When Natalie Hemby accepted the Song of the Year award for co-writer Miranda Lambert's "Automatic" at the 2015 Academy of Country Music Awards, she turned to Lambert and said, "I hope I can be your Dean Dillon, because you're my George Strait." The Nashville-based songwriter was referring to the country singer and songwriter dream team that racked up 11 No. 1 singles over Strait's career. Hemby, who's written tracks for Lambert, Little Big Town ("Pontoon," "Tornado") and Lee Ann Womack ("The Bees"), never dreamed that nearly two years later she'd be releasing her debut solo record.
Puxico, out today (Jan. 13), is the result of a career of stops and starts, triumphs and disappointments. Hemby says she wouldn't want it any other way.
"I'm so glad things didn't work out for me," Hemby says, laughing. "I can't tell you how many times I have almost got a record deal -- almost had this happen. I'm so glad to have had this conditioning time of writing with other people and watching their journeys. Putting my record out this way to me is the most gratifying way, rather than being signed at some big label and having to make a record that might not be me."
The album takes its name from Puxico, Mo., where Hemby spent summers staying with her grandparents as a child. Hemby remembers watching her grandfather, George Hemby, play bluegrass at the local VFW hall and she came of age attending Puxico's annual Homecoming, which she still attends every year. The town became her second home.
One year, Hemby noticed attendance for the Homecoming festival was down. She feared that this small town celebration, which includes square dances, a Little Miss Puxico contest and Puxico's "world famous goat burgers," was disappearing.
"I was like, please tell me this is not dying because I want to bring my kids back here," Hemby says. "This place - it's formed me. I want it to live on."
In 2011, Hemby set out to make a documentary about Puxico. What began as an exploration of small town life and Hemby's close relationship with her grandfather unexpectedly resulted in her debut album. Hemby wrote several songs for the film, enlisting the help of Nashville heavyweight songwriter Trent Dabbs. Dabbs, along with a slew of Hemby's friends and co-writers encouraged her to release the songs as an album. But Hemby says it was fellow singer-songwriter Maren Morris who finally convinced her to release the record.
"Maren and Ryan (Hurd) took a trip and they were listening to the record and they were like 'You have to put this out.'," Hemby says. "For some reason, when Maren and Ryan kept telling me it just kind of dawned on me like, yes, I should put this out."
Puxico is a love letter to its namesake, but it's also a tribute to going home again and connecting to the things that ground you. The album kicks off with "Time Honored Tradition," a shuffling tune praising picket fences, trusted friends and tracing "the roots of my inheritance."
Hemby switches gears on the beautifully somber "Cairo, IL," about an abandoned town in southern Illinois, a cautionary tale that warns what can happen when the threads of a community unravel.
Pedal steel treasure Greg Leisz lends his magic to "Ferris Wheel," which doubles as an ode to a warm summer night at the town carnival and a call to embrace change and take risks.
"Worn," is a stand-out track about appreciating the things that show the scars of a life well-lived. I find the finer things worth keeping are worn, Hemby sings, echoing the sentiment of Lambert's plea for a return to simplicity on "Automatic."
If you don't currently live in a small town, you might want to pick up and move to one after listening to Puxico. Or at least go visit your old one.
"One of my friends told me 'I used to be embarrassed and make fun of my small town and you just made me realize why it's so special and why I actually love it.' That to me is the biggest compliment," Hemby says. "Whenever we live in these little tiny towns or when we grow up we don't see what we have and how special it is."
Puxico Roots, Nashville Hits
Hemby follows in the footsteps of friends and peers Brandy Clark and Lori McKenna, who, after years of writing for others, released successful solo albums. Hemby says while she's at a place in her life where she knows exactly what she wants to say, expressing her innermost thoughts in her own voice is still a daunting task.
"Miranda (Lambert) has always told me that she gets so nervous when her records come out and I totally understand why. You're not sure if people will get it. There's just so many factors to it," Hemby says. "It has to be about you. That's why we like art. We want to believe the artist. We want to believe that they've actually lived through some of this or that they are a little bit like what they sing about."