One Baby Step at a Time
Let the record show that Natalie Nicole Hemby was born on 24 March 1977 in Bloomington, Illinois, though she quickly points out with another burst of laughter that Wikipedia “said I was born on Puxico for years.” She did name her 2017 solo debut album after that small town in southeast Missouri where her grandfather resided.
Despite all that, Hemby proudly claims the Music City as her hometown, moving before she was two with her parents Tom and Deanna Hemby into the Iroquois Apartments in West Nashville. Her father and mother can thank contemporary Christian and gospel music singer Amy Grant for putting them to work. A touring musician for Christian artists then, Tom soon went on the road as a member of Grant’s backing band.
Deanna, her daughter revealed to Southern Exposure Magazine in 2018, loves to dance and was crowned Jitterbug Queen in high school. Natalie’s mom went from cleaning Grant’s house to becoming her personal assistant, a job she’s held for “probably over 35” years, according to Hemby, who quickly fell in love with the city — but not all its components.
“I grew up in this town, I grew up in this business, and Nashville is a great town,” she maintains. “It’s an awesome music town. But when you grow up here, it’s like, I liked country music, but I didn’t really listen to it. I listened to Tom Petty and I listened to more roots-rock kind of stuff. You know, Nashville, there used to be a time when rhinestone and glitter and stuff were kind of cheesy, and now it’s like, it’s everything. …
“I was sort of like George Bailey [the Jimmy Stewart character in It’s a Wonderful Life] and this was my Bedford Falls, and I just did not appreciate it until I moved away and came back and realized what a wonderful town it is to be in. Such great songwriters, such great studios and musicians, and … I love it.”
The alto singer from John Overton High School was only 17 when she was selected to perform with the Grammy All-American High School Jazz Band in Los Angeles as part of the event’s awards program. She soon appeared at Jammin’ Java in Franklin, where the cover charge was $5. A year or so later, admission prices had increased when Hemby played at Sam’s Place at the Ryman hosted by Gary Chapman, supporting artists like Lee Roy Parnell and Marty Stuart. Those were baby steps for her, but seemingly in the right direction toward a recording career.
“Boy, that feeling! I loved performing!” an ebullient Hemby recalls. “I loved being in front of an audience, I love people, I like entertaining people, and so I just had this heart to want to do that. But to be fair, even though I grew up in the music business, I don’t think I really understood the inner workings of the music business. … Because I was a people pleaser, I probably would have signed an absolutely horrific [record] deal (laughs) if I had been given a chance to do so.”
Will Botwin, Carlile’s current manager at Red Light Management, nearly signed Hemby when he was with Columbia Records, then “at the 11th hour, they let go of all their staff and they weren’t signing any new people. So it just never happened,” Hemby reflects. “But you know what? Things don’t work out for a reason.”
Though Hemby continued to appreciate a diverse range of artists — digging Missy Elliott, K’s Choice, and Susannah Hoffs at various trips to Lilith Fair (“a much-needed women’s Lollapalooza,” she states) in her early 20s — a comfortable niche writing and cowriting songs for other artists was found.
She was 19 when “The Bees”, cowritten with Daniel Tashian, was recorded by Lee Ann Womack (with Keith Urban singing background vocals). “White Liar”, a cowrite with Miranda Lambert, was released in 2009 and started a streak of hit songs that Hemby wrote for Lambert and other country stars like Little Big Town (“Tornado”) and Toby Keith (“Drinks After Work”).
Still trying to get a record deal, a frustrated Hemby found “those doors were always shut. … This is a very high school analogy, but I feel like the record business has been like the cutest guy in school. At the moment you pay attention to him, he doesn’t want to talk to you, but when you totally ignore him, he comes sneaking after you. (laughs) That’s what it’s been for me.”
Senior proms and pop quizzes were a distant memory when Hemby was 23 and found her soul mate after singing a demo at a publishing company run by Jody Williams, once a prominent force in the industry with BMI, MCA Music Publishing, and Chappell Music, among others. Saying matter of factly, “This is me 30 pounds ago. I had a red-leather miniskirt on. (laughs) I had a boyfriend at the time but …” She asked for another guy’s phone number anyway.
It turned into what she calls, “a typical Nashville story, right?” Mike Wrucke, working on the demo she was singing at the time, not only became Hemby’s leading man two years later when they were married in May 2002 but eventually her “favorite producer.” In the album notes, she waxes lovingly about her husband (“You’re all I could ever want”) and her daughter (“You’re the best song I could ever hope to write”).
Wrucke, who has produced Hemby’s two solo albums, also played most of the instruments on Pins and Needles, handing off drums on three songs to Dan Needham, pedal steel to Greg Leisz for “New Madrid and “Heart Condition” and B3 organ and keys to Chuck Leavell for “It Takes One to Know One”. Arriving in Nashville in 1995, “He knew all the country music people in that scene, but he was deep down a Milwaukee rock ’n’ roll guy,” she notes about her husband. “But he always told me, ‘I moved down here thinking country music was gonna be Whiskeytown and Wilco.’ Yeah, I wish.” (laughs)
Another Musical Addition
Following their wedding, Hemby and Wrucke moved to Los Angeles, but after only three months, “we came back home with our tail tucked between our legs,” Hemby admits. “Everything was moving towards the internet. CD sales were down. … You had to be on TV to have a record deal. There was this ever-evolving industry. Going to L.A. to work is a lot of fun but living there is a whole different ballgame.”
Years later, though, when Wrucke was there to record, the couple collaborated on a very successful production. Their daughter was conceived at a Holiday Inn in nearby Burbank.
The thought of being in a place widely known for Johnny Carson punchlines leads to an explosive laugh from Hemby. But she quickly changes the mood to sweetly brag about Sammie Jo, named for two of Hemby’s favorite Samanthas — her cousin, “one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life.” And the character played by Alyssa Milano in Who’s the Boss?, the Tony Danza sitcom she loved growing up.
“Honestly, she’s a gift to us,” Hemby offers about their only child. “We tried to have kids for seven years and we couldn’t. She just came out of nowhere, literally. … She’s a huge blessing to us, and my kid is musically exceptional. I don’t teach her anything. She loves music. She does not like pop radio. She likes Dua Lipa, that’s about it, but she likes old music.
“When a Journey song comes on in the store, she goes, ‘Ohhhh, listen to this song!’ She just scares me. ’Cause I’m just like, ‘I know. It’s Journey, honey. I’ve heard it 17,000 times!’ And she loves Elton John. She can sing harmony to ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. She’s just a really magical kid. There’s part of me that wants her to do this and there’s part of me that doesn’t.”
Though Hemby likely won’t tour regularly until 2022, she eventually wants to bring Sammie Jo on the road — depending on her school schedule — because “she’s great at singing harmonies. And she’s taking piano right now, so maybe we’ll get her on keys, too.”
What do they say about the family that plays together?