Photo: Alysse Gafjken / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Natalie Hemby Making “Herstory” at AmericanaFest

Natalie Hemby professes her love for Nashville, where this Highwoman has experienced ups and downs but seems ready to hit the high notes now.

Pins and Needles
Natalie Hemby
Fantasy Records
8 October 2021

Proceed With Caution

Wrucke will be on stage with a guitar as one of three backing musicians when Hemby (on acoustic guitar) plays her AmericanaFest showcase at 11:30 p.m. Thursday (23 September) at Cannery Ballroom. They will be joined by “amazing, legendary musician” Tony Harrell (keyboards), drummer Jacob Arnold and North Carolina bassist Shae Wooten

Of course, the set will focus on songs from Pins and Needles, including “Heroes”, and not only because its “sound embodies that ’90s Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt vibe that I grew up with,” according to Hemby. She also considers the album opener closest to her heart for its ability to tell “part of my story. I grew up in this town and there are some people that I’ve met that I wish I had never met.”  

Asked if she would name any names, Hemby shouts with a hearty laugh, “No way! You know what? I’ll let them drag their own names through the mud.” 

I don’t wanna meet me my heroes / I just want to be a face in the crowd / If I ever met my heroes / They might let me down

Lyrics from Natalie Hemby’s “Heroes”

Hemby’s varied collection of tunes from the album include lovely ballads like “Lake Air” (Wrucke’s favorite) and “Last Resort”, along with ass-kicking rockers such as “Hardest Part About Business” and “It Takes One To Know One”, the latter written with Lambert and Kelly Archer. 

Told that the last two should be guaranteed crowd-pleasers, Hemby shares, “We got to play some of these at Newport [Folk Festival in July] and I’m telling you, everybody stayed. I was so happy. We had a big crowd, and everybody seemed to like it. That’s what makes me even more excited about this record. It’s a fun live record to play.”  

Ready to celebrate their 20th anniversary next May, Hemby believes her professional and personal relationships with Wrucke succeed simultaneously. But being around each other all the time can create some issues, especially since they record in their home studio. 

“I don’t produce, and he doesn’t write,” she asserts. “So it’s like we don’t get in each other’s lane. … If we’re fighting at home, we have to go downstairs and get a vocal, and we have to get along whether we want to or not. … ’Cause we only have this one time to get this vocal. (laughs) … We talk to each other like a couple of Italians or something. We’re very passionate but we also are … we make up.” (laughs)

If Wrucke is a perfectionist who “loves the sound of music” and “wants it to sound great” in the studio, Hemby is the polar opposite, admitting, “I can just kinda go with whatever. But that’s not good either. I think the balance of the two of us is really good but sometimes, if it’s technically not sounding good in his ears, he ain’t having it. … I mean, he’s an engineer. (laughs) … 

“Sometimes we don’t get along. We don’t fight in front of people and we don’t get crazy or anything like that. We’ve been doing this for 20 years, you know.” (laughs)

Photo: Alysse Gafjken / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Genius Brains at Work

Though her singing might still be severely overlooked, Hemby has received plenty of accolades as a songwriter, winning Grammys in 2020 for Best Song Written for Visual Media (“I’ll Never Love Again” with Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born) and Best Country Song (“Crowded Table” with the Highwomen). The 2021 MusicRow Awards’ Female Songwriter of the Year also has been recognized by the Nashville Songwriters Association International and Academy of Country Music for cowriting Song of the Year (Lambert’s “Automatic), and again this month by NSAI for “Bluebird”, another hit single for Lambert.  

Judging the degree of difficulty involved in writing a great song vs. singing one, Hemby ponders for a moment, then provides a clear, concise — and very descriptive — answer. 

“OK, look. You’re either just a great singer or you’re not,” she reasons. “And I know some people who can sing and make a turd of a song sound just incredible. Right? Sometimes it’s challenging, like [artists] have these really incredible voices but their songs aren’t that great. So you’re sort of like, ‘OK, well, why aren’t they bigger? Why aren’t they more famous?’ Because their songs suck. I would say it’s harder to write a great song because that is the bedrock of everything. If you have a great song, you can put great production on it. You can put great production on a bad song and make it better, but it’s still not a great song.” 

Writing what she considers a hit or “a great song” doesn’t require a lot of radio airplay, either, Hemby continues, citing “Jealous”, her cowrite with Labrinth and Josh Kear. “It actually did pretty well in the UK. But that song has brought me more attention here in the United States, and it was never played on radio,” while heard on shows like The Voice and American Idol. “Everyone’s always singing that song. I get people sending me [messages], like, ‘This song means so much to me, blah, blah, blah.’ I think a hit song is just something that resonates with the world. It all starts right there.” 

Unlike Joshua Radin, the subject of last week’s preview who prefers to write mostly by himself, Hemby prefers the collaborative process these days. 

“I do love writing by myself but I’m just telling you when you have access to so many genius brains, I mean, I’ve had song ideas I’ve taken to people and they have made them way better than I could’ve ever written by myself,” she explains. “I think good collaboration is amazing. … I’ve just been doing this a long time that I know who to go to for what. I trust those people. When you write with great writers, your song is awesome.” 

Every track on Pins and Needles is a collaboration, including the title cut with Brothers Osborne, “Banshee” with Lambert, and “Heart Condition” with Maren Morris. 

As another example of its value, Hemby mentions Kacey Musgraves, who has always relied on cowriters, including Tashian, Shane McNally, Luke Laird, and Ian Fitchuk.  

“They’re all great writers,” proclaims Hemby, a most valuable team player who might be too modest to mention her own contributions with Musgraves. “It made for just a beautiful collaboration. Kacey’s more than able to write by herself, but I am, too. I just don’t enjoy it as much.”

