The Writers Round with Natalie Hemby

Hemby is a co-writer on Miranda Lambert's "Automatic" and Little Big Town's "Tornado."

Written by Annie Reuter
The Writers Round with Natalie Hemby
Natalie Hemby; Photo credit: Kate York

Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Natalie Hemby sheds some light into her life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of her many hits including Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” and Sheryl Crow’s “Stay At Home Mother.”

Natalie Hemby had a long journey to releasing her debut album, Puxico, in January. The Nashville native and established songwriter is well known in Music City for penning hits for Miranda Lambert (“White Liar,” “Automatic”) and Little Big Town (“Pontoon,” “Tornado”), among others, but for years she was trying to make it as an artist. Hemby found herself close to a record deal several times throughout her first decade as a songwriter but due to the shifting musical landscape and regime changes at labels, she never signed on the dotted line.

“When I hit 30 I just gave it up,” Hemby tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone two days after her debut album dropped. “I was just like, ‘I want to write music. I don’t really care what that looks like. I don’t care if anybody every hears it. I just want to write music because I love to write songs.’ I even worked a job at Comcast for a while, which I actually really loved because I learned so much and I got a lot of great song ideas out of it.”

Hemby says her day job at Comcast grounded her and made her love songwriting even more. At the time her husband, Mike Wrucke, began producing Miranda Lambert and the two women became fast friends. Hemby soon found herself singing on Lambert’s first three albums and the Texas native kept urging her to set up a co-write.

“I thought she was hilarious and I really loved her music,” Hemby recalls. “She kept telling me, ‘Hey, we should get together and write.’ She said that a few times and the third time she was like, ‘No, I’m serious. Let’s write!'”

The two songwriters finally got together and the first time they met they wrote “White Liar,” which would become both Hemby and Lambert’s first No. 1. They continued their partnership and co-wrote four songs featured on Lambert’s third album, Revolution. Meanwhile, Hemby likens Lambert to a younger sister and says she respects her songwriting.

“I’m really lucky that I get to connect with somebody like her because she is a deep well of lyrics, and talent, and she’s hilarious. We had our first No. 1 together and it all sprung from that. The great thing is, she was also very respectful of me. She knew that I loved to write and that’s why we have such a great relationship, we just love music. We love good music.”

Another song Hemby co-wrote with Lambert was their CMA Single of the Year and ACM Song of the Year, “Automatic.” Hemby remembers Nicolle Galyon bringing the idea to their writing session.

“I probably contributed the least lyrically to the song,” she admits. “Melodically, those were my melodies. Each person has their role each different day. Like for ‘Only Prettier,’ I came in with that chorus and the first verse. I wanted to map this out pretty straightaway. I had the chorus, the first verse, and then melodies. With this one I took a backseat because I’m not the only one who loves nostalgia. Miranda loves that kind of stuff. Nicolle had this idea, ‘whatever happened to waiting your turn.’ Those two really carved out a lot.”

Hemby fondly recalls writing her first song, “Pretend,” at the age of 19. She penned the track on piano and says it was “serious and mysterious.” She acquired her first publishing deal later that year with Barbara Orbison’s Still Working Music Group where she met songwriter Tommy Lee James and the two began writing together.

Her nearly two decades of experience helped when she sat down to write with one of her heroes, Sheryl Crow. Hemby vividly remembers listening to and later buying Crow’s debut album Tuesday Night Music Club shortly after it was released in 1993. While listening to it at the Tower Records in Nashville through headphones, she thought to herself that Crow was “incredible.”

“To write with her several years later was a dream come true for me,” she says of their song “Stay At Home Mother,” which appears on Crow’s 2013 release Feels Like Home. “I just had my daughter and I was trying to balance working all the time and staying with her, which is a struggle for a lot of women. We wrote this song and it is the most heartbreaking yet most center-of-our-soul type of song. We were both in tears as we were writing it. Basically, it’s about having to say goodbye to your kid even if it’s for three days. Then to have them say to you, ‘Stay home mommy.’ I hear that song and I still tear up.”

For many aspiring songwriters, Hemby is also a hero. In fact, it was several of her co-writers including Trent Dabbs, Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd, who urged Hemby to release an album of her own. In 2014, Hemby held a screening for her film Puxico, based on her grandfather’s hometown where she would visit each year for homecoming celebrations. Hemby teamed up with Dabbs to write and score the soundtrack to the film. Shortly after, Morris and Hurd were taking a road trip to Michigan and asked Hemby for the film’s music.

During their travels Morris and Hurd kept texting Hemby, urging her to put the music out and telling her how much it reminds them of their own hometowns. She says that was the turning point for her on the decision to finally release music of her own.

“This is the heart and soul of who I am. Lyrically, musically, my family. I come from a bluegrass background from my grandfather,” she explains. “I’m really proud of the record. Each song has a special place in my memory and in my heart. I want this to be the soundtrack for anyone’s trip home.”

The sparse production and vulnerability heard throughout Puxico makes it sometimes difficult to perform the songs live because Hemby says there can’t be any hiccups in the performance with the music’s intimacy. The hauntingly beautiful “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me” has Hemby trying to speak the words and not sing them in the live setting. She cites Amy Grant for helping her perfect that type of performance.

“It’s fun and easy for a singer to belt out more than it is to be intimate and to get it just right like you’re talking to somebody,” she explains.

Other songs, like album closer “Return,” merges her musical taste of acts like Band of Horses and Gillian Welch while “Cairo, IL” is a song she frequently listens to on her drive to Puxico, Missouri.

“If you’ll go on a musical journey with me I’ll take you. I don’t know if everybody will, but I’m going to go on it anyway,” she says of Puxico.

Twenty years since she wrote her first song, Hemby has finally released her debut album. She remains focused on songwriting, sharing that it is something she can’t help but continue to do. She also urges those who love songwriting to keep at it even if they’re unsure of their future.

“That’s what I did. If you want [your songs] to get heard, go and play the Bluebird one night or play an open mic night,” she suggests. “It took me a really long time. Don’t do it for the success or the money. Do it because you love it. That will keep your integrity. The world always needs a good song. If you don’t write it then nobody will ever hear it.”

Natalie Hemby’s Puxico is out now.