Shortly after sunset in East Nashville on 12 October 2021, an expectant line snaked around the structure of the Basement East. The club is one of the city’s small music venues that pepper the landscape of hopes and dreams—sanctuaries that gather the disparate faithful searching for temporary transcendence from the mundane by sharing music that names their heartbreaks and joys. In early March of 2020, just before the pall of the pandemic would upend our practices of gathering and communing, the Basement East had partially collapsed under the force of an F3 tornado that ripped through the city. After being rebuilt and reopened, the location was an apt host for the night’s events, a celebration of resilience, creativity, and the power of connection.
A capacity crowd filled the intimate club to celebrate Natalie Hemby‘s new album, Pins and Needles, her second solo album and the first on the Fantasy Records label. Hemby is a prominent songwriter with songwriting credits on eight Billboard #1’s for Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Toby Keith, and Lady Gaga, to name a few. But her inclusion in the female Americana supergroup, the Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires, has introduced a broader public to Hemby’s talent.
Opening act Ashley Ray’s short set introduced an underlying theme of the evening, holding to one’s voice with integrity in a town where the dreamers’ journey includes a fair amount of disappointment and rejection. Ray’s lively performance from her album Pauline moved between heartfelt songs of the deep familial connections that inescapably mark us all and “bloozy” rockers finding the tune in the day-to-day grind.
Ray opened with “Just a House”, a heartbreaking ode to the scars left in the wake of her father’s premature death, a song co-written with Natalie Hemby and Sean McConnell. The connections in Ray’s music were visibly present in the blue bandanna that had belonged to her father, which moved from the mic stand to her wrist when she took the stage. One of her fiercest pieces was the confessional “Waiting”, an insight into the artist’s anguish where the line, “…how goddam long does it take a dream to come true”, is both protest and prayer.
Celebrating a particular answer to this question, Natalie Hemby took the stage in a sharp black pantsuit tinged with silvery fringe with white sneakers peeking out from the flared slacks. She came to play from start to finish the album she told the crowd was “44 years in the making”—a nod to her age and the rewards of persistence. Everything about her stage presence exuded self-possessed confidence. Emphasizing communal celebration over a solo concert, Hemby opened her show by teaching the crowd the chorus to “Heroes” before launching into the song and the album.
The album itself is a tapestry woven from the disparate and often complex strands of our intimate relationships—some binding us tighter, others frayed and unraveling. Hemby’s songwriting gifts are on full display in the album as she explores the complexity of connection: how proximity to those on a pedestal can let us down (“Heroes”), the dangerous fault lines hiding under the surface of seemingly stable relationships (“New Madrid”), the spectral impact of past loves we can’t shake (“Lake Air”), the ache of growing distance (“Radio Silence”), and the struggle to stay amid betrayal (“Heart Condition”) among others. The turns of phrase, the metaphors, poetry, and puns all speak to her apparent gifts, while the album’s strength shines in how these songs are expressions of her voice, both embodied and figurative. This stepping into one’s full voice permeated all of Pins and Needles and was given flesh in her confident performance at The Basement East.
Even in her moment in the literal spotlight, she was quick to emphasize to the gathered the inescapably communal nature of this moment. “As a songwriter, I tell everybody I write with because it matters,” she told us as she gave witness to the musical village that birthed and nurtured these songs with her, including the Brothers Osbourne, Miranda Lambert, Luke Dick, and Maren Morris to name a few. Hemby widened the gaze to include her band introducing guitarist husband and producer of Pins and Needles Mike Wrucke, bassist Shae Wooten, drummer Jacob Arnold, and keyboardist Tony Harrell.
Witnessing how the music of our teenage years inevitably marks us, she unashamedly told the crowd that she was a “1990s girl” and multiple listens to the album unearth resonant echoes of Sheryl Crow, the Chicks, and even Suzanne Vega. Publicly gesturing to the decade’s influences, Hemby gushed affection for the Nashville rock group “Fleming and John”, a staple of Nashville alternative scene in the ’90s before she brought them onstage to perform their hit “Love Songs”. The song was part of a five-song conclusion after Hemby had completed the album from start to finish, including the Grammy-nominated “Bluebird” co-written with and recorded by Miranda Lambert. The concert ended with two rousing sing-a-longs where Hemby reminded the gathering of the strands of connection and resilience forged in the tragedies of the past year and a half—The Highwomen’s Grammy-winning “Crowded Table”, penned with Brandi Carlile and Lori McKenna and “Rainbow”, co-written with Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of a classic sophomore album from a female songwriter who had established herself as a sought-after songwriter and hitmaker for others. That was Tapestry, and in it, Carole King displayed the power of a first-rate songwriter embodying her songs with her own voice and style. The impact of Pins and Needles is yet to emerge, but it is a phenomenal album from an artist coming into full possession of her gifts. It rewards repeated spins and deserves wide airplay.