One of songwriter Natalie Hemby's early memories of the Grand Ole Opry has nothing to do with music: the Nashville native actually graduated high school on the Opry stage. In mid-March, she was back at the hallowed country music institution making her debut as a performer – and all those memories of high school came rushing back to her.
"All of us, we're just wanting to get our name called and get our diploma," she recalled to Rolling Stone Country as a stylist worked on her hair and makeup. "So I'm gonna be standing in the circle, but it's gonna be a different sort of graduation this time."
Hemby, an in-demand songwriter behind hits such as Miranda Lambert's "White Liar," Little Big Town's "Pontoon" and Lady Antebellum's "Downtown," stepped into the spotlight in 2016 with the release of her album Puxico. Inspired by and named for the tiny Missouri town where her grandparents were born, Hemby's collection of songs sketches out visions of romance and the inevitability of growing older against the rapidly disappearing backdrop of small-town America.
"Puxico is very – it fits into the Opry fashion in such a good way," says Hemby, who opted to perform the songs "Ferris Wheel" and "Worn" for her Opry debut, rather than one of her hits written for someone else. "It has those bluegrass elements, and I really want to play my own songs at the Opry. It's cool to see someone else singing your song at the Opry – it is amazing and it's like you can't believe it happened, but I can't wait to look into those lights and pretend that I'm Johnny Cash or June Carter just for one second."
Hemby's performance of "Worn," for which she was accompanied by her husband, producer Mike Wrucke, seemed like a note-perfect message for the Opry crowd. It's about treasuring the things that matter to you, even when they're no longer shiny and new – maybe even loving them more because of the patina they've acquired over the years. Even as the Opry has had to make adjustments over time to incorporate more current performers, it still carries years of tradition along with it. Though Hemby grew up around music, she didn't necessarily understand the importance of that until later.
"Whenever you grow up in a town that has a significant culture to it, I don’t think you totally appreciate it when you're a kid. I don't know if I did," she admitted. "Because I was around it all the time. Like, literally, Johnny Cash went to our church for a while. The Judds did. And I'm just a 14-year-old kid, I'm like, 'Ok, that's cool.' I grew up around Amy Grant, Vince Gill. I don't think I ever appreciated it until I went out to L.A."
That extends to the rest of Nashville, currently experiencing its own massive growth and evolving landscape along with the related pains and protestations. Hemby used to regard it as a sort of small town – not like Puxico, but certainly not a booming metropolis – but laments some of that feel has gone by the wayside in the last three or four years.
"It's like, you're happy – literally, Nashville's the biggest superstar right now," she said. "You're happy that she's growing and that she's doing so well, but you just don't want her to get too big and lose what made her so wonderful."