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You Can Go Home Again: An Interview with Natalie Hemby

Oct 26, 2015

Five years ago, award-winning country songwriter Natalie Hemby — whose had hits by Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Blake Shelton, and others — embarked on an entirely different mission: to make a documentary about her grandfather's hometown of Puxico, Missouri. So she, along with Ryan Silver and Scott Murphy, drove over from Nashville to capture the small town's annual Homecoming, an event sponsored by the local VFW, which began in 1947 as a way to bring the community together. Carnival rides, a parade, a kids' beauty pageant, square dancing … Homecoming has all the makings of a small town good time. Though the story of Puxico starts with Hemby and her grandfather George, it spirals out to embrace the whole town, giving viewers a glimpse into the struggles and triumphs that face small town America today.

Let's start big and drill down from there. The idea of home … I'm a nomad, so it's something I'm continually searching for. You didn't grow up in Puxico, but you consider it your home turf. What are the qualities which earn it that esteem?

For me, home is who helped raise you. And I've known a lot of these people in the town of Puxico all my life. I went up almost every Summer. It's only four hours away. My grandfather and grandmother helped raise me. She has since passed. Home is really the people who nurtured you in those formative years. I've grown up in Nashville my whole life. I have tons of friends here. But, to me, this little small town was a foundation for me. It was something I could really grasp onto because it was smaller and I loved the people. I loved the idea that, every year, the excitement for Homecoming would come up. It was just one of those places where you could be a kid. Sometimes it's hard to do that in a bigger city. That's not always the case, but I just found that home is wherever the people who nurtured you are. It could be a piano teacher. It could be your grandparents, your aunt, a friend … whoever. So, I just felt like Puxico was my hometown, even though it wasn't. But my grandfather made it feel like that for me.

What's so striking about the town is that the lives of the people there aren't fancy. They're very simple. And they're enough. There's something so honorable about that. And I feel like you captured it. The film could have easily come off as putting it down, but you just let it be what it is.

It's interesting you say that because most people, when you're growing up, hate their small towns, at some point in their lives. I'm from Nashville and I hated Nashville for years. When it started changing, I was like, “Wait a second. I actually really love it.” We make fun of people in small towns, but these are the people who get up every day and go to work and they help out in their communities in some way. I feel like there's this unsung hero in every hometown who is born there, formed there. They are — they're simple people. But they're also kind of complicated and kind of quirky. Kind of funny, kind of endearing. [Laughs] And that's really what I was trying to capture.

It's really easy to capture the ugliness of the world because there's a lot of it. Yes, Puxico has its problems. There are drugs there. There are all kinds of things there. But there's also this community that loves their town and sticks together. I was trying to capture that, because I feel like a lot of small towns are like that. We just don't see it all the time.

Something you didn't show that small towns are obviously known for is gossip. That's going on there and you just swept it under the rug, did you?

[Laughs] Well, you can't completely sweep it under the rug. I love how a lot of the guys were like, “Any small town's going to have problems.” That's one of the lines in the movie. “And if there is one, I'd like to know where it is.” But it's more about how do you keep your hometown alive, problems and all. It's hard enough, even if it is a normal town … there's gossip, there are people cheating on each other. It's the same thing that's also going on in Brentwood, TN. [Laughs] It's rampant.

I just wanted to focus on how do you keep your hometown alive, how do you keep the community together. Because, really, it would just take one tornado to wipe that place off the face of the earth. And that's kind of how a lot of them are.

Or one generation that walks away.

That doesn't care. Yeah.

I'll admit right now that I'm a total leftie pink-o veggie homo, so my worldview is different than most. Which means I have a love-hate relationship with the small town life. I love the idyllic Mayberry, American Heartland full of good neighbors. But, then, the beauty pageants, churching, fishing, hunting … those things aren't what I believe in, so I get why people move away.

I do, too. And they don't have jobs. And, if you don't get a job around there, you have to drive so far away. I was thinking, “I bet people are going to think all these people are Republicans.” They're all Democrats. Every single one of them. That's what the funny part is. But I also love that because it's not about political anything. There's this core “Do what's right and love thy neighbor” kind of thing. We're all striving for that, even through all our differences throughout the whole country. That's what I like about everybody. They might talk shit about each other, but at the end of the day, they really do love each other and they pull together for this one big event every year.

