Natalie Hemby was born in Illinois, the daughter of a Nashville studio guitarist. She almost signed a record deal with Sony in her early 20s but it fell through. Instead, she worked in marketing but started collaborating with Miranda Lambert as a songwriter on 2009’s Platinum. She contributed to acclaimed albums like Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, Kacey Musgraves‘ Golden Hour, and A Star Is Born. In 2017, on the verge of turning 40, Hemby self-released her debut album Puxico. In 2019 she joined Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, and Maren Morris in The Highwomen.
Hemby signed a record deal as a solo artist in 2021, resulting in Pins and Needles. To date she’s thrived with low-key and intimate material – Puxico is named for the tiny Missouri town that her grandfather came from, while The Highwomen’s ‘My Only Child’ provides poignant insight into Hemby’s personal life.
Natalie Hemby Album Reviews
Hemby’s debut album was a soundtrack to her documentary Puxico, about the annual homecoming celebration in her grandfather’s tiny Missouri town. Like the documentary, the album had a long gestation, as Hemby started working on it in 2010. Puxico plays to Hemby’s strengths – it’s tuneful and charming, with low-key arrangements. Greg Leisz contributes pedal steel while Hemby’s husband Mike Wrucke produces.
The opening track ‘Time Honored Tradition’ sets the scene lyrically (“So pull up a chair and listen/To the legendary day”) but it feels like a cursory fast-paced country song to ensure the film and record start on an upbeat note. Hemby is more at home on gently spun character stories – ‘This Town Still Talks About You’ observes “And all those jokes you tell/They’re alive and well/Down at the barbershop.” The gentle finger-picked guitar of ‘Cairo, IL’ is lovely, and ‘Ferris Wheel’ is wonderfully nostalgic. There’s a bit of 1990s alt-rock about ‘Return’, and the way Hemby jams so many words into the chorus hook is impressive.
Warm and generous, Puxico is a lovely collection of songs.
In 1985, four male country superstars – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson – teamed up to make their first album as The Highwaymen. The group took their name from a song by Jimmy Webb, and the quartet also covered tracks by Guy Clark and John Prine.
Amanda Shires created a female quartet in homage to The Highwaymen, and to help female artists to gain more airplay on country radio.
“I was inspired by my daughter, I think, because she was starting to show signs of wanting to play music maybe when she grows up. I thought the worst thing that could happen is she would go for country because there are only currently two women’s voices that you can actually hear.”Amanda Shires, on Ellen
She recruited powerful vocalist Brandi Carlile and rising star Maren Morris. The quartet was completed by Natalie Hemby, perhaps better known for writing songs for Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert. The quartet debuted at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday concert in April 2019 and announced their debut album. Like The Highwaymen, they use Jimmy Webb’s song as the lead-off track. With Webb’s blessing, the verses are adapted to a female perspective – guest vocalist Yola’s verse is about the civil rights activists The Freedom Riders.
The Highwomen aren’t the first female country super-group of the decade – precedents include Lambert’s Pistol Annies and the 2016 collaborative record between Neko Case, K.D. Lang, and Laura Veirs. But the stakes are higher for The Highwomen with their choice of name. It’s clear the four Highwomen don’t have the profile of their male counterparts, but The Highwomen is a very strong collaborative record.
The timeless production from Dave Cobb is an asset, and the record is book-ended by two vintage sounding songs – opening with ‘Highwomen’, and closing with Carlile’s ‘Wheels of Laredo’. With its organ intro and evocative Texas imagery, it sounds like an old country chestnut, and it was covered by Tanya Tucker shortly before the album release.
In between, the members each have a chance to shine; Hemby was The Highwoman who I wasn’t familiar with before the album’s release, but she’s impressive here. She penned the group singalong ‘Redesigning Women’ – one of the albums’ weaker songs, but it neatly summarises their mission. Hemby also fronts the beautiful ‘My Only Child’, which also showcases Shire’s beautiful fiddle playing. Shires’ ‘Cocktail and a Song’ addresses mortality, and it’s also among the strongest songs here.
The Highwomen draws attention to four talented artists who are struggling for attention in a world of bro-country and big hats. It might just be too classy for mainstream country radio in the US, but it features some of my favourite songs of 2019.
Pins and Needles
Natalie Hemby signed a record deal with Sony in her early twenties, but the deal fell through. Instead, she’s established a successful career as a songwriter, writing material for Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Little Big Town. Now in her forties, she’s establishing a recording career as well. She released the soundtrack Puxico in 2017, about the Missouri town where her grandfather lived, while she was a member of the supergroup The Highwomen – her song ‘My Only Child’ was one of the record’s best. Pins and Needles feels like her official studio debut, the album that fell through twenty years ago.
Hemby told Variety that she wants to make “a Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole, Lilith Fair, 1997-sounding record”. She enlisted her husband, producer Mike Wrucke, to help her capture that 1990s sound. Rockers like ‘Heroes’ and ‘Banshee’ recalls Crow’s heyday, but Hemby’s gentle voice is best suited to low key songs like ‘Heart Condition’ and ‘Radio Silence’. ‘Lake Air’ is particularly stunning, Hemby’s reminiscence of a romantic encounter: “When you kissed my lips/I breathed you in/And held you there/Lake air”.
It makes sense to feature rockers on Pins and Needles, to widen Hemby’s appeal, but she’s just sublime at acoustic ballads.
Best Natalie Hemby Songs
My Only Child
This Town Still Talks About You
Back to 2020s Album Reviews….