Natalie Hemby

As live music fans continue to process the past 18 months, we’re looking back on concert highlights from this past summer. The Newport Folk Festival’s “Folk On” experience was a whirlwind, full of over-the-top moments, including a triumphant set from first-time artist, Natalie Hemby. She just put out a new album on October 8th, Pins and Needles, a release that has achieved widespread critical acclaim.

We interviewed the Nashville veteran at “Folk On” a day after her Quad Stage set, which was one of the most well-received of the Festival. Hemby was informal and generous in our chat, as she reflected on her appearance the prior day, the state of country music, and her career thus far.

She recalled a warm welcome at Fort Adams. “Well, I was a little nervous getting on stage, but I had actually played that stage, and was really grateful we had played here before,” Hemby noted.

Of course, she was referencing the Highwomen set from 2019 which featured the singer-songwriter as part of the country supergroup with Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires. “I just wanted people to stay in the tent, and they did. Whenever you see it in someone else’s eyes, it means even more.”

“For me personally, it was a milestone because my husband (musician/producer Mike Wrucke) got to play with me. We just had a really nice time, and everybody went up to him and told him what a really nice job he did,” added Hemby.

Natalie Hemby at “Folk On” (Photo: Rick Farrell)

“I had these two different milestones,” she continued. “I had never been to Newport and I was very nervous the first time I came here (in 2019). I’m not used to people clapping before you get on the stage. We went out there and performed, and people already knew the music and it was just so well received. And then when we played with Dolly, nothing will really ever top playing with Dolly Parton.” 

As mentioned, her previous appearance at Newport came in 2019 as a member of The Highwomen. She explained how the Grammy Award-winning band came together.

“It was so awesome, it was the brainchild of Amanda Shires, the whole thing started because she didn’t hear women on country radio. They’d play 20 guys on the radio and then finally a girl would come on. I do think it has changed, it is getting better, it was nice to kind of lead the charge … it’s not that we want more, we just want the same. That was the whole goal, to try to make that happen.”

“Ya know, in the 90’s there were lots of women on country radio, it was a really fun time. Brandi always says I want my daughters to hear some country women music on the radio to look up to. We love the guys too, there’s room for all of us.”

Hemby could be described as a late bloomer. She made her mark in music first as a songwriter and didn’t release her own material until she was 39. She described her first album, 2017’s Puxico, as “my love letter to my grandparents and hometown, it’s a deep part of my soul.”

“It’s been a full-circle moment, when I was 19 and I got my first publishing deal with Barbara Orbison, Roy Orbison’s wife,” she continued. “I wrote for her for a couple of years, then I almost got a record deal, but at the 11th hour, Columbia decided they were not signing anybody new, there were a lot of changes going on in the industry, piracy was really bad, and you had to be on TV first to get a deal.

“I finally just decided, I just want to write music and I don’t care what that looks like. I started writing country music and my husband produced Miranda Lambert and that was kind of my door in.”

Hemby’s written some good ones over the years, collecting eight #1 hits, for Lambert and other artists like Lee Ann Womack, Toby Keith, Kacey Musgraves, and Lady Gaga. Her biggest moment though came at the 2021 Grammy Awards, where her Highwomen song “Crowded Table” won the “Best Country Song” category.

“I have a list of titles of songs that I’d like to write and I had “Crowded Table” on that list for many years, and Lori (McKenna) and I wrote it. It means the world to me, it took me such a long time to get to where I am right now, I almost tear up when I hear it.”

Meanwhile, Pins and Needles was released last Friday. She described the new album as a bit of a throwback.

It’s my 90’s, the 1997-1998 record I never got to make.  It’s a very eclectic record, it’s my Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow, Paula Cole, Lilith Faire, everything that I loved about the 90’s. I grew up listening to roots rock, Tom Petty and Sheryl, I just wanted to do that kind of record.”

You can stream or buy the new album now – or, to hear selections from the release, tune in to my radio show “The Kingston Coffeehouse” on WRIU 90.3 FM Tuesday, October 12th between 6-9PM.

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Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music, the arts and more for What'sUpNewp. He is also a contributor to Providence Monthly, SO RI, Hey Rhody and The Bay magazines. Ken DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse,"...