For singer/songwriter Natalie Hemby, stepping onto the stage of the Newport Folk Festival this past July was a moment she’s been building up to for nearly two decades.
“Usually, I’m having to win people over, but this time there were thousands of people there and they actually stayed for my set and even clapped for me before I came out on stage and everything,” she said. “I felt like I had won the Miss America pageant or something—everyone was clapping, I kept saying, ‘Thank you so much!’ I probably stayed on the stage for a little too long, but it was an awesome day, like a childhood dream come true.”
Having written a handful of country music’s biggest hits over the past decade—including Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow,” and more—you would expect Hemby to be more accustomed to the sound of applause, but she’s spent the better part of her career behind the scenes. It wasn’t until 2017 that she finally made her proper debut as an artist, with her first full-length record: Puxico.
That record was a good foray into finally getting to sing her own songs, but shortly after it came out, Hemby got involved in another project that now cements her name in the book of all-time greats. She joined The Highwomen, alongside Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires.
“It was like we were Destiny’s Child except I was Michelle and the other three were all Beyoncé,” she said, recalling the whirlwind experience that came in the wake of The Highwomen’s self-titled 2019 record. “They all tour all the time and have it down pat. For me, it was like the Lady Gaga A Star Is Born—I was just thrown into the mix and suddenly we were singing with Dolly Parton and performing on Jimmy Fallon and all of that. I always say that I felt like Forrest Gump—I have no idea how I got there, but I was there. I took it all in and really enjoyed it.”
Hemby’s humility is one of her more prominent characteristics, but to take everything she says at face value would be to vastly underestimate her talent. Listen to any song with her name in the byline and the full extent of her abilities starts to become clear.
So, when she got off the album/tour cycle for The Highwomen and found herself with a bit of time, she started work on her second solo record, Pins & Needles, which finally arrived this past October.
“These songs have come over years and years of writing,” she explained. “I have an enormous vault of songs—probably enough to make five or six albums—but these all rose to the surface and all we had to do was pluck them out.”
Pursuing her backlog and selecting a group of songs that would reflect where her life is now, the end result of Pins & Needles reveals an intimate portrait of Hemby. And embarking on the record-making process in 2019 with Fantasy Records backing her up, the 44-year-old felt better than ever. Until the pandemic hit just a few months later.
“At that point, I started having a moment of panic, like, ‘Am I even supposed to be doing this?’” she said. “I think everybody was kinda reevaluating their lives at the time. Ultimately, my husband [producer, Mike Wrucke] and I decided to just finish the album. We didn’t even know if Fantasy was still on board or not… but sure enough, they said they absolutely were.”
With an unprecedented amount of support behind her, Hemby finished Pins & Needles, effectively bringing a multi-decades dream to life in the midst of perhaps the least opportune moment to do so.
“It was so strange—I got my record deal in the middle of a global pandemic,” she said with amazement. “Nevermind that for all of my 20s, all I wanted was a record deal. For some reason, my time was when I was 43 years old and the world was in the middle of a pandemic. I was just glad to be making it happen at all—for it to have all unfolded like this… I’m just so grateful.”
All of that led Hemby to that beautiful “Miss America moment” this past July at the Newport Folk Festival. Now, with Pins & Needles out and more and more items getting crossed off from her “childhood dreams” list, she feels like she’s finally getting to do things the way she’s always wanted to.
“I had so many doors shut on me when I was younger, so far as my artistry goes,” she said. “Now, I feel amazing. There’s part of me that hopes everyone likes my record, but I’m also like, ‘Well, I like my record.’ So, no matter what happens, I’m okay. I think that’s the most important thing. You just have to be as sincere as possible and make the music you love—the rest is up to other people and God to decide.”
Photo by Alysse Gafjken.