Ready to “Roll” Play

If it wasn’t for her songwriting, though, Hemby’s chance of performing (or possibly accepting an award) onstage with the Highwomen tonight at the Ryman might never have happened. 

Crediting producer-musician Dave Cobb for changing “my life in so many ways”, including enlisting her to co-write “I’ll Never Love Again” and “Always Remember Us This Way” with Lady Gaga for the A Star Is Born soundtrack, Hemby indirectly found her way into Nashville’s hottest foursome through him. 

Requested by Cobb to write songs for a project he was producing, she was initially reluctant after hearing “Highwomen”, a take on the Highwaymen’s theme song that Carlile and Shires co-wrote with Jimmy Webb for the eponymous debut album. 

“I was like, ‘Well, how in the hell am I gonna write something like this? What’s wrong with this?’” Hemby recalls. “He’s like, ‘No, no … we need a fun, ‘9 to 5’-ish, Dolly Parton-like, little lightheartedness of a song for women, like where we’re at right now.’ But I was like, ‘OK. Once again, I don’t know how I can even measure up to something like that.’” 

Still, the fan of the 1980s sitcom Designing Women had a working title for a song in mind called “Redesigning Women”. Eventually, Hemby wrote the tune with her friend and “incredible rock songwriter” Rodney Clawson. 

“Women are so different now than how we used to be in the ’50s,” she conveys. “How we feel, what we think, and what we’re doing. It’s like we’re doing a million different things at once because of technology, because of opportunities, everything. But it’s just like [the question remains], ‘When in the world are we cleaning up the kitchen?’” (laughs) 

The Highwomen’s debut single was released in July 2019, four months after Hemby was officially invited to join the group. Other artists such as Margo Price and Chely Wright previously were considered as rotating players for the fourth spot.  

Upon delivering the song, Hemby recollects, “They asked me to come over and sing, so I did, and then Brandi and Amanda literally are in my face and like, ‘Do you want to be in our band?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t have a manager.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, we’re gonna sing with Dolly Parton.’ 

“I was like, ‘OK, well then I’m in.’ Definitely.’” (laughs)

Invitation accepted, the Highwomen’s first public performance was April 1, 2019, at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, just down the block from the Ryman. With Hemby on lead vocals for the opening verse, they sang Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” at the 87th birthday bash for Loretta Lynn. 

Hembry’s place in history as part of the Highwomen while setting her own course as a successful solo artist may finally solve part of the mystery surrounding her origin story: This unsung hero can soar like Wonder Woman, making sure her super-trouper powers will never let you down. 

Natalie Hemby Takes a PopMatters PopQuiz:
AmericanaFest Edition

Hemby agreed to answer questions related to AmericanaFest and the Music City ahead of her showcase at 11:30 p.m. Thursday, 23 September, at Cannery Ballroom (1 Cannery Row). The next day at The Westin, she’ll take part in an hour-long conversation with CMT’s Leslie Fram about her upcoming album. 

What does Americana mean to you and what are your thoughts about it being included as a music genre

Americana is to me a hodgepodge of blues, country, rock ’n’ roll. … It feels to me like it’s a bedrock of the music that I grew up on. 

What song of yours best expresses the spirit of Americana?

One of my favorite songs [from Pins and Needles] is “Hardest Part About Business”. It has blues, country, and a little bit of rebellious rock ’n’ roll-ness.

Among the artists already selected to perform at AmericanaFest this year, who tops your wish list of collaborators either as a writer or performer? 

That’s an amazing question. Somebody I would love to collaborate with — actually, I’ve heard her perform — is Sierra Ferrell. … She’s incredible. … Oh, wait, wait — I know. Lauren Morrow. Lauren is amazing. We’re friends on social media but we’ve never collaborated together. But she has the same sense of humor as me and has like a funky Alison Krauss-type voice. I just love her voice so much. 

Natalie Hemby
Photo: Alysse Gafjken / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

If you could collaborate with any artist past or present, who would it be and why? 

Oh, my gosh! I want to collaborate with Bono. (laughs) Bono and Prince would be amazing. … There’s three, actually. The third one is gonna surprise you, but I love Ron Sexsmith so much. I love his writing so much. He’s an amazing writer. I’ve never met him, don’t know him, don’t know anything about him but I love his music.

As basically a Nashville native, what’s your favorite restaurant and menu item?

Sperry’s, and I love their salad bar. (laughs) That’s a true Nashville place. 

What hidden gem in Nashville needs to be discovered by anyone who visits?

Otaku Ramen. (laughs) They have the best ramen. Delicious. 

What’s your favorite venue in Nashville as 1) a performer and 2) a spectator, and why? 

The Ryman Auditorium [for both]. The Ryman is a church and I don’t know why but I do know why — divine things happen in that place. … When I played there years ago, there was a lady [and classically trained violinist] that played at the show called Sam’s Place and her name was Ruth McGinnis and she passed of [ovarian] cancer [at age 52 in 2009]. My first time playing there — I told her I was very nervous — she said, “Don’t be nervous. Look up to the second balcony and look at the stained-glass windows and just imagine God’s light shining down on you.”

Now I don’t know if it’s God’s light or all the people who have ever played there, but every show I’ve been to there has been the most phenomenal show. I’ve seen Harry Connick Jr., Beck, Sheryl Crow, and Bonnie Raitt. I’ve seen so many amazing artists play there, and it’s always been an incredible show. If I could do a residency at the Ryman, that would be amazing. (laughs)

This is the third and final part of a series previewing artists scheduled to perform at AmericanaFest in Nashville from September 22-25. Previously featured were Rachel Baiman and Joshua Radin. Other musicians set to appear who were profiled here this year include Maggie Rose, Ida Mae, Suzanne Santo and Desert Hollow

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