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Nashville’s Go-to Songwriter Steps Out Solo: Meet Natalie Hemby

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Kate York

If you’ve ever tapped your toes to Little Big Town‘s “Pontoon,” shimmied to Lady A‘s “Downtown” or belted out Miranda Lambert‘s “Automatic,” you already know Natalie Hemby‘s work. For a decade, Hemby’s been one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters, as well as a melodic soul sister to Lambert, whose double album The Weight of These Wings, includes 10 Hemby co-writes. But now the hit writer is in the spotlight herself with a mesmerizing solo debut, Puxico, and famous friends from Lambert to Tim and Faith are cheering her on.

Having her own musical voice “is awesome,” admits Hemby, 39, who was nearly signed as a solo artist when she was in her 20s. “I’m at a place now where I can do it on my own terms and I’m loving having my own identity and stamp on something. I’m already thinking about my second record!”

Here’s what you need to know about Natalie Hemby:

1. Her album is a love letter to the town of Puxico, Missouri, but she grew up in the music business in Nashville.

Hemby’s dad was a touring guitarist for several Christian musicians, and her mom has been Amy Grant‘s personal assistant for more than 30 years. “I grew up around some pretty famous people in town — Johnny Cash went to our church for awhile — but as a kid, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go roller skating.”

But she also grew up singing in church, and learning about songs and songwriting at the knee of her paternal grandfather, George Hemby. “Because my dad was gone every weekend touring, my mom would take me to Puxico to see my grandpa. He played bluegrass all the time, at VFW Halls and little restaurants and bars and churches, and I’d go and be right underneath him and watch him play music.”

Courtesy The Press House

2. Her record began as the soundtrack to a documentary  — until pal Maren Morris talked her into releasing it as an album.

Because she spent so much time there growing up, Puxico became a hometown away from home, and her grandfather “was like a dad to me,” Hemby says. “Every I’d leave, I’d cry ’cause I loved being up there. It was like my own little personal small town.” A few years ago, she began making a documentary about her grandfather, now 87, and about Puxico’s annual homecoming celebration. “I wanted to pay homage to where I feel like I’m from, and to him because he helped raise me.”

She wrote the nine songs on Puxico as a soundtrack to the documentary, but when some of her artist friends got a listen, they heard more in it. “I got a text from Maren Morris and her boyfriend Ryan Hurd who were on a trip to Michigan and they were both like, ‘You’ve got to put this out. It’s so beautiful and it’s the soundtrack for our trip right now.'”

Hemby knew it was special too because, unlike other tunes she had written, she could never bring herself to pitch Puxico‘s music to other artists. “I always held pretty close to these songs,” she says of tunes like “Cairo, IL” (a town she’d pass through en route to Puxico) and “Return.” “This record is me in its entirety. It’s the deepest part of who I am.”

3. She guest stars in Lambert’s new video “We Should Be Friends” — and that beer can she’s holding is no prop.

It’s fitting that she’s in Lambert’s video since the two are close, but Hemby admits she was a little nervous about her cameo, which includes a scene showing her hobbling out of a beauty parlor waxing room, beer can in hand. “At first I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ but I had a couple beers and I thought, ‘I’m going to go for it!'” Hemby says with a laugh.

It is, she says, the kind of thing you do for a friend like Lambert, whose appreciation for Hemby’s talent has fueled her career. “She’s been very supportive of me and I’m grateful,” Hemby says. “I’ve learned a lot from Miranda. She is such a great songwriter. I’ve tried to encourage her to write her own record — all songs that she’s written. She’s that good.”

She’s also learned from Lambert about the cost of success. “It’s hard to have a life,” says Hemby, who is married to producer Mike Wrucke, with whom she has a 5-year-old daughter. “You work all the time. You’re responsible for a lot of people – your management, your band, all your staff. It’s a lot of pressure. I’ve learned that’s probably not what I want for my career.”

Kate York

4. She gets a whole lot of text love from a successful circle of friends.

“There are tons of us on this text thread — me, Maren, Kacey [Musgraves], Brothers Osborne, Lucie Silvas, Natalie Osborne [sister of the Brothers], Kree Harrison —-we’ve been texting for years now,” says Hemby. “It’s awesome because we all were friends before anybody was famous. And we all cheer each other on. Whenever someone gets nominated or has music out, we’re all like, ‘High five!'”

5. Opening for Tim and Faith’s Soul2Soul tour has become her weight-loss program.

“I’m doing a weekend on the Soul2Soul tour in August and every time I pick up a piece of chocolate, I’m like, ‘Soul2Soul! Don’t even touch it!’ I’m not going to be Faith Hill’s chubby little cousin standing next to her.” Hemby learned about getting the coveted opening gig when she was shopping at her local TJ Maxx. “My friend Jason Owen [Hill’s manager] called and told me, and I was like, ‘I need to find an ottoman to sit down on!'”

She knows the crowd might be the biggest she ever plays — and she’s not taking that for granted. “I don’t know if I will ever get to play a place like that again, so I’m going to buy a dress, I’m going to look my best, I’m going to sing my best. I’m totally going to be Cinderella showing up to the ball!”