CMA Member Profile: Natalie Hemby

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

By Deborah Evans Price

A CMA member for seven years, Natalie Hemby seems to have mastered the art of collaboration. As a member of the supergroup The Highwomen and as a hit songwriter who has co-written with Lady Gaga, Miranda Lambert and many others, Hemby has become one of Nashville’s most sought-after creative companions. However, the award-winning songwriter’s latest chapter sees her taking the spotlight solo with the October release of her new album, Pins and Needles.

Hemby admits her emergence as an artist was a long time coming. “I’m totally a late bloomer. If I was a character in the Bible, I’d be Sarah,” she says with a laugh, referencing Abraham’s wife, who had her son Isaac at 90. “Maybe I’ll do a headlining tour when I’m 80, at the rate I’m going. But I will say, if you have a gift, you have to find a way to use it, and that became my motto throughout my career.”

Named Female Songwriter of the Year at the 2021 Music Row Awards, Hemby has co-written such hits as Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” and “Tornado,” Lady A’s “Downtown,” Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow” and numerous Lambert songs, including “White Liar,” “Only Prettier” and “Automatic.” She also co-wrote “Always Remember Us This Way” and “I’ll Never Love Again” with Lady Gaga for “A Star is Born.”

Though she first made a name for herself as a songwriter, Hemby’s goal has always been to sing her own songs. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but the door has shut on me so many times and as the years have gone by, I feel like I’ve written my way back to this place where I can be an artist,” she says. “We are in such a different time. I can go on the road now, but back then you had to have a record deal. There were so many other things that had to be set in place. Those doors always shut for me, but God’s timing is perfect and right now I like doing it this way. I like the fact that I’m a writer first and an artist second. I’m totally fine with that.”

Growing up, Hemby got an inside look at the music business. Her mom, Deanna, worked as an assistant to Amy Grant and her father, Tom, is a guitarist and producer. Her first break came when Lee Ann Womack recorded “The Bees,” a song Hemby wrote with Daniel Tashian. “It wasn’t a radio single, but it opened so many doors for me,” she recalls. “People wanted to write with me because they loved ‘The Bees.’ It established a respect in town.”

Hemby signed her first publishing deal at age 19 with the late Barbara Orbison’s Still Working Music. “She was a very vivacious woman, and she gave me the simplest piece of advice, but it still holds true today,” Hemby says. “Barbara said, ‘Natalie, in the music business, love is money. If they love you, they are going to give you lots of money.’ To her credit, she gave me a lot of money for my first publishing deal.”

Since then, in addition to her five CMA Awards nominations, Hemby has won two Grammys, scored eight No. 1 singles and had songs recorded by a variety of artists, including Kelly Clarkson, Sheryl Crow, Halestorm, Toby Keith, Labrinth, NEEDTOBREATHE, Ed Sheeran, Blake Shelton and Keith Urban. She realized her dream of being an artist with the 2017 release of her first studio album, Puxico, a critically acclaimed collection that took its title from the Missouri town her grandparents called home.

In 2019, Hemby joined Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires in The Highwomen. “I didn’t plan on being in a band, but I have so much respect for the three of them,” she says. “They are all superstars in their own right and I’ve learned so much from them.”

On October 8, Hemby released her second solo album, Pins and Needles, on Fantasy Records. “It’s eclectic. It is very ’90s, but it’s also roots rock,” Hemby says of the album. “It has Country elements to it, blues elements to it, and that kind of embodies what I’m trying to accomplish.”

“If you put Sheryl Crow, Tom Petty, Amy Grant and Bonnie Raitt in a pot, you have Natalie Hemby,” she continues. “Amy Grant is like my aunt and I’m very influenced by her style of singing. Some of her earlier songs, she would sing to you like she’s talking to you and I’ve kind of adopted my own style of that.”

As she did on Puxico, Hemby enlisted her husband, Mike Wrucke, as producer. “We both like the same music,” she says. “I don’t produce. I’m not a producer. He is. He’s not a writer. I am. We kind of stay in our lanes and I just love what he does.”

Hemby penned the 11 tracks on Pins and Needles with some of her favorite collaborators, including two with Lambert, “It Takes One to Know One” and the eerie “Banshee.” “We made it about this woman, and basically a ghost is after her lover because the ghost thinks that it’s her dead lover that left her years ago. It’s really intense,” Hemby explains. “This record is like one huge road map, and it just goes off in all different directions, but I kind of dig that.”

Hemby co-wrote the title cut with Brothers Osborne’s John and T.J. “They almost cut it for their record,” she says, “but I was like, ‘Do you care if I have it?’ and they were like, ‘We’d be honored to have a track on your record.’ They’ve been so awesome and supportive.”

It’s been a long and winding road to get where she is today, but Hemby is grateful for the journey. “I just wanted to do music and I didn’t care what that looked like,” she says. “If you have been given gifts, you should just try to find a way to use them, especially music. If you play in a church choir on Sunday mornings or if you play in a coffee shop or in a jazz band on Saturday nights, music is such a gift, and if God has given you those gifts, you’ve got to share them.”