With a smoky rock ‘n’ roll voice like Sheryl Crow’s and Karen Fairchild’s and ears for musical experimentation, Nashville original Natalie Hemby could have recorded anything for her first album.
Her last decade in music has included four No. 1s with Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum, as well as songs recorded by Crow, Kelly Clarkson, Brett Eldredge, Eli Young Band, Jana Kramer, Kacey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Lee Ann Womack. Most recently, she co-wrote 10 songs on Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings.
But what she created for her solo debut as a recording artist surprised her. Out Jan. 13, Puxico (pronounced PUHX-eh-coe) is a touching Americana tribute to living and loving in small town U.S.A. And it’s inspired by her grandfather George Hemby, 87, and his hometown of Puxico, Missouri — her second home. It’s also serves as the companion soundtrack to her 2015 documentary of the same subject and title.
With a population of approximately 873 people, Puxico is a quiet farm town nestled on the edge of the Mingo Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Missouri. Every August, the population swells to nearly 10,000 folks for the town’s week-long homecoming festivities — an annual event that started 70 years ago as a welcome home celebration for American soldiers returning from World War II. She swears the goat burgers are worth the trip alone, and attractions include a massive square dance where the circles move so fast, dancers get trampled if they trip. Listeners can taste the dust on their stomping boots just listening to Puxico.
“This is dead serious hillbilly square dancing,” Hemby explains during our CMT.com interview at Grimey’s New & Preloved Music in Nashville. “I’m talking like 300 people on the dance floor, and I don’t mean do-si-do. You either get in it or you get stomped on. I took Maren Morris and my friends Lindsey and Kelly, when they came for the premiere of the documentary, and I swear to God, they were about to pass out because it’s a 30-minute dance. Literally people who have ever lived there or visited come out.”
“Doing the documentary was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she adds, “and probably the thing I’m proudest of, in a way. Out of that came these songs that were so personal, and I wanted them to be timeless. Honestly, I always thought my first record would be a rock record, coming out guns a-blazing. That is not where I’m at in my life. I save the guns for special moments I guess. Sometimes the more introspective, quieter stuff speaks louder.”
Kicking off with a classic Johnny Cash train beat on “Time Honored Tradition,” the whole collection fits in perfectly with the stacks of Americana vinyl at Grimey’s. Her voice is accessible and fun to sing along with, especially for those who can’t sing along to the pop divas who dominate today’s radio. Crow’s voice provided a similar soundtrack for women in the ‘90s who couldn’t belt along to radios full of Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston.
“Her records were like Bibles to me,” Hemby says of Crow. “The reason why is because I grew up in the time of melisma singing. Big pop voices were always on the radio. But there were these great girl rock voices. I liked Alanis Morisette OK. But Sheryl had this very down home, Bob Dylan approach to the way she sang. She could also sing her ass off. I identify with that voicing more.”
She says her grandfather’s favorite song on the album at the moment is “Lovers on Display.”
“He’s a spry guy,” she admits. “He’s got a girlfriend, and they’ve known each other for 80 years. Her name is Geneva, and I keep threatening them I’m going to write a song called ‘George and Geneva.’ Like a Tammy Wynette–George Jones song. That would be so sweet.”
As someone who makes music professionally every day, Hemby is already sitting on at least six albums’ worth of material. So why did it take so long to get to Puxico?
“I always tell people,” she says, “I spent my 20s trying to get a record deal, my 30s writing for other people. And now I’m putting out my own record, and it feels really good. I think I was just scared.”
Scared of what?
“Rejection really,” she admits. “Releasing music is so different now. Ten years ago, Facebook started taking off — I mean, MySpace was huge — which is crazy. It’s all quickly developed to where you can actually do a record and put it out. Watching Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark, just watching them make records and put them out, it’s inspiring.”
“It’s almost like the record’s a freezing cold lake,” she adds. “And it’s like, ‘No, I can’t jump in. I can’t do this. I can’t swim in this.’ And then you see your friend jump in and then you see another friend jump in. ‘The water’s fine! Come on in!’
“That’s exactly what it’s like. Music, you have to do it because you like it, not because you’re going to be rich. It is a universal language. Not to sound cheesy, but it’s true.”