitters. I wasn’t born in a small town. I haven’t been in a factory in several decades (Springsteen’s protagonists never seem to work at a computer). Neither her Iowa nor his Jersey are any more real than Oz. That doesn’t mean we can’t dream in color. Both musicians create their own private worlds based on what was once or at least thought it was. No matter where one lives, their music can transport you there today.