Harper Grae is Proclaiming Her Freedom
By: Lindsay Flanagan
If you know country music, you’ll know the name Pat Alger, the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame icon who wrote hits for country music artists such as Hal Ketchum, Trisha Yearwood and the legendary Garth Brooks. Alger has now penned a song with a name you might not yet have heard, but that you should probably take note of: Harper Grae.
But Harper Grae didn’t just sit down at The Bluebird Cafe—one of the most legendary venues in Nashville, known for its celebrated acoustic performances—and plunk down a few notes to catch Alger’s attention. No, Harper Grae traveled a long road in her life—both personally and professionally—to get her opportunity. Grae comes from deep Southern roots, brought up in a small town, and is a survivor of a broken home. And while that all sounds like a country song itself, Harper Grae isn’t stuck in just one song. No, she’s got her eyes set on a full record and a world stage.
Harper Grae was born Shanna Elizabeth Henderson in Montgomery, Alabama. She was raised by her grandparents, Ann and Roger Harper and her aunt Dianne Harper, after her parents were no longer able to care for her or her sister. She grew up in the small town of Reeltown, Alabama and, like almost anyone who is raised in a small town, loves it but admits it isn’t the easiest place to be raised: everyone knows who you are, what your past is and where you came from—which can be both a good and bad thing. Perhaps the hardest part about being a small-town kid is that others expect you to be part of mold that has already been built, based on what your family name is, who your parents are or something else in a small-town past. As Harper Grae, Shanna’s professional name changed to honor the grandparents and aunt who raised her— told us in a recent interview, “Sometimes I feel like people put you in boxes (or they do me at least) and if you’re not careful you can conform to that.” So, breaking out of the box or out of the mold,is something that you must do if you are going to truly be free to be who you really are. And break free is exactly what she did. And perhaps those small-town, blessing/curse sentiments are what the lyrics in her new single, aptly named “Free,” mean: “You can take my heart, but you can never have my soul…you think you got me, but I’m meant to be free.”
As if destined to be a champion of freedom, Harper was born on the 4th of July. She grew up participating in all-American activities such as sports and music and while in high school was on the honor roll. She attended Auburn University and majored in musical theater and religious studies (“Grae” is an acronym for “God Redeems All Equally”), where she heard about auditions in the area for a show that was connected to her favorite show at the time Glee. She auditioned for Ryan Murphy, who gave her the role in Glee Project 2.
Harper subsequently moved to Los Angeles to begin her role and she found she had to have a quick learning curve. She had a limited time to learn a song and then she had to shoot the music video and shoot scenes for the show. But she says that it was the best learning she could have had, especially because the songs she learned came from a diverse group of musicians. She auditioned with a Carrie Underwood song, but performed songs on the show by artists like Whitesnake and Lady Gaga.
After her time on Glee Project 2, Harper moved to Nashville to pursue her music career. As an independent country artist, Harper has had to work very hard to be where she is—even to make ends meet at times. She had garnered a solid fan base from her tme Glee Project 2 and successfully released her debut single “Hell or Highwater” in 2015. The lyrics evoke a sense of place—that perception that where you come from isn’t everything you are, but at least a piece of yourself is still rooted in your home: “Ain’t no town going to steal my soul…I’m planting my roots deep in this ground…This sacred wasteland’s in my bones/Come hell, come highwater, it’s still my home.” While the song certainly rides along the traditional country music themes of America, leaving or returning home, and nostalgia for what has been lost, Harper Grae the artist seems to push that theme boundary a bit: “I don’t forget where I came from, but it’s definitely inspired me to challenge myself to be different from where I came from,” she said in a recent interview with ONErpm. “It’s not where I wanted to be, but it’s definitely a part of who I am.” Leaving one’s hometown to pursue bigger dreams is something Harper not only perhaps subconsciously writes and sings about, but she’s also a concrete example of it. After “Hell or Highwater” was released, the media took notice. CMT added her to their Artist Discovery Program while Rolling Stone Country named her as one of the Ten Artists You Need To Know. The Crook and Chase radio show, which is nationally syndicated, listed her in its Artist Discovery Program.
Harper acknowledges that her childhood wasn’t easy, but she wouldn’t change it. With the release of her single “Dear Daddy,” she has learned that there are many people with childhoods and backgrounds similar to hers and the courage to write about her past has allowed others to come to terms with their pasts and maybe even heal. She has said about the single: “For a while, I was afraid to share this kind of story from my past, but unfortunately, I think many people will be able to relate to the lyrics. I hope that brings all of us in this same situation some comfort—the fact that you aren’t alone and that there is beauty in admitting that vulnerability.”
But, of course, there is a lot of good about her childhood. She began singing at a very young age. Her first performances (apart from the ones she sang in the fields with a stick as a microphone and her dolls as her only audience) were in a small country church where her grandfather played piano. Her first solo was at the age of four and she sang “Amazing Grace.” She cites her influences as iconic country artists like Hank Williams, Sr. and Johnny Cash, along with female artists like Brandi Carlile and Martina McBride, the latter of whose songs Harper says always told stories. And in our recent interview with her, she told us that she was currently dreaming of collaborating with Mumford & Sons. Her list of influences is inclusive of many genres and styles and she tries to do the same thing with her own music—be inclusive of everyone, as she told ONErpm: “A lot of my music is all about empowerment, inclusivity, and allowing people—all types of people—to just be honest with who you are and where you’re going in life, and not care about the boundaries that society puts around you. Be truthful to who you are and who you want to be. That’s the through-line with my music.”
Her latest single, “Free,” is a prime example of that theme. It’s about pushing boundaries, being inclusive and being honest with one’s self. She says it’s about being “fearless and bold” about being who you are. It was inspired from one of her journaling sessions where she was exploring the themes of freedom—either from a toxic relationship or freedom from persecution. She says that she’s been intentionally sharing “pieces of who I am and who I’m becoming…sharing songs filled with hope with people who need to be reminded that hope exists.”
“Free” was recently added to Spotify’s “Wild Country” playlist and music critics are taking notice. Famed music critic Robert K. Oermann wrote on Music Row that “Free” is, “Very cool sounding…her vocal is loaded with personality. Best of all, it is an outstanding production that incorporates hand claps, thudding-stark percussion, churchy piano chords, a celebratory chorus of backup vocalists and mandolin twittering. Essential listening.” That is high praise for a young artist and, based not only on that praise but the quality of the music itself, it’s safe to say that Harper Grae is destined to become one of the brightest stars in country music. Her opportunity to write with legendary Pat Alger isn’t a capstone—it’s a cornerstone that shows she’s just beginning.
Harper Grae will be releasing her first EP this October with a tour to follow after.
You can find out more about Harper Grae at the below sites:
Official Website: https://www.harpergraemusic.com/