The story about the farmer … what's his name?

Wayne Cryts .

That was an amazing piece of the puzzle.

I told a fraction of that story. It plays out like a movie. My hope, honestly … I want people to see Puxico, but my dearest hope is that somebody will hear Wayne's story and want to do a movie on it. It was a three-day stand-off that actually happened. The federal marshals were playing good cop-bad cop and all that sort of thing. But Wayne stood his ground and all these people stood with him.

It's so funny, too, because we didn't come across his story until we were about to go up to Puxico. I was so offended that I'd never heard his story. My friend told me about it and said, “And his name is Christ … Wayne Christ! It's a sign from God!” [Laughs] It's not. It's Cryts. But I was so amped up about Wayne's story because he has endured so much. And the town of Puxico, they basically helped keep him alive — friends and neighbors. His story is unbelievable. I told a tiny fraction of it. I'm hoping someday somebody will pay more attention to it.

So what do they make of you being a hit songwriter in the big city and all?

Oh, well … [Laughs]

You're just Natalie … [Laughs]

I'm still not even Natalie. I'm George's granddaughter. I'm Tom Hemby's daughter. Still trying to earn my keep around there. [Laughs]

I'll tell you what, I was nervous as all heck when I debuted the film last year at the town. I felt like Jesus preaching in his hometown. I was so nervous. I gained a lot of weight. I was sweating. I had been working on it non-stop. I got no sleep. But, you know what? Everyone was in tears. I think they were surprised — and I'm surprised, too — that it actually turned out to be this story. [Laughs] At first, I was going to do it about Homecoming, but it was almost turning into “How to Throw a Homecoming.” It was missing that heart and I didn't want to admit it, but it was missing me … because I love it so much … because I love George so much. So that's kind of what it evolved into. But it was a really amazing moment for me because I love those people so much.

Talk to me about the songs that you wrote for this thing. Did you have ideas of what you wanted to write beforehand? Or did you reverse engineer them to fit what you crafted with the film?

I had a couple ideas and the person who helped me spearhead the whole thing was my husband — he's a producer and he's incredible and won all these awards. It's really hard to do music for a film like this when you're so involved in it. It had to be about it, but not so spot-on. And the music had to be right for it. It couldn't be too pop-country or anything like that. It was a fine line we had to walk.

The person I started writing a lot of the songs with was Trent Dabbs. Trent is phenomenal. He's a great guy and a friend of mine. I started telling him about the project and the first song we wrote was “Return,” which is the last song after the movie plays — the closing credits. We wrote that one first. Then I had “Time Honored Tradition” as a title. Then, just over time, things started rolling in. A few years later, I wrote “I'll Remember How You Loved Me,” the first song in the movie, with Jon Randall who is incredible. Then I wrote “This Town Still Talks About You” with Kelly Archer. I was thinking, “This is such a great idea to put in the movie for the Christopher part.” My friend Lindsay Chapman and I wrote “Worn.” Just, over time, they all started coming in. I was like, “This is going to go here and that's going to go there.” But I realized, you have to put the movie together first. [Laughs] And then you place it where it's supposed to go. It took some time. But the biggest savior of all of it was Greg Leisz.

Oh, I love that guy.

He's a really good friend of Mike's, my husband, and mine. Mike played him some of the clips of the movie. We hadn't put anything together yet. Literally, he played those steel parts in between — that's all him — not even having watched the movie.

And he did it in one take, too, didn't he?

Yeah. Well, he did several different takes and we edited pieces of it. I would listen to it while I was editing the film because it was so inspiring and moving to me. It was like he was speaking my soul through the steel. I love that man so much. He was a huge step forward for me in this process.

But now, as great as Greg is, do you think he could hang with that square dance band?

Hey! You know what? I don't know. They play pretty fast! [Laughs]

Those kids on the fiddle … WHAT?!

[Laughs] They're so good. And I love their little interactions. They look like they do it in their sleep.

Yeah. The boy would play a fierce run then goes over and whispers something to the girl like it ain't no thing. [Laughs]

[Laughs] I know! And that's another thing … in all these towns, there's a ton of people who can play serious, amazing bluegrass music. But they aren't famous. They have 9-to-5 jobs. I absolutely love going every year, listening to them play, and getting up there and dancing. I can't wait for it.

 

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