The fact that Natalie Hemby scored her first pro credit — singing backup on Songs From the Loft, an early Nineties praise & worship collection from Amy Grant — when she was merely in her mid-teens ought to be a clue that she came up around the music industry.
Her dad, Tom Hemby, made his name in Nashville as a touring and studio guitarist for Grant, who also hired her mom, Deanna Hemby, as a personal assistant. And her uncle, Ron Hemby, sang in the gospel group the Imperials, before launching forgotten Nineties country trio the Buffalo Club.
But having family in the biz didn't guarantee Natalie anything but an early window into what it meant to be a professional. "I watched Amy very closely throughout her career," the younger Hemby notes. "I always respected her so much, because she was a very respectful person. I always had her to gauge whoever I would meet who was famous. It was almost like, because she was so kind and respectful, if anyone was a total asshole, I'd be like, 'There's no reason they need to be, because she's not that way.'"
Grant would eventually record one of Hemby's songs, called "Overnight" — as in, success. It was about the experience of traveling a long road to a breakthrough, and for Hemby, it was more than a little autobiographical.
She was just 19 when she signed her first publishing deal. At the time, she wanted to be a pop-rock singer-songwriter like Sheryl Crow. It took Hemby a decade's worth of close calls and aborted deals with major labels in New York and L.A. to conclude that she didn't, in fact, want to be a touring, singing celebrity.
"Now that I'm older," she says, "that is not me at all, really, to be famous. Because that is a major sacrifice. That is a sacrifice of your time, of your life, of your family. I like staying connected to people."
Hemby turned her full attention to writing songs and singing demos — like the one for "I Would've Loved You Anyway," which became a hit for Trisha Yearwood. "I became a better singer because of it," says Hemby, "because they were all super rangy songs that sometimes not even the songwriters could sing themselves. I literally would knock out seven [demos] in a day. That's how I paid my bills."
Then her producer husband Mike Wrucke began working with a gutsy new singer-songwriter from Texas by the name of Miranda Lambert. At first, Hemby was just brought in to sing backing vocals, but by Lambert's third album, Revolution, she'd been welcomed into the artist's select circle of co-writers.
"I knew that she could write the 'Gunpowder and Leads' and the 'Crazy Ex Girlfriends,'" Hemby observes. "I wanted to just try to add something different, you know?"
She's written with Lambert for each album since, a partnership that has yielded chart-toppers like "White Liar," "Only Prettier" and "Automatic," along with a slew of acid-tongued, sharp-witted album tracks. It also helped earn Hemby a reputation as a nervy writer. The only collaboration in her career that rivals that one in importance is an ongoing partnership with fellow Row writer Luke Laird, one that often yields buoyant, groove-driven songs like "Pontoon," whose rhythmically fluent feel and phrasing are essential to their catchiness.
"Luke usually has killer tracks he brings in," Hemby explains. "The thing about it is, I have this R&B side that I love to write. I grew up with Babyface and Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton on the radio, the melisma singing. That stuff is so good. I love that [Luke] incorporates that in country music, and I feel like melodically, I'm allowed to do that as well."
Here are some of the songwriting high points from Hemby's path so far.
Miranda Lambert, "Only Prettier" (Hemby, Lambert) This was the first song Hemby and Lambert wrote together. "I think we were both kind of nervous, because I'm, like, the producer's wife. So this could either go really fantastic or be a colossal failure. I came prepared, because I was like, 'She doesn’t have a lot of time, and I have to prove myself.' I came in with the idea mapped out pretty good. But I didn't have some of the snarkier lyrics in there yet."
Miranda Lambert, "Automatic" (Nicolle Galyon, Hemby, Lambert) "We were writing at [Miranda's] condo, just me and her and Nicole. Nicole had the title 'Automatic.' She and I talked before we met with Miranda, and I told Miranda that we did that. We kind of came up with a melody, but we didn't have any lyrics. We started talking about nostalgic things. …It's sort of like you miss those things, but it's more how you grew up. I loved Miranda's three-on-a-tree truck [image], because I've never even driven a stick shift, and I had no idea what she was talking about. …I really do love that we threw in there 'Staying married was the only way to work your problems out.' Everybody wants a quick fix, and sometimes that's not the best thing for you. I will say, though, I would never take away GPS."
Keith Urban, "Good Thing" (Mike Elizondo, Hemby, Urban) "It's funny, because Keith and I, I think lyrically we couldn't be more different. We're like an apple and a mushroom. We don't even fit in the same food group. In some sort of way, I feel like we challenged each other to strive for something different and new. As far as musically, Mike Elizondo and Keith, they had this groove and I was flipping out over it. … When we were writing it, I was singing a melody, and Keith would stop me and go, 'Okay, I really like that melody, but if I sing a melody that way, it doesn't sound like me. I wouldn't sound good singing it that way.' I was like, 'Touché.' That totally made sense to me."
Little Big Town, "Pontoon" (Barry Dean, Luke Laird, Hemby) "We kind of wrote it as a joke, and it turned out to be the best joke we've ever told. We were trying to do a 'Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay'-type feel. Literally, I was singing, 'Back this bitch up…' I was being goofy with it."
When Hemby performs the song in writers' rounds, she slyly sticks to those original lyrics. For her, it's still "bitch" — not "hitch" like in Little Big Town's radio-friendly hit version. "I mean, it just sounds better, you know? I think Karen [Fairchild] tries to sneak 'bitch' in every once in a while at Little Big Town shows."
Lady Antebellum, "Downtown" (Hemby, Laird, Shane McAnally) "Luke had a track going for that, and Shane McAnally and I just jumped all over it. We wrote that one pretty fast. I think it's more about working with cadence and rhythm and changing that aspect of it up. That's what I really love."
Hemby found it perfectly natural to write a song from a flip female perspective with those two. "Luke and Shane write with a lot of different girls, and they can write with anybody really." She swears it was Laird who came up with the line "I got a dress that'll show a little unh unh." "I was like, 'I love it. I would sing it, so let's do it.'"
Toby Keith, "Drinks After Work" (Dean, Hemby, Laird) "We were like, 'Maybe we can pitch this to Kelly Clarkson or something.' When they were like, 'We want to put this on hold for Toby,' I said, 'Whoa. Wow. Okay.' But you know what? To me, it kind of worked. I'm totally shocked. I never even think of any guys wanting to cut my songs. I feel like I write these — I hate the words 'female empowerment' or 'female up-tempo songs' and all that junk. I can just relate to the more pissed-off side of life, I guess."