A recent trend in mainstream country music has seen writers who were once resigned to the songwriting credits in the liner notes step out into the spotlight and release their own material under their own name. With an impressive track record under her belt, having composed songs for Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Toby Keith, Lee Ann Womack and many more country artists, Nashville resident Natalie Hemby is one of the most recent experienced country songwriters to make her move into the limelight on her debut album, Puxico. Hemby’s work transgresses just her primary passion of country music, having written songs for artists from female-fronted hard rock band Halestorm to popstar Kelly Clarkson. Having written for a significant number of country pop and bro-country artists, such as Blake Shelton, Toby Keith and Carrie Underwood, I expected Hemby’s first solo album to feature some mainstream country sensibilities. This is true in some regards, but for the most part, I was surprised to hear how much Hemby draws from country traditions on Puxico, rather than solely more recent and pop-orientated developments of the genre. Even the album’s primary theme, inspired by the small town of Puxico in the state of Missouri, relates to the traditional country attitude towards one’s roots, and preserving and celebrating the communal sentiment of small, rural America. Hemby’s experience with, and awareness of, country music through the ages is displayed on her first solo effort, and, whilst nothing new or revolutionary, makes for a strong debut.
The album’s opener, Time Honored Tradition, features somewhat of an outlaw country vibe reminiscent of the likes of Johnny Cash. The staple country vocal harmonies throughout this song are written and performed with a distinctive degree of experience, showing that Hemby not only has a significant amount of experience to show for, but that she also has a a clear vision for this album. Lyrically, Hemby touches on many of the country essentials that one would expect from an album named after a town with a population of less than 900. Whilst she does resort to some clichés, evoking images of picket fences and “travelling far and wide”, there is a much more personal and admirable undercurrent to this song and, indeed, much of this album. Given that Puxico is the hometown of the singer’s grandfather, wherein many childhood memories were made interacting with the locals at the town’s Homecoming festival and spending time with her family, this album ties stories that are personal to Hemby in with her honouring of countryside American towns and the people who live there. Like the music on this record, this is nothing new conceptually, particularly for the style of country music that Hemby pursues on Puxico, but the songwriter nevertheless approaches the idea with a keen knowledge of what gives these concepts such a broad sense of appeal within the genre.
A song like This Town Still Talks About You is a perfect example of a beautiful country song that preserves the memory of a lost friend who has moved on to other things. Hemby’s memory of this person is projected onto the quaint aspects of country life, as demonstrated in lines that detail the conversations the singer has about this person with the waitress at a local café, or this person’s jokes that she hears constantly quoted at the barber shop she frequents. The simple instrumentation, including some lonesome lap steel guitar swells, reinforces the melancholic and lonely emotions that motivate this song’s subject matter very well. Similar themes carry onto the following track, I’ll Remember How You Loved Me, in which Hemby contemplates the fine details etched across her past that she is unfortunately destined to eventually forget, such as her childhood neighbours or who the President was at the time of specific events in her life, ultimately finding refuge in her confidence that the love she has experienced throughout her life will never be forgotten. The airy production reflects this mood, leaving a lot of space in the mix that is filled with echoey and reverbed lap steel chords or dainty piano flourishes.
The lone fingerpicked acoustic guitar on Cairo, IL carries one of the most memorable melodies on Puxico and does a great job of reflecting Hemby’s imagery of a lonesome drive down a desolate road deep in the Illinois countryside. This song also includes the same ghostly lap steel guitar that appears on much of the record, which acts as the perfect musical metaphor for “the ghost of Cairo, Illinois” around which this song is structured. Cairo, IL features one of the most simple song structures on the entire record, but this isn’t a hinderance to how well it goes over. This track breezes by and the bittersweet emotions displayed in the music and lyrics envelop the listener, but it only lasts for a brief period of time before leaving them with the sense of longing evident in the song’s theme. The song Ferris Wheel is a musical highlight on the record, with the lap steel guitar being put at the forefront of the mix this time around, providing for one of the more vibrant musical moments on Puxico. This song is also rather lyrically pertinent to the central themes of the record, in the sense that everything seems to have come full circle, with Hemby finding herself irresistibly revisiting “the roots of [her] inheritance”, given the underlying concept of the record being based on her childhood memories of her grandfather’s hometown.
Puxico, overall, is a strong debut for Natalie Hemby that demonstrates her keen understanding of country music and that she has a clear idea for the direction she would like to see her solo career go. The album’s concept is solid, although it is by no means ground-breaking, just as the music on this album is nothing new, but it is nonetheless done rather well. I feel that it’s fair to expect slightly more from future projects from the songwriter, as a handful of the songs on this record certainly could have been developed further, as could the broader underlying themes on Puxico. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable country record overall with some nice stories featured, and it certainly alludes to more interesting releases from Hemby in the future.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10