Puxico, the debut album of much-lauded songwriter Natalie Hemby, is love letter to a man and a place. George Hemby is the man, and Puxico, Missouri is the place. On her first solo album, Hemby spotlights her considerable talent for storytelling, spinning tales of remarkable people and places of the heart.
Hemby co-wrote all nine tracks on Puxico, showing the same gift for crafting memorable murals of real life that her hit records for other artists have displayed. The gal who wrote big hits for the likes of Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert takes center stage for her first album. She brings with her a passion for the place and people that have filled her life with a bouquet of treasured memories.
Hemby’s voice is a real gem. She invests her performance here with a depth of emotion that impresses even as it rings true. This isn’t an album of writing prompts or an exercise in imagination. This is her reality. Steeped in melody, and presented in warm, glowing arrangements, this is a collection of songs Hemby birthed as opposed to created.
Surrounded by a cast of musicians that know how to adorn these vignettes with just the perfect touch, Hemby is blessed with a great supporting cast. Mike Wrucke, Hemby’s husband, takes on producer credits while playing a half dozen instruments and singing harmony vocals. Phil Madeira provides his excellent sensibilities on Hammond B3. Greg Leisz offers lyrical lines on pedal steel guitar that soar and shimmer like asphalt in August, conjuring Polaroids of small town life.
The album begins with “Time Honored Traditions.” Riding the rails on a boom-chicka-boom rhythm Hemby sings about a place where the stories don’t change. The lyrics speak of stability, of permanence, of heritage.
“Lovers on Display” follows and expands the setting of the song cycle. Here love flowers and blooms, growing in the fertile ground in Puxico:
Marching band is playing
Behind the film we’re taking
Silhouettes and flashing lights
Oh, I can feel your hand
Inside of mine
Treasuring the time
Each moment our
Coming home parade
Like lovers on display
The imagery in the lyrics anchor the listener smack in the middle of these stories, in much the same way that the best literature transports the reader to a place they can see and feel. In fact, this record is loaded with feeling. From the marching band, the Ferris wheel and the tilt-a-whirl to the swelling rivers and the IGA, Hemby drops us in the center of her world. It is truly a grand destination; one I don’t plan to leave any time soon.
“Worn” is Hemby’s appreciation of things that have stood the test of time. On this track, she examines the fabric of people’s lives and testifies about the value of endurance:
So thin you almost
See straight through it
Even when it’s torn
I find the finer things
The following track, “This Town Still Talks About You,” may well be the centerpiece of the album. The protagonist is long gone, but still spoken of lovingly by the folks who stayed. The narrator of the song holds a deep abiding affection for the main character years later.
At the heart of all this visceral emotion is a man. This is apparent from Hemby’s liner notes: “Inspired by the life of George Hemby. In the beginning, I believed this was a story about a town, about a celebration. And it is. But really, it’s about a man. A man who loved me so much he gave me a town. A man who I love so much, I had to tell the world.”
Puxico is an album that gets everything right, down to the smallest details. Earnest vocals, timeless emotional truth, and stellar arrangements. Hemby has unleashed a tour de force of songwriting coupled with a love so fierce that the listener will be moved to tears of joy. Look for this on those end-of-year bestie lists.