What’s ‘In’ for 2024? CMA Awards Nominee Hailey Whitters’ New Single

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When the Country Music Association hands out its 57th annual awards on Wednesday (Nov. 8), Hailey Whitters will have one of the best seats at the ceremony, given that she’s a finalist for best new artist. She’s a buoyant personality on a normal day, but Whitters is particularly upbeat about this long-sought career stage.

“I always dreamed of getting to be a part of the CMA Awards,” she says. “It’s been 15 years I’ve been chasing this dream in this town, so there definitely have been moments where that window might have seemed to pass for something like that. So I’m elated to be a best new artist [nominee].”

The nod comes on the heels of her bubbly breakthrough single, “Everything She Ain’t,” and with her follow-up, “I’m in Love,” Whitters is solidifying the brand with two-and-a-half minutes of bright, seemingly random images sold with her blade-like vocal tone.

“I hope it kind of sends a message that I’m here to stick around for a while,” she says, “like, I’m not just this one-hit wonder — whatever — with ‘Everything She Ain’t.’ There’s more where that came from.”

“I’m in Love,” like Whitters, had to wait a long time for its opportunity in the spotlight, and with good reason. The title is, by itself, less than overwhelming. After Nicolle Galyon (“Tequila,” “half of my hometown”) logged it into the list of potential song titles on her phone, it was years — potentially a full decade — before she found a setting where it made sense to even suggest it.

“When we start a co-write and people start throwing out ideas, I usually start at the bottom because those are the most fresh, new ideas,” she says. “When you get in a rut and none of these ideas are sticking for whatever reason, sometimes I’ll just scroll way back up.”

That was the case on January 11, during a writing session hosted by Cameron Bedell (“Down Home,” “Found It in You”). They had booked an assignment with Lee Thomas Miller (“In Color,” “It Ain’t My Fault”) and ended up postponing and re-booking several times for over a year. Once they got into the room — nothin’.

For 90 minutes, they batted around ideas, unable to find anything that got all three of them interested. So Galyon reached back for “I’m in Love,” which was better than it sounds because it came with a device: This is in that, this is in that, and I’m in love. As simple as that was, it had potential with the right this’es and that’s.

“The whole thing was, how can we make whatever they’re going to be as unique as we possibly can?” says Miller.

The only other parameter they set was to develop a ’90s sound for it. Bedell started in on an easy chord progression, Galyon crafted a melody around short phrases, and she and Miller traded images, beginning with an opening line — “Beers in the bucket, suds in the sink” — that gave a wink to Sara Evans’ “Suds in the Bucket.” 

“When [Nicolle] and Lee were going back and forth, they were going so fast,” Bedell recalls. “They were like, ‘There’s chicken in the skillet.’ ‘Oh, yeah. And there’s ice in the drink.’ But then there’s ‘this in this.’ I was sitting there going, ‘Yeah, yeah, all that’s good,’ as I’m chunking away at the guitar. It was just like a puzzle we were all trying to put together at the same time.”

They stuck faithfully to the “in” theme until they worked their way to the chorus, where they signaled the new stanza by flipping the sentence to “Ooh, ooh, I’m out of my mind.”

“We’d given a lot of information, and then you get to the chorus, you need a break from it,” Miller explains. “We went the opposite at the most important line. That’s the first time — the chorus breaks the device.”

But that shift also represented a change in the focus of “I’m in Love.” “The verses are all environmental, you know; painting the picture of what’s going on around her,” Galyon notes. “But the chorus is what’s going on inside her.” They tossed the “in” device out at two more key points:  at the end of the last verse and in a bonus line — “Chills down on my spine, hearts on the line” — in the final chorus.

There were a few other oddities. “Deers in rut” is a hunting term — they essentially reference animals in heat in the song’s chorus. They also incorporated some astrological material in multiple spots: man in the moon, stars in a line and Mercury’s all in retrograde. “‘Sister’s in her room smokin’ God knows what’ and the ‘Mercury’ line kind of make it feel a tad modern and a little edgy, because everything about it is so wholesome,” Galyon observes.

They came back a second time, mostly to revise the way the chorus closed out. Galyon, who had to run, sang a quick vocal for the demo, fully intending to improve on it later. Bedell worked further on it, and the creative team for his publisher, Liz Rose Music, got excited about it, quelling the last of his minor doubts.

“After we finished it, I was like, ‘I don’t know if anyone is going to like this because maybe they feel like it’s too much random stuff,’ ” remembers Bedell. “That was my fear at first.”

Whitters held meetings with publishers to consider outside songs, with Galyon — the head of her label, Songs & Daughters — in the room. Liz Rose co-founder Dave Pacula told Galyon how much he liked “I’m in Love” — a surprise to Galyon, who didn’t think the demo was finished — and Whitters and her husband, producer Jake Gear, had him play the demo, which was not on the day’s agenda. By the end of the first chorus, they were ready to put it on hold.

“It just felt like me — so like my language — and felt like something I would say,” Whitters recalls. “The energy behind it is kind of flirty, kind of playful, fun. It just felt really strong.”

Gear booked a fairly large band for two days of recording at Nashville’s Sound Emporium on February 27 and 28, though the group doesn’t sound all that big. The players all find moments to shine in small bursts, particularly impressive since the windows between the song’s phrases are fairly tight.

“It’s just so fun having everybody there at once instead of resorting to overdub sessions,” says Gear. “There’s a lot of stuff on the track, but it’s not necessarily too busy. It’s because they know what everybody’s doing.”

Gear and engineer Logan Matheny added some hand claps — shades of “Everything She Ain’t” — and they got Michael Rojas to provide some old-world character with an accordion part. “Haley loves accordion,” Gear says. “She’s got family down in Louisiana — we spend most Easters down there — and there’s this Cajun restaurant we go to all the time to hear Zydeco. And then I’m a sucker for [John] Mellencamp. He had a lot of accordion in his stuff, and that heartland rock sound has a little bit of a throwback, old-timey thing.” 

“I’m in Love” became the title track for a summer EP, and Big Loud and Songs & Daughters released it to country radio via PlayMPE on Sept. 26. It tracks at No. 55 on the Country Airplay chart dated Nov. 11. Coinciding with her first CMA nomination, Whitters would like to think it’s a sign her career details are working just like the stars in the text.

“They all kind of lined up,” she says. “I’m just really excited for this new era. It just feels very fun. And very country.” 

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