Caylee Hammack Pours Lessons from Her Catastrophe into Song: She Literally Was 'Forged in the Fire'
When Caylee Hammack was a kid, her dad helped her handle her childhood stresses by telling her "the most beautiful things are forged in fire." It was a metaphor, of course. But at age 23, as she looked at her Nashville home that had just gone up in smoke, she realized she'd have to take his words literally.
"That saying came back tenfold," Hammack, now 26, tells PEOPLE.
She has chronicled her lessons from that catastrophe in brand-new single "Forged in the Fire," one of 13 tracks on her debut album, If It Wasn't for You, that's set for release Aug. 14. Among the lessons was the blessing of finding a few treasured possessions unharmed — a discovery described in a PEOPLE-exclusive video.
But even more important, as she sings in the lyrics that she co-wrote with Thomas Finchum and Andy Skib, was the wisdom "that anything and everything, even the kitchen sink, are just things."
She ended up losing most of her possessions in that 2017 fire — a rental house with sketchy wiring — and yet she learned "really what mattered": the family, friends and even acquaintances who all came to her aid, combing through the rubble, donating money and belongings, helping her get back on her feet.
Today, she says, she gained from that fire "more than I've lost. That's for sure."
In fact, Hammack has found purpose and inspiration in many other trials by fire — setbacks, heartbreaks, and hardships — and she's poured it all into the new album. It's a lavish feast of autobiographical storytelling, served up with catchy hooks and the singer's power-packed voice.
"I wanted to make sure that every single song had a true story behind it," Hammack says, "and that I could tell people the story behind it because what I really love about country music is that we're telling stories about our lives and the people in our lives. It kind of feels like a diary sometimes, but I wanted to make sure that I could showcase the growing pains of being a young artist and just a young woman in this world."
Hammack's fans have embraced her lead-off single, Top 30 hit "Family Tree," a riotous love letter to the quirky family that raised her up in tiny Ellaville, Georgia, before she struck out for Nashville seven years ago. The album also features "Sister," inspired by her older sibling; "Mean Something," an anthem to finding life's purpose that features her pals Tenille Townes and Ashley McBryde; and "Redhead," about a cousin with hair so enviable that Hammack long ago created her own flaming version.
But the bulk of the album addresses Hammack's own failed attempts at romance. She offers listeners a vivid view of heartache from every emotional angle, from hopeless dejection ("Small Town Hypocrite") and feisty indignation ("Just Friends") to tart gratitude ("Preciatcha") and out-of-the-ashes rebirth ("New Level of Life").
Hammack's wit and grit make listening to it all a pleasure, though surely it was just the opposite to live through — and at least for the time being, she says, she's sworn off this sort of suffering for her art. She calls herself a "recovering romantic."
"You can ask any of my friends," she says. "I joke, like, 'Look, I'm staying single till I'm 30!' I'm putting all of my heart and my love and my ambition into the music, because I bet on love before, and I've given up my dreams before for love, and love has let me down numerous times. But my dreams have never let me down."
These days, a lot of those dreams are coming true. This spring, she earned her first two ACM nominations, for new female artist and for music event of the year, the latter for her participation in the Miranda Lambert-driven cover of "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." (Townes and McBryde, along with Maren Morris and Elle King, fill out that music-event ensemble.) Hammack also toured last year with Lambert, and she was set to tour with another hero, Reba McEntire, this year before the pandemic sidelined live music.
Hammack has a consolation prize of sorts from McEntire: country's most famous redhead takes a verse on "Redhead." According to Hammack, after McEntire was pitched a demo of the song, she emailed Hammack's manager back: "Tell Caylee to tell me what lyrics to sing, and I'll do it."
Hammack went full fangirl with her childhood idol. "I was like, 'Can she sing all the lyrics?'" recalls Hammack, barely half-kidding. "And they were like, 'Hey, you have to sing on it, too!' And I was like, 'Fine, fine.' I just love her. She has this warm aura about her. It's like you want to hug her, but you also want to stand five feet away and bow down."
Late last month, Hammack released another dream collaboration, this time a cover of Don Williams' classic "Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good" with country icon Alan Jackson. She confirms that her mind was officially blown when he, like McEntire, said yes.
"I don't know how the hell I got this lucky," she says.
Jackson's participation came about after Hammack's label exec Cindy Mabe suggested she needed a partner on the song and asked the artist to think big.
"And I was like, Alan Jackson, George Strait or Jesus, one of the three," Hammack says. "I'd love to sing with all three of those men in my life at some point. And she's like, 'All right, well, Alan Jackson's first on there. Let's ask.' So they asked and he was willing to do it. He definitely thinks I cuss too much [most specifically in "Small Town Hypocrite"], but he likes my voice and that means a lot to me."
The two have yet to meet, which makes Hammack wonder if the collaboration is even real — "until I go to Spotify and my name really is beside his."
The duet, a perfect fit for the COVID-19 era, is just one way that Hammack has been putting all this unplanned downtime to good use. After struggling for inspiration during the first couple of months of quarantine, she says she's recently been enjoying a burst of creativity, both writing songs and recording vocals.
"It's got me so excited now," she says. "I'm listening to new songs that I've been writing the past few weeks, and it just feels so good, because I was so scared that I would put this album out and then feel like I could never write the equivalent of them again. Putting this record out is like I'm having my first child. I'm ready to have the second kid now, because now I kind of got an idea of how to do it."
No doubt life is still providing her with enough crazy moments to keep her creative juices flowing. Case in point: Just the other day, she caught her long hair on fire when she backed into a lit candle in her home. The accident, she says, required a quick repair at the hairdresser.
So she's still being forged in the fire?
"God, I didn't even think about that!" she says, laughing. "Yeah, fire just keeps finding me."
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