Recognized as one of the best songwriters in Nashville, Natalie Hemby almost didn’t get a chance to sing her own songs after more than 20 years in the business. Just call it “The Mysterious Case of the Unsung Singer”. Thankfully, though, once Hemby got her opportunity, she never stopped singing. So tonight, when the Americana Music Association honors its artists of the year during an awards/performance event at Ryman Auditorium, Hemby will be singing her heart out when she takes the famed stage along with an esteemed group of fellow musicians including Jason Isbell, Valerie June, Margo Price, and Steve Earle.
She also could go home a winner again as the Highwomen — the super-gal quartet that also includes Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires — are nominated for Duo/Group of the Year, an honor they won in 2020 along with Album of the Year (The Highwomen) and Song of the Year (“Crowded Table”, co-written by Carlile, Hemby and Lori McKenna).
Even if they do repeat in the group category, it will be hard to top what the Fabulous Four accomplished earlier this month. Hemby was still riding on cloud nine when she called “on a beautiful day” from her writing room in the suburban house in Brentwood, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband/producer/musician Mike Wrucke and their ten-year-old daughter Sammie Jo.
The purpose of the phone call just after Labor Day was to chat about Hemby’s forthcoming album Pins and Needles, which will be released on 8 October. But there were other appetizers on her plate that needed devouring before the main course. This was like sitting on actual pins and needles as she couldn’t hold back her excitement for an experience as a last-minute headlining replacement that took place in Napa, California, only a few days earlier. “I just got off of an epic last weekend with the Highwomen,” Hemby shares less than 60 seconds after our conversation begins. “It was very, very unexpected.”
In rapid-fire fashion, she blurts out the frenetic details that led to about 12 Hours of Musical Mayhem on Friday, 3 September, the opening day of the BottleRock Napa Valley Festival. Her retelling is just an excerpt, capturing the manic spirit of what she calls a “fast and furious” episode:
Hemby shows up for WXPN’s virtual Free at Noon Concert in Nashville. … She wonders who’s calling her now …
Carlile: “I’m here at BottleRock, Maren’s here. Mavis [Staples] is here and you’re here.”
Hemby: “Wait! I’m not at BottleRocket.”
Carlile: “First off, it’s BottleRock, and what do you mean you’re not here?”
Hemby: “No. [You and I are] playing the Roots N Blues Festival [in Columbia, Missouri] together [later this month].”
Carlile: “That’s right! Well, here’s the deal. [Chris] Stapleton’s sick …”
Hemby (after suggesting possible alternatives): “Well, I don’t know if I can make it.”
Carlile: “What if we can get you a plane?”
Hemby: “Sure, if you can get a plane, I can leave right after my thing.”
Shires (not able to travel after recently experiencing a medical emergency) calling Carlile: “Hey, I want Brittney [Spencer] to take my place.”
That’s how a super trouper wound up on a plane to California with the Ryman rookie, recently chosen by the Recording Academy as one of “5 Black Artists Rewriting Country Music”. Spencer, who made her Ryman debut on 25 August, “learned [Highwomen] stuff in a matter of hours,” according to Hemby, undoubtedly serving as masterful coach.
“We were going over and over the songs. She already knew them,” Hemby adds. “She’s so, so good. You don’t always know if someone’s gonna sing great harmony. If you have a group, the reason why you’re a group is because you guys all sound great together. (laughs) So she got thrown into this mix and I’m telling you, I almost wanted to cry because I was like, ‘Thank you. You’re so good! (laughs) I was so glad you were able to do this.’ We just had the best time.”
Asked how they were able to pull it off considering the circumstances, Hemby exclaims with pure glee, “What everybody witnessed that night was a miracle. I don’t think anybody really understands. (laughs) It was so divine and, I mean, literally, we took a picture of us all praying together. One of my friends was like, ‘Were you guys praying before the show?’ I was like, ‘Well when you don’t rehearse, you have to pray.’” (laughs)
Told that one reviewer pronounced “history was made” with this altered lineup, Hemby delivers an even better line: “Well, I would say we made our own history.”
If it doesn’t get any better than this career-high for the Highwomen, making only their second full-fledged performance (Shires was there among the original four for their debut at 2019’s Newport Folk Festival), Hemby seems fine with that. But as an emerging solo career takes off with a full-length follow-up at the age of 44, this lighthearted woman possessing a marvelous voice, many intriguing stories to tell and her own contagious laugh track has every reason to believe the best is yet to come.
Not Taking Aim at Fame
With Pins and Needles, Hemby should shake the dreaded “sophomore jinx” many artists encounter. It’s a grand, glorious, golden slice of Americana pie that likely will rank among the best of the year by numerous outlets. That includes PopMatters, which listed her solo debut Puxico No. 6 among the 15 best Americana albums in 2017. Reminded of that fact, Hemby declares, “I love PopMatters! I’ll never forget it! I was very happy.”
Regarding her expectations for the new album, she divulges, “I feel like in some ways they’ve already been exceeded, which is great. … Anytime you have a record, you just want people to love it. You want people to listen to it, to download it, and be inspired by it.”
Whether if finally fulfills her 20-year dream of becoming an established solo artist after previously solidifying her place in the industry as a formidable Grammy-winning songwriter might still be up in the air, she believes.
“There’s a lot of mixed emotions, obviously,” Hemby contends. “I’m still a new artist to a lot of people. So you still have to always be proving yourself but It’s almost like it’s easy to prove yourself ’cause you’ve been doing it for a while, and you’ve got this nice bag of tricks on your side. I just feel like if the music’s good, I just need the opportunities. I’m really happy to have had all the those times to be able to put [that] into the music because … the epicenter of someone’s career is great music.
“The end game for me is I just want people to … look to me as somebody they respect as an artist. I don’t know if I necessarily want to be famous, but I do want to be respected. That’s more of what I want out of this than anything else.”