“For 10 years I had tried to write to be my own artist. I would always hit a wall, or the music format would change,” Natalie Hemby told MusicRow on Friday, Feb. 3 during a visit to the magazine’s offices. “Each year that went by I would be told, ‘She’s kind of too old to be an artist,’ which is kind of hilarious to me.”
The singer-songwriter, who has penned chart-topping hits for artists including Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, and Toby Keith, eventually found the inspiration and courage to release her own music. Through revisiting her roots during the making of her 2015 documentary, Puxico, a collection of music was to emerge by the same title.
Though born and raised in Nashville, Hemby would travel to Puxico, Missouri, each summer to visit her grandfather George Hemby, a longtime sawmill worker who played bluegrass music at VFW halls and churches.
For nearly 70 years, Puxico has held its annual Homecoming festival, originally organized to welcome soldiers home from World War II. During the five-day event, the 1000-person-town would swell to between 8,000-10,000 people each evening, as attendees enjoyed square dancing, music, carnival rides and parades.
“I just noticed one year that the attendance was down, and I thought, ‘I hope this is not dying off, because this is part of my history,” Hemby says. “I want to take my kids here and I want them to take their kids here.’ I told my husband that it would be cool if someone did a documentary about what it takes to keep a tradition alive and a hometown alive.”
Hemby spent two weeks filming the residents in Puxico, and then spent the next five years slowly piecing together a documentary and accompanying music. The resulting documentary would give a voice to numerous small-town citizens, whose stories are often overlooked.
“Small towns get a bad rap sometimes, but I feel they make some of the most amazing people you never hear about,” Hemby says.
People like Wayne, a Puxico resident whose family had lived on a farm for five generations. He would rent silos to store his grain until the time was right for it to be sold. When the silo company went bankrupt, a judge ruled that the soybeans stored in the silos belonged to the bank.
“He had to fight tooth and nail,” Hemby says. “He had fellow farmers come from all over and they cut his grain out of the silos and shipped it off to all these different places. He paid a dear price. He went to jail several times, and tried to get pardoned by President Reagan at the time. Bill Clinton came and visited him in jail. But you would never know that. He was a little town in Puxico when he lost that farm because he stood for civil disobedience. That’s kind of why I wanted to do this whole thing.”
In 2009, Hemby’s “White Liar,” which she co-wrote with Miranda Lambert, became a No. 1 song. Other chart-toppers would follow, including “Pontoon,” “Tornado,” “Drinks After Work” and “Automatic.”
“Around that time, the heavens opened and all the hits rained down. I was firing on all cylinders. So the documentary was on the back burner for a bit,” Hemby recalls. After the passing of her grandmother, she found a new urgency to complete the project.
“Writing music for a documentary is interesting because you cannot be too specific. For any kind of film, you can’t be like, ‘I went down to the store…’ and show the guy walking down to the store,” she says. “You have almost write the feeling of the documentary or the movie.”
She enlisted the help of fellow songwriter Trent Dabbs. The first song she co-wrote for the album, “Return,” became the closing track on the project. Over time, she accumulated an album’s worth of songs to accompany the documentary, including gems like “This Song Still Talks About You,” “Lovers On Display,” and “Cairo, IL.”
After hosting screenings of the Puxico documentary both in Missouri and in Nashville, Hemby received feedback from her songwriter friends, including Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd, encouraging her to release the music as an album.
Though emboldened by the positive feedback, Hemby struggled with what the album presented.
“It was a question of, ‘Is this just a soundtrack or is this my first record?’ It’s my heart and soul wrapped into one. I always thought my first record would be really ballsy music. That’s what I love, too. But at this point in my life, I’m like, ‘I already did that through other people. This is really who I am.’ So I put it out as my first record and so far so good.”
Hemby credits fellow singer-songwriters, such as Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark, who have released their own projects of music to critical acclaim.
“I never would have thought my first album would have come out like this. I remember Brandy sitting at my house and saying, ‘I’m thinking about putting out a record.’ I was like, ‘Cool, let me know how that goes because I’m not making one,’” she laughs. “I think for me, it was so ingrained in me that if you are going to put out a record, you have to have a record deal. But times have changed so quickly as far as the outlets you have to get it out.”
Hemby now has a chance to share those stories from small-town Puxico with larger audiences after the release of the January 13th project and for three acoustic shows she is scheduled to peform in August 2017 as an opening act for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s Soul2Soul 2017 tour.
“I’m going to be dying, but I’ll put on my ‘I’m so confident’ face and make it happen.” Hemby quips. “I’m glad they are giving us three nights, so when I mess up the first night, the second night I’ll have it all down.”
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