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Q&A with Singer-Songwriter Hailey Whitters

Hailey Whitters’ touching single “Janice at the Hotel Bar” tells the story of a real-life Janice who gives life advice to a younger woman. Hailey sat down with us to reflect on the songwriting process ahead of her new album dropping February 28.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What was it like to perform “Janice at the Hotel Bar” on the Opry recently?

It was so special. It was the first time I had played that song [live]. I think the real Janice was listening from New York [on WSM Radio]. To be able to sing that song, which to me feels like one of my most important songs, to be able to sing it on that holy stage, it just felt surreal that night. It was really special.

The song is based on an encounter Landyn Hutchinson, the force behind popular lifestyle blog Living with Landyn, had with a real-life woman named Janice at a hotel bar. How did you link up with Landyn and co-writer Lori McKenna to create the song?

I was writing with Lori — I think I was up there in March of 2018 — and I had been like, “Hey, I’d love to write a song of life advice that an older woman might say to a younger woman.” And she asked me if I knew about Living with Landyn … I guess Landyn had posted a few months prior about meeting Janice, this random stranger, at a hotel bar, and they just sat and talked for hours. Landyn had posted a photo of Janice and kind of laundry-listed this advice and wisdom that Janice had told her. Lori and I started pulling things from that, like “sardines” and “berries” and “granddaughter is still single.” We also started pulling from women we’ve crossed in our own lives. Like, there’s this woman in my hometown who is 95 and she still mows her own lawn, and then my grandma had always said, “A glass of red a day is good for the heart.” So, we pulled from Janice, but we also pulled from our own experiences with these women who’ve left an impression on our lives. That’s kind of how the song came about. Obviously when we released the song, Landyn had heard about it and started the Instagram account @womenlikejanice. All these listeners started posting their Janice and tagging the women that shaped their lives.

It’s interesting that while the song names a specific woman, the song is really about many “Janices.”  

We all have that person — whether that’s a random stranger we met in the grocery checkout line that day or someone who’s actually in our own family who has kind of been our guru for wisdom and life advice.

Who is Janice for you?

I feel like I definitely have a few. Probably the one who is the most profound influence in my life is my grandmother, the one who said, “A glass of red a day is good for the heart.” She is kind of the one throughout my entire life who’s had maybe the deepest impact and influence on me.

Do you have a favorite line in the song you wrote with Lori that sticks out to you?

There are so many cool lines in that song, but I think the one that I probably find myself coming back to the most is the hook, which is “Go on and make a good living, but don’t forget to make a good life.” That kind of encapsulates everything, especially this career where we can be so focused on shows and charts. Really, there’s no time off in this profession, but this is the line that I probably try to make the greatest point of trying to live out.

The duality of that hook is definitely the stuff of great songwriting. Did the narrative of the song come along easily to you and Lori?

I know we were stuck on that. This song took us two sessions to finish. I remember we had started towards the end of the day, and we were flying through all the laundry list things. Then I remember we got to the chorus, and Lori shout out “Stay off the pills, but get on the Pill if you ain’t ready to start a family.” But then I remember after that we were like, OK, what now? I remember going home that day knowing that we were going to get back together the next day and still not knowing where the song was going to go. I take the train every time I write with Lori, and it gives me a solid 40 minutes to think. I started Googling powerful women quotes and inspiring advice from women. I can’t even remember how we came up with that line, but I remember when we did, it just anchored everything together.

We all have that person — whether that’s a random stranger we met in the grocery checkout line that day or someone who’s actually in our own family who has kind of been our guru for wisdom and life advice.

What’s it like to write a song that resonates with fans in such a way that they are submitting their own #womenlikejanice stories?

It really is insane, [especially] when the song came out and was No. 14 on the iTunes chart and just seeing these women post these things. The song is obviously so special to me, especially one that I had a hand in writing, but it’s so much bigger than me now. To see it become a song for everyone else is a really, really cool thing. It just feels so special to get to be the one to deliver it. Honestly, at this point, I feel like it’s not for me anymore. It’s for everyone else, just seeing it resonate with them. It’s cool to have given them something that calls them to reflect on these amazing women who are in their lives. It’s a really cool moment.

Is there any fan story that sticks out to you in particular since the Instagram account and hashtag were launched?

Oh gosh, there are so many that I would go and look through. Women whose grandmas were in the hospital and still couldn’t see the doctor without putting on their rouge. There’s one of a woman who was bit by a rattlesnake and still hiked the Grand Canyon. That was pretty insane. I loved the one of a woman — I think it was of someone’s grandma — doing a headstand in the front yard. They’re all really special. They’re really beautiful.

What is the biggest thing you’ve learned from not only writing the song but also putting it out there into the world?

How powerful words can be. I just feel like this is such a story song. It’s such a life song. To me, it’s the kind of country music I grew up on and that I loved. The thing that I loved about country was that it felt like real life and real stories. I feel like it’s rare that a song like that comes around on country radio lately. Especially seeing the response, you just can’t underestimate the power of a great story.

Growing up, what were those songs that stuck with you for their storytelling quality?

“Traveling Soldier” is a great one. “Don’t Take the Girl,” Tim McGraw. “Walkaway Joe” by Trisha Yearwood. “Remember When,” Alan Jackson.

When you were 15 years old, you were backstage and told Little Jimmy Dickens that you’d play the Opry one day. You made your Opry debut last year. What does it mean to you to return as your career develops?

To me, the Grand Ole Opry is the pinnacle of shows in country music. To be able to be a part of that history is so important to me. Growing up in Iowa, the Grand Ole Opry is literally the only thing I wanted to do in country music. It feels pretty good to know that I checked that one off. I can go home now. I’m good. (Laughs) … It’s just unreal to me. It feels so special every time I get to be on that stage.

What can your fans look forward to this year?

My record is coming out February 28, The Dream. I’m on tour with Jordan Davis right now, and I’m about to join Tanya Tucker for her Bring My Flowers Now tour.