Natalie Hemby has penned a string of eight #1 Country singles for such artists as Miranda Lambert, Lady A, Justin Moore, and Jon Pardi as well as songs and co-writes for many other artists. She has become one of Music City’s ‘’go-to” writers, period. So, as is the case with writers such as Gretchen Peters and Jim Lauderdale, to name just two, Hemby has her own solo career to showcase her musical and songwriting talents. Pins and Needles is her second solo album and follows 2017’s Puxico. Producing and mixing this effort is her husband, Mike Wrucke, who also plays all the instruments except for Dan Needham’s drums on four and guests Greg Leisz who plays pedal steel on two and Chuck Leavell who contributes keyboards on one. As Hemby is oriented toward co-writing, some of her partners should come as no surprise – Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Brothers Osborne, Jeff Trott, and Rose Cousins.
Leveraging the Grammy and Americana Music Association’s awards for Highwomen (with Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires), Hemby, now in her forties, is more widely known, and the album comes with high expectations. This writer is not yet ready to put her in the esteemed camp with Carlile or even Shires just yet but now we can put her voice alongside her songs. While there’s no doubting her lyrical prowess, especially in her use of metaphors and her ability to write relatable emotional material, the music on this one seems purposely formulaic as she taps into a late 90’s sound of Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow, the kind of roots rock she was raised on.
The first track gets to the disappointment of what many who hold up athletes as heroes, eventually realize when that same athlete makes a mistake or delivers a cringing quote. Hero worship is often misguided. Her song applies to heroes in general and here’s the chorus – “I don’t wanna meet me my heroes/I just want to be a face in the crowd/If I ever met my heroes/They might let me down”. “New Madrid” speaks to an unforgettable fervid relationship long gone cold with an irreparable rift. The title track, co-written with Brothers Osborne, is a thumping pulsating song about being hopelessly smitten. Interestingly it borrows, perhaps coincidentally or purposely, a line we’ve heard from the Stones – “it’s your thumb I’m under”.
“The Hardest Part About Business” is rife with clever lines about the unending gossip and rumor mills in corporate environments. The payoff is “The hardest part about the business is minding your own.” “Banshee,” with its use of whistling, has one of the more memorable melodies and is thematically in a similar vein of other tunes that recall past relationships. “Radio Silence,” a single, is one of the most salient tunes with metaphors expressed – “I tried to reach you thru the growing static/I tried to replicate the fading magic/Did everything to keep the signal from dying/All I got was radio silence” In discussing the song, Hemby says it’s about being ghosted by a friend who doesn’t want to drag you into their struggles, so they shut down instead.
Another clever use of metaphors is in “Pinwheel” with lines such as “I’m spinning like a record when you play me/Got a propeller for a heart lately.” Yet, as good as some of these metaphors are, they are juxtaposed with songs carrying cliché titles and trite phrases such as the title track and “It Takes One to Know One.” Certainly, the lyrics contained in those songs are a little better, but it poses the thought of perhaps she could have challenged herself some more. The closer, yet another relationship song, “Last Resort,” stands as a bright ode to steadfast love.
Hemby delivers some stellar songcraft that’s promising but not overwhelming. Her voice is not especially distinctive but does carry these songs well. Thematically, the album is consistent and cohesive which is impressive given the numerous co-writers. Musically, it breaks no new ground but will serve her well for airplay. Hemby’s stated goal was to give us some relatable and memorable moments. On that basis, she succeeds.